NEW MARLBOROUGH — “We are in the middle of nowhere,” I declare, as my husband turns the car into the snowy driveway of the inn. I’m not complaining; I’m thrilled. We’re meeting our friends Mary Ann and Rob for a two-day getaway, and we were in charge of finding the perfect place.
The criteria were simple: It had to be halfway between them in New York and us in Boston. It had to be affordable. It had to have great food nearby.
The Berkshires seemed ideal for a winter meet-up, and in what was certainly serendipity, a deal came over on Travelzoo just as we were looking. For $349, we could get a room for two nights at the Old Inn on the Green, with breakfast included each morning, plus a lunch and a dinner for each person — less than half the usual rate.
The fine print: not available weekends, at that rate. So we spend Thursday and Friday night there and love every minute, and bite.
The good vibe starts off immediately, as we’re waiting to check in. We had booked dinner for the next night at the inn, but where to eat that night? Somewhere in nearby Great Barrington?
“Right here is where you should eat,” suggests a woman waiting in front of us. “The food here is phenomenal.”
She adds: “And the light in the dining room is very forgiving. It’s lit only by candles.”
Bless you, Aileen Briggs of Plymouth, who is here with her husband, Rusty, repeat guests who had gotten the same deal offered in June, and have come back for more. We take the Briggs’s advice and book dinner for that night, but can’t get in until 8. It’s not only inn guests. The dining room draws locals, too — always a good sign.
We had reserved rooms in the inn annex just steps away, thinking it would be quieter. Serendipity strikes again: At the last minute, when we decide to bring our dog, Gumbo, it happens that our assigned room is the only one in which dogs are welcome.
Built in 1760 as a stagecoach stop, the Old Inn has also served as a tavern, store, and post office. To step inside is to open a door to the past, from the wide-planked pine floors to the candelabra that actually burns candles.
Three plaques at the entryway catch our attention: a coveted Four Diamond Award from AAA last year for outstanding food; Food & Wine named it one of America’s 50 best hotel restaurants; and it got Zagat’s highest rating for food.
We know that the innkeeper, Peter Platt, is a chef of some renown. He’s the whiz who put the storied restaurant at the Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox on the culinary map. That’s where he developed relationships with local farmers that he brought with him to the Old Inn, which he and his wife, Meredith Kennard, bought in 2004.
“I’m the chef, she’s the enforcer,” he says with a laugh. The couple, who have adult children, live next door. At breakfast, their 12-year-old chocolate Lab, Chapman, wanders around the inn’s dining area, sometimes flopping down next to a table for a snooze. He fits right in: an old, mellow guy in an old, mellow place.
Eight years ago, the couple also bought the Southfield Store, a mile down the road, and converted it into a bakery and cafe. They’ve got a pastry chef there and some interns from the Culinary Institute of America.
Which brings us to breakfast. In the back room, where there is a tiny bar, a buffet is laid out each morning: fresh fruits, yogurt, homemade granola, farm-fresh hard-boiled eggs, and apricot compote. Plenty right there. But back at our table, Meredith appears with juices, French-pressed coffee, and a bountiful basket of pastries.
They’re warm, and each couple has a basket to share: a homemade croissant, an apple crumble tart, pecan sticky bun, cinnamon swirl bun, orange chocolate chip scone, and blueberry muffin. My husband hogs the croissant, so I beat him to the sticky bun. Rob and Mary Ann sit across the table, quibbling over their own basket. Not a crumb is left in either.
Dinner the night before was a revelation, too, starting with a basket of homemade bread — sense a pattern here? — and followed by three courses of creative cuisine. We order from the Winter Welcome Menu, a $35 prix-fixe meal. For me, it’s a mixed greens salad with red onion, beets, blue cheese, and walnuts, followed by short ribs with roasted Brussels sprouts, smoked potato puree, and glazed carrots, and for dessert, a warm brownie with hazelnut gelato and crème anglaise.
The kitchen sends out amuse-bouches to all the tables, including a divine potato and herbed gnocchi with turnip green pesto and warm roasted red beet with chevre.
I’m not sure whether to float or waddle back to our sweet room with a stenciled floor and green cupboards. Just outside our room is a small sitting area with dozens of CDs, DVDs, and books, and then comes a larger parlor with couches and chairs for the handful of rooms in the annex.
The past and present team up nicely here: We’ve got the charm of the ages with the tools of today. After dinner, we four watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics on a flat-screen TV, while a fire burns in the hearth. There are fluffy bathrobes in our closets.
It has become clear that our mission is to keep one step ahead of the calories. The inn is surrounded by acres of fields and Mary Ann goes out on her snowshoes, while Gumbo and I briskly walk an adjacent, hilly road in the crisp, clean air. It had snowed the day before and James Taylor was right: the Berkshires are “dreamlike on account of that frosting.”
Ski Butternut is about 15 minutes away for downhill, and there’s cross-country skiing at Hilltop Orchards within half an hour. But we head into Great Barrington, a 15-minute drive, and check out Rubiner’s Cheesemongers and Karen Allen’s cool knit shop, where a clerk is putting finishing touches on some fingerless gloves.
A sign catches my eye from across the street and Mary Ann and I wander into H. R. Zeppelin Fine Handmade Chocolates. Doria Polinger, who opened the shop in July 2013, makes me a cup of organic hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream and homemade raspberry marshmallows, all dusted with cocoa.
She apologizes for taking so long; it’s all from scratch. I order a homemade oreo dipped in chocolate to go with it. Every sip and bite are wicked decadent.
Though my husband and I have been to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, our friends have not, and we gladly accompany them. I could prowl the Saturday Evening Post room for hours, its walls covered with Rockwell’s illustrations.
Back at the inn, I ask Peter and Meredith about their clientele. Any celebrities?
Meredith smiles at the memory of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who stayed there three or four times. They first came up for a wedding, then returned for Thanksgiving — the inn is open every day of the year — and again in good weather.
Once, Newman expressed an interest in renting a bicycle. “Our restaurant manager said, ‘Don’t rent one. Borrow mine.’ And the next morning, there’s Paul Newman riding James’s bike around the green,” she says, laughing. “Oh my God, he’s pushing 80 and still so good-looking.”
Newman told her that the younger staff probably knew him more for his salad dressings than his films. “And that was just fine with him,” she says.
Our Travelzoo package includes dinner from the Winter Welcome Menu — it changes nightly — and suffice it to say that on our last night, the grilled leg and braised shank of lamb are excellent.
The inn has five dining parlors, some with pastoral murals of the village green adorning the walls. Four of the parlors have fireplaces that are lighted during dinner, and with white linen and Windsor chairs make for elegant and intimate dining.
After breakfast the next morning, we swear we will never eat again. But wait, what about that lunch that’s included in our package? The inn doesn’t serve lunch; we are to get it at the Southfield Store. It is three courses.
We cannot think of eating again, so on our way home, we pick up our soup and salad, huge sandwiches and dessert. Back in Boston, we have ours for dinner that night.