West Stockbridge pioneers give a town new life

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The same road that takes east-bound travelers to the bucolic and cultural ambience of the Berkshires goes right through the hamlet of West Stockbridge. Until recently, there was little reason for them to stop here.

Once little more than a barber shop, grocery, and hardware store, this tiny village just over the Massachusetts border from New York now boasts a gracious inn, quality shops, and gourmet restaurants that are more cosmopolitan than many actually found in cosmopolitan places. Just as important, the village's natural assets -- the gentle hills that encircle it, the placid Shaker Mill Pond that borders it, and the Williams River that meanders behind Main Street -- have notm been included in the renovation.

Much of this man-made improvement has been prompted by just one man: Gordon Rose, a musician-turned-developer who "discovered" the town about 10 years ago. He bought the village's Westbridge Inn, then a local bar, and turned it into a 15-room hostelry with a restaurant serving hearty New England fare.

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"I bought it and it bought me," says Mr. Rose, who soon found himself acquiring storefronts and land parcels all over town. The general decay of the village -- plus the lack of a sewer system -- made a lot of it easy to buy.

"Gradually the idea of a revitalized community began to take shape," he says. "West Stockbridge had once served the surrounding community with food, leather, and glass, with seeds and hotels. That's what it has become again -- a rural shopping village."

He formed a developing firm called Westbridge Associates, which set to work restoring existing buildings and luring merchants and restaurateurs to occupy them. The town's 1838 train station, a relic from when West Stockbridge was a connecting point between Boston and the Erie Canal during the last century, now shelters clothing, leather, and jewelry stores instead of passengers.

Most of the commerce is centered along Main Street, within newly painted and refurbished storefronts that, despite their New England setting, give off the spacious, pioneer feel of the Old West. The reason may be that they are occuped by pioneers of a sort -- like Rhonda Avion who came from California to open her first business, a gift shop called Rhonda's Impulse.

What may be luring more Berkshires- bound travelers out of their cars than any other attraction in the West Stockbridge is the food. First-time visitors are no doubt surprised to find that this Yankee village has such diversities as gourmet Vietnamese food and some of the best Tex-Mex cookery west of El Paso. In fact, at Miss Ruby's Cafe on Main Street they can feast on Tex-Mex, Creole-Cajun, Italian, Middle Eastern, Hungarian, or Provencal dishes, depending on what Ruth Bronz (Miss Ruby in real life) is featuring on menu that week.

Ruth Bronz, like many of the other entreprenuers in West Stockbridge, came there in a roundabout way. After graduating from college 15 years ago, she was advised by her mother in Texas to "get a house in the country and put all your things in it." She did just that -- not in her native Texas, but in Housatonic, not far from West Stockbridge.

On the weekends she made the 150-mile commute into New York City where she was a cook in a restaurant called The Balcony. "It had no balcony -- in fact it was in a basement," she says. "I think the title grew out of some fascination with Existentialism on the part of the owner. I spent 2 1/2 years there making ground-meat chili -- which as a Texan offended me greatly."

But at The Balcony she discovered that if she enjoyed cooking in a New York basement, then cooking must be her field. To have menu control and to exercise her own particular cooking philosophy, she opened up Miss Ruby's Cafe in December 1978. Part of that philosophy is that cooking is a performing art, not something to be done behind green baize doors. Diners seated in the Victorian-style cafe can view the redheaded, big-boned chef-owner preparing their meals.

Her menu, posted on a large board on the red papered walls, features a new theme each week, with Texas-style offerings such as barbequed ribs reoccuring every six weeks or so. Deserts, tantalizingly displayed in a china cabinet, remain fairly constant -- fudge-pecan pie, strawberry-ruhbarb tarts, old-fashioned lemon squares usually among the delectables.

As different as from Miss Ruby's as East is from West, but no less appetizing , is Orient Express. The kitchen here is deftly presided over by Trai Thi Duong , a fragile-looking young woman who operates two popular Vietnamese restaurants, the other one in Hartford, Conn., called Truc's. A portion of her profits go toward helping fellow Vietnamese refugees.

Gordon Rose, familiar with how good the food is at Truc's, was determined that Trai should join the fledgling community in West Stockbridge. Driving her past a ramshackle garage, he pointed to the site and told her, "That's where you're going to open your restaurant."

That was in March of last year. By the second week of May, the garage neatly refurbished, she was open for business. "I want my restaurant to be authentic -- like a Vietnamese restaurant in Vietnam," says TRai who once ran a laundry for a military base outside Saigon.

A leisurely lunch or dinner at Orient Express, in the summertime, can be happily enjoyed outdoors overlooking the sleepy Williams River. Assisted by her brother Binh, Trai will start diners off with delectable shrimp rolls -- a combination of ground pork, shrimp, crab meat, mushrooms, bean noodles, onion, and bean sprouts enclosed in a golden casing of the lightest rice-paper batter. For dipping the rolls, there is a delicate, clear fish sauce that heightens their flavor.

Other courses might include marinated beef served on bamboo sticks with sesame, crab shells stuffed with bean noodle, mushroom, egg, and crab, barbecued lemon chicken, and soothing caramel flan which is a direct example of the French influence on Vietnamese cooking. All are prepared with no more than the barest amount of oil, are from the freshest of ingredients, and, unlike Chinese food, contain no MSG.

For those who prefer to eat on the lawn at nearby Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony as background, the Farmer's Market in West Stockbridge provides a multitude of gourmet makings for a picnic. Located in a just-completed open shed, produce, deli food, and offerings from local restaurants are heaped on antique pushcarts for selection.

Not far away from the Farmer's Market (nothing is far from anything else in West Stockbridge) is the also newly completed General Storehouse, a building that contains shops for household accessories. For antiquers, there's the Shaker Mill which sells "antiques, collectables, and usables" out of a mill built in the late 18th century. Operated in its early years by the Shaker religious sect, it was one of the first electrified grist mills. Owner Scott W. Sawyer offers a few examples of the highly prized Shaker-made furniture among his wares.

For those travelers who find their interest sparked by Shaker Mill, Hancock Shaker Village, with its authentic depiction of how the Shakers lived, is only a short drive away -- as are the numerous other attractions of the Berkshires. With West Stockbridge now in full swing, there's one more good reason to pay them a visit.

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