Sunday, April 26, 2009

ALLIUM

One of those words you don’t know how to pronounce until you hear someone else say it. It’s a “fine dining” joint in Great Barrington, the heart of the Berkshires.

I’ve written many posts about the Shire, as the skaters call it, all positive, because I love this area. But this one won’t be.

Last night at Simon’s Rock— a local extension of Bard—a mostly student cast, a few making their stage debuts, put on Michael Weller’s early ‘70s’ play MOONCHILDREN, directed by Karen Allen, the actress and movie star (and good friend).

One professional in the cast, Kale Brown, played Mister Willis so hysterically I could have watched him riff on that character all night. Some of the students were terrific too, especially Sinead Byrne as Shelly, running a range of emotions with perfect timing.

I agreed to meet several old friends at Allium afterwards, on Railroad Street, the swankiest commercial street in GB. The place is separated into two distinct sections. The one on your left as you enter is a normal expensive restaurant setting, elegantly simple décor etc.

To the right is a long narrow room, a bar extending half way down the left wall and tables on the right going all the way back. This side serves cheaper food and is famous for its garage door front that can be raised to open the entire right side to the sidewalk on nice nights, like last night.

When I walked in, it was almost 10:30PM but the temperature was still close to 70 after having been in the high 80s all day. A typical hot summer day, only in early Spring. A small crowd filled the couches and chairs up front where the place opens to the sidewalk, and several people stood around outside on the sidewalk and even the street talking.

It was Saturday night, but most of Great Barrington was already closed down so there wasn’t much traffic. Once inside I noticed another small crowd of people at the table way to the rear. But across from the bar there was a series of tables with no one at them except for one friend, the first to arrive, reading a menu.

When I sat down next to him he asked if I wanted something to eat, to which I gave my standard reply, “I can always eat.” So we perused the menu for a few minutes until another friend joined us after which someone from the restaurant came to say the kitchen was closed. I didn’t ask them why my friend had been given a menu if it was closed, but I did ask if they were no longer serving dinner, was there anything else to eat?

He said we could order dessert and he went to get dessert menus. By then several others had arrived and we put most of the tables across from the bar together to accommodate our small crowd while shouting over the music that was blaring from behind the bar, or at least controlled from there and blaring mostly into our faces—a kind of techno-disco-wanna-be-edgy-and-new-but-failing which also, I noticed, seemed to be continually skipping in that weird way CDs can do.

Needless to say it was annoying. Especially after the waiter, or whoever he was, returned to tell us sorry, the kitchen was entirely closed, no dessert either. I only wished we were at Rouge, the much more friendly, accommodating and cheaper restaurant in West Stockbridge where I’d caught the tight little blues trio my oldest son plays bass in a month or so ago.

But I wasn’t going to suggest we all get back in our separate cars and drive twenty minutes or more. We’d just order drinks and not worry about food. No one came to take our order though. And after a while of yelling over the music to the person sitting right next to you, a friend got up to ask about a waiter and request the music be turned down. She encountered some resistance but eventually the bartender turned it down some.

She came back to tell us that we had to order drinks from the bar and generously offered to go get them with her sister. After they brought back our drinks and sat down to join us again, she and I tried to have a conversation, but the bartender had turned the music up again, this time even louder, and we were having a hard time hearing each other. The music was still skipping, which made no sense to me, if you’re gonna blast music wouldn’t you want it to be something that doesn’t skip? Or was that part of the mix, was it meant to keep stopping and starting?

I watched as an older gentleman entered and took an empty stool at the bar. In order to be heard by the bartender, he had to stand up and lean as far as he could over the bar while the bartender leaned toward him as well so that the old gent could shout in the bartender’s ear. It seemed so nonsensical, as if the bartender was trying to create a false sense of a gathering of multitudes rather than just turning the music down a little so he could hear what customers wanted to drink without their heads touching.

