hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2020


A menu of constant change

Restaurants struggle to navigate pandemic, partial reopening



Railroad Street in Great Barrington is car-free on a Friday night in June, allowing the street’s many restaurants to serve more customers at outdoor tables. Scott Langley photo


Contributing writer


At the Prairie Whale, strings of lights are gleaming in the evening light above the tables and chairs on the lawn.

Most of the chairs are full on a Friday night, and voices carry over the grass. One group asks a server about the menu. The diners and the waiters are all wearing masks.

Around the corner, picnic tables are set out in the garden, near the rose bushes and the strawberry beds, alongside a newly built pizza oven.

Covid-19 has caused sweeping change in local restaurants since it forced them to close their dining rooms in mid-March without warning. After many weeks when they could operate only for takeout and delivery, restaurants across the region are working to adapt.

State regulations are changing as Massachusetts, New York and Vermont gradually reopen. Massachusetts began allowing outdoor dining on June 8, as the state started its second phase of reopening, and limited indoor dining on June 22.

Now, a few blocks from the Prairie Whale in Great Barrington, Railroad Street, with its row of restaurants, is closed to traffic for the night and filled with tables. Spring Street in Williamstown is closing to traffic on Saturday afternoon, and Lenox voters passed a new bylaw -- at a reconfigured, physically distanced, drive-in town meeting -- to allow restaurants to set up outdoor tables on town-owned land.

Sweeping change has called for sweeping responses.
“It’s like opening a new restaurant every two to three weeks,” said Stephen Browning, the chef at Prairie Whale.

Restaurateurs around the region have confronted the continuing changes based on their individual circumstances -- and with varying degrees of success. Some whose menus or physical spaces were not set up for takeout have not had the same resources to adapt. Some have closed until indoor seating can resume. And some will not reopen.


New menu, new oven
Until the pandemic, Prairie Whale had never served food to go. Browning changed the menu with the seasons, and the restaurant has been a sit-down place serving locally sourced, locally raised comfort food -- the kind of place that offers Sunday brunch in a renovated dairy barn with farm sausage and bacon, polenta and scones with clover honey.

When Covid-19 struck, owner Mark Firth explained, they had to re-organize the whole operation.
Serving only takeout orders meant letting go of their wait staff and wholly changing their menu. Firth and Browning had to find food that would travel well. Their regular menu was not designed to withstand a ride in a cold car on a March night.

“You wouldn’t want a whole roast fish or a rare steak,” Firth said. “It won’t hold up while you drive 20 minutes home and the french fries get soggy.”

They developed a new range of family style dinners that a group could share, like fried chicken and a collection of five or six sides to choose from.

Firth and his wife and son answered the phones and took the orders, and the kitchen crew turned to preparing family meals at high speed.

The restaurant also launched a website, Firth said. It had never had one before, and they needed make the menu available online.

For five or six of weeks, they served only food to go, Firth said. They expanded the menu -- and in a way, the kitchen. They bought a wood-fired pizza oven and spent three weeks building an outdoor shelter for it, and Firth brought in a chef from New York to teach them to bake crisp Neapolitan-style crusts at 750 to 800 degrees.

Now that the state has allowed restaurants to open for outdoor dining and begun to allow limited indoor seating, the Prairie Whale is reorganizing again.

“We’re trying to rehire our staff,” Firth said, “and the kitchen can’t handle both the outdoor service and the high-volume fried chicken” for to-go orders.

They have brought back some of their bartenders and waiters, and they’re offering a limited to-go menu, including pizza, and rebuilding a restaurant menu for the people who opt to dine on-site.
Browning said they are also rebuilding their stock of foodstuffs. He sources ingredients locally even in the cold season and traditionally makes many of his own condiments, pickles and preserves to keep the summer and fall harvest going through the winter. But the rapid changes dictated by the pandemic disrupted all of his systems and sources of supply; he would have been making pickles and sauces and bacon this spring.

Firth, who has traditionally raised his own pigs for the restaurant, says they have just been able to get farm-raised pigs again, in late June, from a local farm.

So they are rebuilding this summer, with the restaurant’s operation centered on 15 outdoor tables on two-thirds of an acre of lawn and gardens.

“We have a lot of outdoor space,” Browning said. “We’re lucky.”
Not everyone has that choice.


Feeding the front line
Flavours of Malaysia in Pittsfield has always had a steady takeout business along with its usual dining room service, chef Sabrina Tan said. But Covid-19 forced fast and substantial changes this spring.

When the pandemic first hit, people in the community sponsored the restaurant as it prepared and donated meals to the staff at Berkshire Medical Center and people working on the front lines, Tan said.

Flavours also worked with Berkshire United Way and the Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County to make lunches for children while schools were closed. Many schools were distributing meals on weekdays, with federal assistance, but those programs do not cover weekends, and local restaurants collectively made thousands of meals to fill in.

Flavours’ regulars still drop by for dumplings and shumai and fried rice to go. But in a cold spring with no indoor seating, the usual traffic slowed, Tan said.

“We’ve seen sales drop by maybe 65 percent – and no alcohol sales,” she said.
Flavours has not set up tables outdoors, because there would only be room for one or two at most. The alley beside the restaurant is a fire lane, Tan said, and the space out front is not only small but very hot in the evenings, because it faces directly west.

Now that Massachusetts has allowed indoor dining, Flavours can offer beer or wine with dinner again. With tables now carefully spaced to achieve required physical distance between groups, guests can enjoy their spring rolls in informal picnic style. Tan always cooks her entrees to order, but she will serve them to go.

As at any restaurant in the coronavirus era, people need face masks to enter, and Tan has masks for anyone who needs one. She has sewn them herself and gives them out free. She has been making them since March, she said, when the quarantine began -- adult and children’s masks, and communicator masks with a transparent vinyl window to show lips moving, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and need to lip-read.

