When it’s summer in the Berkshires, all eyes (and ears) are on Tanglewood. Come September, after the final note has been played and the seasonal crowds disperse, it’s time to explore some of the area’s equally appealing cultural and culinary attractions.
Stockbridge may be best known for the Norman Rockwell Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of original Rockwell art, and as the longtime home of the artist. Born in New York, Rockwell moved to Stockbridge in 1953 so his wife could receive psychiatric care at the Austen Riggs Center; he set up his studio nearby and lived in town for the last 25 years of his life. That studio now sits on the grounds of the museum, where current exhibits include a dive into the midcentury divide between abstract and realist art and a look at Rockwell’s more than 300 covers for The Saturday Evening Post. It’s well worth a visit, but art lovers shouldn’t neglect the Schantz Galleries, a smaller Stockbridge gem featuring glass works by more than 50 contemporary artists, including Dale Chihuly. Elegant, exuberant and brilliantly colorful, these museum-quality showstoppers are beautifully presented in the multi-level gallery, and well-heeled patrons of the arts can even commission installations for their private, corporate or public collections.
Speaking of commissions, Stockbridge is also home to Chesterwood, the summer country house of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created the Abraham Lincoln statue for the Lincoln Memorial as well as Concord’s famous Minute Man. This 122-acre National Trust Historic Site includes the prolific artist’s huge studio and expansive gardens, a legacy of his work as a landscape designer. Wear comfortable shoes for an easy hike along the property’s wooded trails, and don’t miss the museum in the barn; the exhibits provide intriguing historical and cultural context for French’s work.
Chesterwood isn’t Stockbridge’s only grand estate. Architectural history buffs, avid gardeners and fans of the Gilded Age will be entranced by Naumkeag, a National Historic Landmark. Designed in part by Stanford White and built in the late 1800s as a summer retreat for the Choate family, the 44-room mansion actually feels homey, probably because it was bequeathed to the Trustees of Reservations with its original well-worn furnishings intact. Outside, all the gardens—the Chinese Garden, the Tree Peony Terrace, the Evergreen Garden—have been extensively renovated to restore their original splendor. Tours of the house are led by docents, but you may wander the gardens on your own; the panoramic views from both the house and the terrace are spectacular.
From Stockbridge, it’s a half-hour drive to the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough, but worth it for the hospitality and the upscale fare. Chef/owner Peter Platt, formerly executive chef at Wheatleigh for a dozen years, cooks with classical technique and rare finesse. Case in point: butter-braised filet of Maine day boat halibut with parsnip puree and Billi-Bi sauce. Dinner is served in a charmingly cozy candle-lit dining room. You can stop by the small but appealing bar for an after-dinner drink before retiring to one of 11 rustic, well-appointed rooms. Built in 1760 as a stagecoach relay, the Inn shows its age with grace. Modern comforts—air conditioning, jacuzzis, plush mattresses—coexist with historic architectural features such as fireplaces and original window glass. The nearby Southfield Store, under the same ownership, provides a dedicated baking kitchen for the Old Inn, turning out delicious pastries and breakfast sandwiches with a plethora of choices: scrambled, sunny side up or fried egg? Rye, multigrain, challah, baguettes or croissant? Cheddar, chèvre, comte? It’s all delicious.
Dining options likewise abound in the beautiful town of Lenox. Jae’s Asian Bistro—the same Jae’s that was once a group of Asian fusion restaurants in the Boston area—makes several varieties of superb bibimbop, the savory Korean iron-pot specialty topped with a fried egg. Across the parking lot from Jae’s, Chocolate Springs Cafe uses local milk and cream and organic sugar in treats such as Earl Grey truffles and 85 percent dark chocolate hearts with essential rose oil. The chocolate selection is extensive, there’s plenty of comfy seating in the form of leather couches and wooden chairs, and coffee and gelato are also available.
In the center of Lenox, Nudel may be casual, but it’s the hottest of hot spots. With fewer than 10 tables and a half-dozen seats at a kitchen-side counter, it’s a challenge to snag a reservation. Arrive early, and bring low-maintenance dining companions—Nudel’s menu notes that it “does not specialize in vegan or allergy-sensitive foods. We politely decline substitutions and alterations.” That prix-fixe menu, which changes daily, is hyperseasonal and inventive, with dishes such as crispy pork croquettes with kale, shallot and garlic and chicken-fried maitake mushrooms with broccoli, lentils, buttermilk and thyme.
If you’re on the waiting list for Nudel, or if you prefer to dine later in the evening, check out Brava, a wine bar just around the corner. A friendly neighborhood spot, Brava features a roster of cold and hot small plates (poutine, fried spicy chickpeas, boom boom shrimp) as well as salads (arugula with dried apricots, almonds and four-month Manchego), bruschettas (fresh mozzarella, housemade tomato jam, pesto) and pizzas with toppings such as San Marzano tomato sauce, fennel salami, bacon and wild mushrooms. It’s fine fuel for exploring a corner of the Commonwealth that hits all the right notes.
Mark your calendar and plan accordingly: Both Chesterwood and Naumkeag close for the season after Columbus Day.
Brava, facebook.com/bravabarlenox; Chesterwood, chesterwood.org; Chocolate Springs Cafe, chocolatesprings.com; Jae’s Asian Bistro, jaeslenox.com; Naumkeag, thetrustees.org; Nudel, nudelrestaurant.com; The Norman Rockwell Museum, nrm.org; The Old Inn on the Green, oldinn.com; Schantz Galleries, schantzgalleries.com