Meanwhile my friend and I were going hoarse trying to speak to each other over the music, and we were sitting side by side! I was stuck against the wall in the middle of our little crowd, so my friend got up once again to go ask the bartender to turn the music down. This time it was clear he was giving her a hard time, until finally he turned angrily away from her and turned the music down again, but so low and so abruptly it felt like coming up for air after having been under water holding your breath for too long.

It felt wonderful to merely talk to each other like humans again as my friend came back and said the bartender had insisted that the other customers in the bar were younger than our crowd (which I’d guess ranged from late twenties to mid-sixties but was mostly middle-aged) and would leave if the music wasn’t blasting.

I wanted to point out to him there was a reason when I first came his customers were all clustered to the back or the very front of the place and no one was sitting where we were now, where the music was the loudest, but I was stuck behind the tables.

I watched the bartender join two men his age, say late twenties, at the end of the bar and all three look over at us, and then, him suddenly shoot like a rocket back to the music controls and turn the music up even louder than before and then go back to his friends.

Now it seemed like a deliberate provocation, and personal. I pushed the two tables in front of me apart so I could squeeze through and go to the bar where I glared at the bartender and his two friends while mouthing some critical suggestions. He made a face like a little kid does when you tell him he has to turn off the TV and go to bed and then he went and turned the music down once again.

By then my friend had gotten the check and paid it, with a critical comment written beneath her signature on the credit card slip.

The thing that was so strange about this whole experience is that normally the businesses in Great Barrington, and the Berkshires in general, are very customer friendly, especially where regular local customers are concerned.

And my friend who’d been dealing with the bartender is a regular in this expensive restaurant, eating there often and bringing others, including me several times. And others among the artists and artisans in our little crowd, locals and weekenders both, often dropped by.

But even if none of us were regulars, it was still pretty cheesy to treat the “older” folks like they were a nuisance because they wanted to be able to hear each other talk. It’s not like we were at a nightclub with dancing or live acts. I expected to have my ear drums destroyed at CBGB’s and The Ritz when they both still existed. But a “fine dining” restaurant/bar?

I know I probably sound like an old geezer, but I’ve been objecting to this ever since restaurants started being designed and redesigned in the 1980s with harder surfaces to change the acoustics from seductively whispery to blastingly loud. I remember someone explaining to me back then that the idea was to not make it so comfortable that people would linger, but instead would feel pumped up and excited by the noise so would eat faster and leave sooner so new customers could take their place.

I didn’t eat in fancy restaurants until I was way into my thirties, and even then only rarely, and I loved the then soft and quiet ambience of most nice restaurants I first encountered. So the noisy vibe has always bugged me, even if now I may look like a geezer when I express that.

Anyway, if you’re ever in Great Barrington and want to rendezvous with friends for a drink and some friendly conversation, avoid the bar side of Allium, at least on a Saturday night.

2 comments:

harryn said...

guess you wouldn't mind so much if it had a warning label - something like:
unmanaged psuedo trendy leads to rude - but i'm finding [as a near geezer], my experience with rudeness is increasing daily - i don't know if its' the residuals of the economy, the lack of opportunities spawned by the bush era, the constant and incendiary babel of our media, the natural development of the "no idiot left behind" lowering the bar on personal expectations education, the brittany/paris/justin mainstream narcissism, or entitlement vs. blame mentality of the past eight years - but simple things like quick scan - cram it in bags at the grocery store for food that costs a whole lot more, or overly indulgent public cell phone conversations, or whatdya mean custumer service, ...
its' getting boring ...
sorry to hear that again, the thoughtlessness of the few can be so ruinous to the many ....

Anonymous said...

Dear M:
The noise level in many bars and restaurants is ridiculous and hostile. A lot of young people are already suffering the effects of too much noise in their ears, so that idiot bartender will probably pay a price for his stupidity. One good sign: the Washington Post now includes noise levels in its restaurant reviews.
TPW