Tan said she has made nearly 2,000 cotton masks now and given many of them to people working in vulnerable places -- and to anyone else who needs one.


Closing a community hub
In Cambridge, N.Y., Scott and Lisa Carrino opted not to reopen the Round House Bakery Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch spot in the center of the village. Instead, they will continue to make and sell food from their bakery and kitchen at Pompanuck Farm, five miles to the east in the town of White Creek.

The Carrinos had run their downtown cafe for eight years. The first five were in a historic bank building, and this summer would have marked their third anniversary in the old general store space on the ground floor of the Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts and Education.

“People would call it the core of the community,” Scott said, talking by phone in late June as he and Lisa were quietly working to empty out the cafe.

Their bakery at Pompanuck Farm, which produced the breads, scones, muffins, cookies and many other items sold at the cafe, will continue to offer those items for pickup (pre-order at pompanuck.org), along with summer picnic dinners, sandwiches, fruit salads and desserts. They also are making plans to resume the Wednesday jazz lunches and pizza nights they introduced at the cafe.

The Carrinos’ farm-based bakery actually preceded the cafe operation by a couple of years, and Pompanuck Farm had hosted community events and classes for many years before that.
“We’ve always been community-minded,” Scott said. “We have run youth programs at the farm. We had a Memorial Day arts and music festival for 20 years. … We decided to open the cafe to bring that energy downtown.”

The community has rallied behind them, he said, through their move to Hubbard Hall -- and through his recovery from cardiac surgery last year.

“When they heard we were shut down, people in the community offered their financial commitment to help us start up,” Scott said. “But it would be like restarting the business all over again.”

When Covid-19 first struck, the Carrinos made plans to keep the cafe open for takeout, which had always been a large part of their business. But soon after they announced that plan, Hubbard Hall closed completely, and the restaurant had no choice but to close with it, Scott said.
The Carrinos said they then had to remove their entire stock of perishable food. The restaurant’s state licenses and insurances came up for renewal while they were closed. They would have had to invest in their liquor license and inspections on the kitchen equipment -- significant expenses -- and the state would not allow any period of grace, even while restaurants were closed and the state’s guidelines on reopening were subject to change.

“All this has caused such turmoil,” Scott said. “The Payroll Protection rules were changing by the week.”

As the Carrinos considered the cost of reopening, they felt the footprint of the restaurant would not allow enough indoor seating to be sustainable. Setting up more outdoor seating would have required an investment in tables, umbrellas and other improvements.

So on June 2, they announced the cafe would not return. Though they are saddened by the change, the Carrinos said coming back to their farm gives them the flexibility to experiment more as they cook and bake and serve their customers.

But the cafe’s closing leaves a void in the village and at Hubbard Hall. The popular Country Gals Cafe, a few doors down, still serves the breakfast and lunch crowd, but there are fewer choices for food before and after shows and classes at the hall.

“The cafe helped the hall with the amount of foot traffic, and the audience at the shows enjoyed coming in pre-show and for dinner,” Scott said. “It was a symbiotic relationship.”

A void to fill
David Snider, the executive and artistic director at Hubbard Hall, said losing the cafe has been a blow. He and the Carrinos had often worked together to hold community events, he said.

When Hubbard Hall held summer outdoor Shakespeare performances, the Round House would prepare picnics and stay open late. The cafe catered the Hubbard Hall gala and dinners before mainstage shows.

And the Carrinos held informal events year-round. Hubbard Hall brought in open mics and poetry readings, and Snider launched a series of “Breaking Bread” potlucks at the cafe, including one for the LGBTQ community.

Snider said he will miss working with the Carrinos, but he added that he fully understands the challenges they have faced this spring and summer. With the arts center’s classes and rehearsals shut down, the normal flow of traffic in the village has slowed. Many of the cafe’s regular customers and staff were at heightened risk from Covid-19, and there’s limited space out front for outdoor tables.

In New York, seating will be limited to half of normal occupancy when indoor dining is allowed to resume. That means the cafe, which used to seat 40, would be limited to a maximum of 20 customers inside, Snider said.

At the same time, as the summer warms up, Snider suggested the cafe space could work well if it were augmented by a new outdoor seating area in the park-like area behind Hubbard Hall’s main building.

“I’ve been at the farmers market since it reopened” May 17 on the school grounds, Snider said. “And I’m seeing a real mix -- enthusiasm and trepidation. People are wary. We’re asking, ‘What does this mean?’ With space and safety protocols, people are figuring out how to navigate safely.”

Breaking Bread events returned to Hubbard Hall in June in the form of outdoor picnics. Participants don’t share food but do sit on blankets, six feet apart, wearing masks.

The arts center plans an outdoor Shakespeare performance in August with “All’s Well that Ends Well.” Hubbard Hall’s one-hour adaptation will have eight actors, and Snider is looking at ways to work with a new sound system to reach a spread-out audience.

But with the cafe closed and the pandemic continuing, the likelihood of lingering over dinner after the show will be even less than usual.

“I spent 20 years in New York and Washington D.C. before I came here,” Snider said, “and I’d think, ‘What do you mean there’s nowhere to go on opening night?’ People like to have a beer or a glass of wine and talk about what they just saw.”

He said he encouraged Argyle Brewing’s decision a couple of years ago to open a pub and tasting room in the historic railroad station across the tracks from the Hubbard Hall campus, just as he encouraged the Carrinos to move to the ground-floor space in the old opera house that houses the hall’s main stage.

Now Snider is actively looking for new tenants for the cafe space. He said he hopes they will become as fully a part of Hubbard Hall’s programming as the Carrinos have been -- and as fully a part of the community.