GREAT BARRINGTON — A farm boy from northern Wisconsin, he cut his teeth in the New York City restaurant business, surviving the cataclysm of the September 11th terror attacks in 2001 and nature’s wrath when Hurricane Sandy mercilessly roared through in 2012.
Terrorist attacks. Killer storms. Frightening stuff. But Craig Bero has never experienced anything like this.
This pandemic that has upended life everywhere. This medical scourge that here, in the village of Housatonic, and everywhere, is rewriting what being a local restaurateur means. What being a good neighbor is really all about.
Bero is cooking for a community now. And the community is giving right back, lining up with tokens of gratitude; with warm words of appreciation.
They’re bringing armloads of firewood and vases of flowers. They’re faithfully filling the outdoor rough-hewn eating space he’s re-imagined. They’re supporting a cook they have come to call a friend.
And they’re writing letters of appreciation that he keeps in a drawer in his old, rambling indoor dining room that stands empty because meals are now served outside.
"Thank you Pleasant and Main,'' a 7-year-old girl named Althea has scrawled in a schoolgirl’s careful script. "Your (sic) my favorite restaurant. During the COVID 19 it was hard but I hope I can see your restaurant.''
Yes, Althea, you can.
The restaurant is named after its local geographical coordinates — Pleasant and Main streets — and Craig Bero is determined that it will survive and not succumb like so many other businesses walloped by an invisible disease whose national death toll now stands at nearly 200,000.
"I love the hospitality business,'' he told me the other day at the outdoor dining space he’s designed, a place decorated with panes of stained glass, tea cups, and ceramic lanterns. "For me, it’s theater in a way. Create an environment. But I could take all I’ve done and learned in the restaurant business in 40 years and throw it away right now.
"It’s meaningless. It has no meaning in this environment.''
Let’s hope he doesn’t do that because that would mean throwing away a lot of culinary history, a history that dates to his boyhood days on a small farm in a village of 500 in northern Wisconsin, where his father worked three jobs.
The Beros had 40 acres, 28 milking cows, and orchards of apple and cherry trees in a place he’s still tethered to, maintaining connections to old friends still there in Algoma, an old Potawatomi word that means "place where the wild flower grow.''
After his graduation from the University of Wisconsin he envisioned a life on stage as an actor, but settled instead for Plan B, life in the restaurant business in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where his mother joined him.
"I built a little joint like this,'' he said, gesturing to Pleasant and Main’s patio. "Ma was there. She’d start at 2 in the morning. I’d fire up the wood stove before I’d leave so Ma could start her bread.''
The food was good. And word got around.
"Craig Bero’s fresh ham, drenched in honey bourbon sauce, is what Sunday dinner should be,'' Molly O’Neill, the cookbook author and food writer wrote about Bero’s Village Atelier for Newsday in 1988. "Pass the collard greens and bacon. The molasses baked beans. The candied yams and the scalloped potatoes. They are all good.''
Sounds like a place you’d like to revisit. And his customers did. The place was packed. But the post-9/11 world was different and difficult.
"After 9/11, I lost everything,'' he said. "I was right there.''
Now, he’s right here. And again, a cloud has shrouded his business. Altered his life. And everybody else’s.
"This didn’t exist before,'' he said, waving to the new outdoor seating he’s established here. "Nobody will set foot in a restaurant. Won’t set foot. What am I going to do? It’s day by day.''
But he looked around and then saw what’s next.
That meant new dining spaces with new names. The treehouse. The barn. The lounge. The garden.
"I knew I had the means with what I had in the root cellar,'' he said. "I had my food put up from the fall. I knew I had potatoes. I had my beets. I had my turnips. I knew I didn’t have to be down in a line at the supermarket dealing with the public.
"I butcher my own meat. Beef. Fish. Whatever. Everything. Nobody touches the product. If I haven’t touched the product that you’re going to be eating tonight, I don’t do it.''
And his customers — his neighbors — have been paying attention.
"This is almost the only place we go to eat,'' said Carla Wagstaff of Lenox, who was at the restaurant the other day with her husband, Paul. "There are not too many places where you can do that. He has top quality food. It’s like coming to a home. Home cooking. This is affordable. And we can come here for dinner on Tuesday and get a very good menu.''
It’s a menu Bero works hard at shaping.
"We’re building something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,'' Bero told me as an eagle soared over the backside of Monument Mountain.
Inside the quiet general store café, just steps away from the outdoors dining area, the formal dining room tables now sit empty. But it remains a browser’s paradise. There are old-fashioned scales and fishing lures overhead. There are antique bottles of Orange Crush, and the works of Thomas Hardy on a bookshelf.
"It’s amazing what he does with this place,'' said Kristen Kanter, 45, who, with her husband, Joshua, is a local furniture and cabinet maker. "I mean we bring him a chunk of wood and, when we come back, it’s a whole table.
"You can’t find a better community person than Craig and what he’s done here. He’s an incredible chef and he feeds the community.''
All of it — a full supper — for 12 dollars.
There’s soup, a main course with fresh vegetable. "They get dessert. And they get a bouquet of fresh flowers with their order,'' he said.
He approaches an old desk and pulls out a stack of thank-you notes. "Who writes a thank-you note for a to-go meal?'' he asks.
But the answer is in his hands.
The authors of those notes are his friends, his neighbors, his loyal dining-room customers.
"He’s really an historian,'' said Pat Carlotto, who has lived in the same house in Housatonic all of her 76 years. "He’s taught me about New York City. And I taught him about Housatonic and the mill and the Polish people coming here and working. He’s told me his history. I told him my history.''
That history is still being written here by a man who has authored many dramatic chapters in recent years. And he’s still writing them.
"There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be right now,'' Bero said. "It’s a quintessential place. What I would envision as a Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill small town could be.
"But imagine this: Next week the mountain is going to be red.
"And it’s going to be beyond stunning.''
That sounds like an early-autumn homespun recipe for recovery. And for renewal in the Berkshires.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.