Picture this. I am enjoying lunch on a crisp September day in a smartly dressed café near the largest center for contemporary art and performance in the United States. I can see the top of a 75-foot clock tower and the red and yellow foliage on the mountain behind it. At a table near me sits the local state representative and the director of a social agency. Two young boys sitting at a corner table eat ice cream while their father looks on fondly. Also watching with delight are three elderly women, once employees of a historic mill that used to make capacitors and gas masks.
Welcome to Brewhaha, a new restaurant located in North Adams, Massachusetts, a city of 15,000 tucked away in the northern Berkshires. Barry Garton, 53, and his wife Nancy, 51, opened this gem last year, and it has become one of several popular places for the locals to meet and eat and mingle with the tourists.
If the name Garton is familiar, that’s because these two food scholars used to own the Miss Adams Diner in Adams, five miles south on Route 8. Nancy and Barry reminisced recently while I sipped on a cup of very rich coffee. Nancy spoke first.
“I had never spent any time in North County. Barry took me on a tour of Adams. It was one of those very strange experiences, like you felt you had been there before. We bought the diner in February of 1989. It took four months of cleaning, scraping, and restoring. The door was always open, so people would come in to see what was going on. In that four months, they got to know us as neighbors and regular people. We opened the end of May and moved to Adams in June.”
It wasn’t long before this vintage Worcester regained its long-ago reputation as the place to go for good food and town gossip. Clean, brightly lit, and non-smoking, the Miss Adams became one of America’s best diners under their stewardship. With Barry’s famous muffins and fish & chips, and Nancy’s warm, motherly hospitality behind the counter, it was a dream come true. But it came with a price. Barry explained:
“I started in high school bagging groceries. Every job I’ve had since has been in food service. At the diner, I was working 110 hours a week: ordering, cooking, supervising, cleaning. Nancy was getting tired. We had sunk so much money into it to restore and renovate it. It was going to be a long time before we’d even start to see clear on it.”
Nancy nodded in agreement: “Taking care of people can be draining. It was hard to find the kind of help we needed to run that diner the way I wanted it run. You get exhausted when you’re trying to give your best and be attentive and do all the talking I was known for doing.”
So much to everyone’s surprise, they sold the diner in 1998. Nancy had a teaching degree and quickly found an opening at Pine Cobble School in nearby Williamstown. Barry tried a number of jobs, but he soon noticed that things were starting to happen up in North Adams. “The museum (Mass MoCA) had opened, and the town was beginning to turn around. Dot-com companies were starting up.”
After a failed urban renewal program in the 1970s that wiped out much of the south side of Main Street, and the closing of Sprague Electric in 1986, which had employed over 4,000 at one time, North Adams faced a huge uphill battle. But with the work of the Williams College Museum of Art, the mayor, and the city’s proud and determined residents, state funding was obtained to install a new museum in the former Sprague mill, all thirteen acres of it. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1999 and has been averaging 100,000 visitors a year.
Barry opened Brewhaha on August 4, 2000, in a vacant storefront on nearby Marshall Street. “This used to be an ice cream shop. They had this little cubicle, and I thought it was a good location for an open kitchen. We had to have a menu that would work financially. At the diner, you could get a full meal for $3.00. Those days are gone. We don’t have the grill space, so we have a smaller and lighter menu and a coffee bar. People love the wraps and salads and vegetarian items. Nancy’s got her baking, and I still do the muffins. We get a good mix of tourists, office people, and museum employees. Our former diner customers make up a huge portion of our business.”
With help still hard to get, Nancy gave up teaching after two years to give Barry a hand. She has mixed feelings about that. “I love kids, but with teaching, you’re confined to that room. I missed the hospitality business. Still, I didn’t envision going back into ownership of a restaurant quite so quickly.”
As one would expect from the Gartons, everything works at Brewhaha. Breakfast offerings like orange almond French toast and the bacon and tomato bialy are irresistible. For lunch, the hearty fish chowder, the smoked turkey wrap, and the colorful Brewhaha Salad are among the highlights. And there are Nancy’s pies, like her classic coconut cream.
Near where Nancy does her baking, there is a painting of the Miss Adams. She finds it hard to look at it sometimes. “I can remember the night I was repainting blue stripes on the stools. There are some things we bought for the diner that we left behind. The diner came to Adams in December of 1949, and I was born in December of 1949. I have such an attachment to it.”
But coming to North Adams provides new rewards. “My dad worked at Sprague’s for 27 years. He was a design engineer. He used to bring home all those freaky little wire things. People come in and say they remember him.”
And Nancy is making new friends. “When you do it right, and people are pleased and keep coming back, that’s the best thing. You learn a little bit about everybody, what they do and where they’ve been. You cry hard when they have tragedies. And get excited when they have babies. I love that part.”
Brewhaha is at 20 Marshall St, North Adams, Mass., 413-664-2020, Open 7 am to 5 pm daily; closed Wednesday, breakfast, lunch and light dinner. Major credit cards accepted.
A version of this article (also by Joe Manning) originally appeared in Roadside Magazine. Used by permission.