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Inside The Dream Away Lodge on opening night

“I think there's so many people who meet here and end up falling in love,” says Dan Giddings, new partner at the legendary establishment. Friendships start here, he says.

Becket — Dinner reservations are sold out and cars lined up down the road long before the Mammals take the stage for opening night at The Dream Away Lodge on May 17. People stand around the outdoor fire, their children cartwheeling across the lawn.

“We had our first date here, in 2015,” recounts Hinsdale resident Toni, smiling with fond remembrance. “We were sitting exactly where those two are sitting,” she says, pointing to the bench outside the main entrance where her husband and three-year-old rested. Today is both of their birthdays. “I have it written on my arm,” she says, showing a tattoo of the date.

Father and son, birthday boys on this opening night. Photo by Kateri Kosek.

“I think there’s so many people who meet here and end up falling in love,” says Dan Giddings, new partner at the legendary establishment. Friendships start here, he says. “We have seven birthdays tonight, four anniversaries, two graduations. Important days. I’m starting to realize people are choosing to spend them here.” He recounts a recent conversation with a regular who re-met his now-partner at the Dream Away bar after they had spent a lot of time apart.

Two-and-a-half months on the job, Giddings says, “I’m balancing keeping out of everybody’s way and making sure things are okay.” A dozen people called in the last 20 minutes, “really hardcore fans of [the Mammals],” says Giddings. “It’s been really overwhelming, all the desire to come and be a part of this.”

Coincidentally, the folk-rock group from the Catskills played opening night here last year too. “We hope it’ll be a tradition,” says Giddings. “They’ve been one of the favorite bands in the house for a long time.” Someone sitting nearby notes they also closed the season, in the snow.

Tonight’s show was originally planned as a duo, just Ruth Ungar and Mike Merenda, but was recently “upgraded” to include the full band to put forth more sound to match the bustling space, says drummer Tim Morrison. It is his first time playing with the Mammals at The Dream Away, but the duo has been playing here for 24 years. Brandon Morrison on bass and Scott Milici on piano round out the band tonight.

The music room is filling up fast. Melissa Greenlaw, claiming one of the many ottomans, offers, “We really like the Mammals, and it’s an exciting time of the year to enjoy the opening of the music season.”

Mammals pianist Scott Milici and singer Ruth Ungar mingle with fans. Photo by Kateri Kosek.

“You’ve got to get more prolific,” says a fan to Ruthie by the merch table in the hallway. “I’ve got everything you’ve done already.”

Another woman approaches her, says, “we follow you around. We asked you once about that song with blue in it.”

“Four Blue Walls?” suggests Ruthie, but that’s not it.

The woman returns after a few minutes. “Blue Morning!” she declares.

“Yeah, I like that song,” says Ruthie. “Nobody knows that song!”

Former Dream Away owner Daniel Osman wanders about, greeting people as they arrive on what he calls this “zero-to-60” day. “I’m supposed to be sitting there calmly letting them do their thing, and not get involved, so I’m trying to do that.” Now in charge of special events and art direction, he says that the shed is undergoing renovation and should be ready for special events next month.

Despite the crowds, everything seems to run smoothly. Kristen, the front-end manager, said they had a good rehearsal with friends and family. “We’re still working on our pace. But everyone seems happy,” she says. “It feels easy but it’s because people have done this before. I was behind the bar for about 10 years, then I left, took another path, but Amy wooed me back in and I met Dan, and we hit it off.”

Amy Loveless, Dream Away’s chef for 16 years, returns this year. “We’re very grateful to have her back,” says the head bartender, Nicki. “We’re all very excited. Dan’s great; Kristen’s great; the staff is amazing. The energy is back in the place where it should be.”

The customers seem to agree. One local couple who has been coming for decades sits finishing dinner—which they say was delicious. “We don’t drink alcohol, but they have some really great cocktails that don’t have alcohol in them, so that’s kind of fun. We think that the Dream Away is coming back strong,” says the woman. They had stopped in last year, but “it didn’t have the feel that it did in the past, and I think it’s happening again,” she says.

New partner Dan Gidding’s wife April Wilson stands to the right. The seated couple has been coming to The Dream Away Lodge since it was run by Mama Fresca. Photo by Kateri Kosek.

“I started coming here when Mama was still alive,” she continues, “and she was a kick. A group of us all lived down Bancroft Road, and we were writers and poets and a couple musicians, and there would be 10 or 15 of us every night, and Mama would cook spaghetti and meatballs and her special potatoes, and make fresh bread.”

She recounts, “The piano used to be set up in that room and somebody would play and we’d do our poetry and dance and sing and Mama would hang out with us. It was just a really nice way to start forming community.”

“Few places have this history,” Dan Giddings agrees. Before founder Mama Fresca took over in 1947, the 200-year-old house was owned by a colonel. “So all those layers are here. A lot of older people that come here have memories from way back, and then they bring their families, so it’s multigenerational.

He mentions someone on the staff whose parents were here the other night. “I told them, ‘Your daughter’s doing an amazingly good job at picking up stuff.’ They said she grew up here. She was crawling on the floor.”

“This is a really wonderful staff,” Giddings says. “You can tell people are invested for one reason or another.”

When the band is about to start, Giddings moves into the music room, eager to hear Osman’s infamous “tip speech.”

“By some weird coincidence, my old and beloved and dear friends the Mammals are opening our season,” Osman intones. “We have to train the rest of the staff to be as efficacious as I am, because that’s what keeps people coming back.”

He also introduces Giddings and his wife April. “He’s the reason that Amy and I are back and we are very happy to be back.”

“This is how it works at the Dream Away.” Osman turns to the band, joking that they have his speech memorized.

“Musicians play for dinner and tips,” Ruthie plays along. “We have fed them. We have tipped them. Watch as we tip them.”

“I find that visual aids are very important,” Osman inserts.”

“Now we expect you to do the same,” Ruthie finishes.

“Change is not acceptable, except of course for the cosmic kind, which is inevitable,” Osman adds.

Outside, where sound pours out the windows, Giddings describes how this place is different from his other restaurants in the city. “There’s such a sense that this is an individual, idiosyncratic place that is a surprise when you get there. It’s a discovery, an adventure. It’s a very different environment to come up a mountain at the end of the road.”

He says that to really understand everything that’s going on will take some time. “So I’m spending more time listening and not putting my ideas out there. I feel like it’s this special thing that I don’t want to mess up, so I think I’ll be doing that for a while.”

Osman pokes his head outside. “Don’t miss too much of it, it’s really beautiful.” He means the music.

Follow the Dream Away’s schedule online.

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