The Highland Restaurant in Pittsfield

Best in the Berkshires

By: - Feb 10, 2010

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Some months back there was a feature in the Berkshire Eagle about two women who lunch. Once a week they meet at restaurants from one end of the Berkshires to the other. End to end, from Williamstown to Great Barrington, that's say about an hour and a half of driving. A bit more if you add Florida up on the Mohawk Trail but I don't know of any restaurants up there.

The ladies take notes and keep an informal diary. They record such things as the taste and quality of the food. And other factors such as ambiance, speed and quality of service as well as price. If you have the time lunch is a good way to know even the most expensive restaurants. Usually the lunch specials are a fraction of the cost for dinner. Portions are smaller but the taste is the same. Some of the restaurants they chronicled only serve lunch.

Given that they dined in every upscale establishment in all of Berkshire County I was surprised by their final tally for number one. It proved to be the Highland Restaurant, on Fenn Street, in Pittsfield. Just a few doors away from the Storefront Artists Project.

For years, when passing through Pittsfield, I have driven by. Always a tad curious about its deadpan, generic, exterior with that period touch of fake masonry. It is often the kind of façade that proves to be promising when seeking out those very local eateries. For me, it has been something of a lifetime pursuit. To find the perfect lunch joint.

That hails back to my cabbie days during graduate school in Boston. The city is your oyster so to speak. On many a night, for example, I would slip down to the waterfront. I cut past the long line to eat at the counter of the Original No Name Restaurant on the Fish Pier. They served catch of the day fresh as can be and dirt cheap. Later they expanded, became a tourist trap, and have never failed to disappoint.

Once you map out the territory, and know the best lunch joints, it becomes a lifestyle pattern. When living in the Murder Building on University Road in Cambridge I loved to slip through the alley next to the Brattle Theater and pop into Cardell's. It was the last of the Harvard Square cafeterias and a real hang out. Mr. Demmers worked the counter in the back and his son ran Buddy's Sirloin Pit up front. For breakfast or endless cups of afternoon coffee there was Maurice's Patisserie Francaise with the best croissants this side of Paris. For my pal Steve Nelson, now a Berkshire neighbor and president of the New England Music Museum, it was his office.

Once a week I drove to Brookline to file copy with the Boston Ledger. Usually, I planned the route to hit Blake's on Comm. Ave in Allston. It was run by a family of Greeks. I loved the fish and used to imitate the accents of the matronly women placing orders. It reeked of ambiance and was always crowded.

But time and the economy are tough on  lunch joints. They get priced out or remodeled. Somebody gets an insane idea to change the décor, tweak the menu, and jack up the prices. Or the rent goes up and a new business comes in. Like fast food joints pushing out traditional neighborhood bistros in Paris. We found some great ones on the road in Provence last September.

A month ago, when I picked up my friend Jim Manning at the bus stop in Pittsfield, I wanted to take him to the Highland. But it was Monday and  closed. We ended up at the Country Kitchen in the mall with its huge buffet. Which is another story.

This week I had an appointment in Lenox and planned it just right. Bolting out at noon Astrid asked if I had eaten. "I'm having lunch in Pittsfield" I answered. Figured I'd scout it out first. If it passed the test I would bring her the next time.

Slipping in anonymously, like a true food critic, I took a look around. It is enormous with three large rooms and a bar in the middle. There were vintage, blown up baseball photos. A classic of the Babe flanked by the Splendid Splinter and that guy who married Marilyn Monroe.

The place mat proclaimed that the restaurant had been established in 1936. There was still that depression era ambiance or should one just say depressing. Probably in the 1960s someone got the bright idea to put in a few hanging plants. The kind you don't have to water but need to dust now and then.

I sat at the counter but couldn't get comfortable and asked the waitress if I could slip into one of the spacious booths. I grabbed the New York Post left on the counter by a customer. It was a chance to catch up on the latest scams and scandals.

The waitress handed me the menu. It's huge and hasn't changed since the Depression. Which is to say now back in fashion. There were some great daily specials. I looked around and spotted the manicotti. The sandwiches in general were huge.

Taking the advice of the ladies who lunch I ordered the scallop sandwich. She asked if I wanted it on the Vienna bread whatever that is. Sure.

When it arrived I thought I had died and gone to diner heaven. Be still dear heart. And just $8.95. Such a deal. You could spring for the dinner which costs more. But I wanted to stick with the program.

The plate was overflowing with perfectly done, succulent, nice size scallops. A golden brown and seemingly deep fried in fresh oil. There were more tucked into the sandwich between layers of lettuce and a generous slather of tartar sauce. There was a spear of pickle and a slice of lemon. Every morsel was just divine.

The ladies were absolutely right. The scallop sandwich at Highland Restaurant in Pittsfield is a Best in the Berkshires. On repeat visits we plan to explore the rest of its daunting menu.  Thanks ladies.