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Shannon DeCelle

Everybody’s Local Here
By Laura Leon

49 Railroad St., Great Barrington, Mass., (413) 528-5455. Serving 6 AM-3 PM daily. Cash only.

Cuisine: Grandma meets Moosewood
Price range: $2.75 (two eggs, toast and home fries; plain pancakes; french toast) to $7.95 (Tower Bagel)
Ambience: country boho
Clientele: locals, and weekenders trying to look like locals

Growing up, going out to breakfast was a fact of life, something we did at least twice a week, and there was nothing better than stumbling upon that café or diner where the eggs and coffee were always just right, and the atmosphere was comfortable and friendly, a perfect place to spend a leisurely morning hour. At some point, my father and mother discovered Martin’s, a joint at the top of Railroad Street in Great Barrington. “If you get there before 11,” my penny-wise mother intoned, “the homefries come free with the eggs.” So, needless to say, we made every effort to get there by 11.

Which isn’t to say that you couldn’t order the homefries—or any other breakfast item for that matter—after 11. Martin’s serves breakfast all day (that is, until 3 PM, when it closes). Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, many Barrington parents strongly forbade their youngsters from going to Railroad Street, then the site of many an old-man’s saloon, apartments (shudder!), and a great Army/Navy (which we were allowed to visit, by day, for school shopping). By the ’80s, however, the street was experiencing a renaissance, and swanky New Yorkers could be seen regularly rubbing shoulders with downtown office and local factory workers. By the time Martin’s opened in the late ’80s (in a space once occupied by a Lebanese restaurant), it fit right into the mix, and has had the staying power to withstand a decade and a half of fluctuating market conditions and changing fads.

That staying power has a lot to do with the fact that Martin’s offers simple, consistent fare, with just enough up-to-the-minute items (twig tea, anyone?), at affordable prices to make everybody happy. Pick any weekend morning, and you’re sure to find a line of people waiting for a table. Luckily, the staff is adept at taking your name and assuring you that, yes, you will be seated soon and, by the way, it’s so nice to see you again. There’s a real neighborly atmosphere, with none of the pretentiousness or even rudeness that many associate with restaurants catering to a largely tourist and second-home clientele. And though Great Barrington in recent years has become more and more of a leisure retreat for escapees from New York—you can see it in the pricey boutiques and restaurants that seem to spring up like weeds—Martin’s thrives on a balance of locals and newcomers. “We have a good mix,” says owner Martin Lewis, who typically can be found toiling away in the kitchen. “We have a good local following—we couldn’t survive without that.” Yet, this is no outpost of suspicious townspeople glaring at intruders over their coffee mugs: The tourists and second-homeowners feel comfortable too.

But back to that line. If it’s chilly and you’re lucky enough to wait inside, be prepared to try to squeeze in along the wall as servers balancing plates and coffee pots snake past you to their tables. The place is small and can seem awfully crowded, populated by the guy who shovels my mother’s walk, sitting near the New York Times reporter, eating near the young parents looking at real estate booklets.

On a recent weekend, the specials, posted on strategically placed boards throughout the dining area, included three variations on eggs Benedict; a chili cheddar omelet; oatmeal banana pancakes; Belgian waffles with fresh fruit; grilled eggplant, tomato, onion and chevre on peasant bread; garden burger; chicken gyro; and soybean vegetable stew over brown rice. The regular menu features the usual eggs, meats and breadstuffs, as well as Martin’s famous Tower Bagel (smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato and Bermuda onion) and the Eggs McMartin (two fried eggs, American cheese, ham, bacon or sausage pattie, on a bagel). Avocados, brie, granola and tofu are fixture ingredients. Oh, and those homefries—uniformly delicious, with at least one golden-fried edge to provide a salty crunchy counterpart to the other side’s softer potato taste.

Lunch items can be ordered anytime after 11:30, and always include the day’s soup specials. On paper (or, the specials board), these sound delectable—vegetable cabbage, curried sweet potato, split pea, etc., and to be sure, they always feature nicely cooked veggies and hearty broths. And yet, I’ve always found the soups at Martin’s to be crying out for seasoning—something beyond salt and pepper—and something to coax the juices from garlic, onions, shallots, whatever, at the beginning of the soupmaking process.

There is a nice variety of sandwiches, from the basics to things like the Berkshire Breeze (avocado, cukes, sprouts, cheddar or swiss, on farmer’s bread). I’d opt for the sourdough bread over the farmer’s bread, which usually tastes a bit bland and doesn’t sop up the sandwich’s dressing well. (The restaurant also features white, whole wheat, rye, 40-calorie, pita, rolls, 12 grain and bagels as possible foundations for one’s sandwich.) Martin’s Garden Sandwich (lettuce, tomato, cukes, sprouts, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, yellow squash, and onions on 40-calorie or pita) is the kind of sandwich that makes big beef eaters realize just how satisfying a vegetarian dish can be. And traditional faves like burgers, chicken or tuna salad and turkey clubs are stick-to-your-ribs good.

Lewis attributes his restaurant’s popularity to its simplicity—and to fresh ingredients. “Pretty much basic foods cooked basically,” he says, “Nothing fancy, but we roast our own turkey, cook our own chickens and corned beef. In other words, I’m not opening cans. Most of our stuff is simple, but high-quality ingredients.” Simple but with a little twist, he adds, acknowledging that Martin’s has more vegetarian and contemporary-sounding fare than your average small-town breakfast joint—but never suggesting that that aspect of the menu was designed to lure sophisticates from the city.

Despite its business and the kitchen’s efficiency, Martin’s doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, you can take your time eating and conversing without getting the bum’s rush—even when there is a line of people waiting to get in. The funny thing is that, in all the years I’ve been going there, I’ve never found those waiting people to be in a foul mood, or leering at you with that look that says, Can you please finish up and let me have your table? It’s as if everybody who comes to Martin’s respects the fact that this is a place to relax and enjoy your meal, to catch up with each other or your own thoughts or newspaper, and, looking through the window at the expanse of Railroad Street, plan your next move. These people can wait for you to finish, because they expect the same civil courtesy to be afforded them by the next line of diners awaiting a table at Martin’s. And they’ll probably get it.

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