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New identity, new name for 20 Railroad in Great Barrington; reopening in May

20 Railroad Public House owners Benjamin Downing and Laura Shack are working on a menu with traditional pub fare like burgers and fries, and dinners with ingredients from around the region. They’ll use as much locally farmed veggies and meat as possible.

Great Barrington — As a number of downtown businesses shuffle around, leave, or regroup, one mainstay on Railroad Street is moving into the care of some new and experienced hands.

Laura Shack, who owns Firefly in Lenox, is taking over the long-running 20 Railroad Street pub and restaurant with partner and general manager, Benjamin Downing (not the state senator). The two have rebranded it to 20 Railroad Public House, and will give it a “facelift,” Downing said, a new look for the time being before a full renovation in November or December.

Laura Shack, owner of Firefly and new proprietor of 20 Railroad Public House in Great Barrington.
Laura Shack, owner of Firefly and new proprietor of 20 Railroad Public House in Great Barrington.

“We’re really excited,” Shack said. “We think it needs to come back to more of what it used to be, but a little bit better.”

“The idea is to keep some of its history and charm,” Downing said.

Previous owner Huy Huynh ran the place for seven years, serving Vietnamese food after running both Kim’s Dragon, and later Spice in Pittsfield. Huynh was out back of 20 Railroad last week, emptying most of the restaurant’s contents into a truck. When asked why he decided to move on, he told The Edge he was simply burnt out and exhausted by common themes in the business. “Trying to find help is so hard here,” he said, adding, in much spicier language, that he was fed up dealing with people. “My wife and I put in a lot of hard work, and it’s time for us to be done.”

Downing, who spent years in the restaurant business, and worked as Shack’s bar manager at Firefly, said the two had been looking for an opportunity in town for a while, and looked at numerous locations. “This was a no brainer,” he said.

The goal is to open early May. The two are still waiting for the liquor license transfer, and are hiring for all positions (contact Ben@20railroad.com). In the meantime, they’ll paint and add new furniture, create “a new aesthetic.” Downing’s wife Arla Downing, a potter, will make hand-thrown custom mugs for the eatery. And Downing and Shack will continue to work on a menu with traditional pub fare like burgers and fries, and dinners with ingredients from around the region. They’ll use as much locally farmed veggies and meat as possible. Everything will be “all house made,” Downing said, with nothing frozen.

As father to an infant daughter, Downing said he feels strongly about quality. “I think about what I would serve my child,” he said, “and if I can’t stand behind it I won’t put it on the table. There is pride in knowing where our food comes from.”

Downing said while the restaurant will also focus on “craft cocktails,” a “strong micro beer list,” and “an extensive wine list,” he wants this to be a “comfortable” place for regular people, not a place to feel “intimidated” by.

Shack says she wants to create something similar to Firefly, now closed for extensive renovations.

“We want it to feel like family,” she said. “Firefly is like a family. I have people who have worked for me for years, and locals who eat here from 3 to 5 nights a week.”

She said she was the first to start the $5 burger nights on Wednesdays that drew in frequent regulars. She added taco Tuesdays, and says it is this “family” of regulars, ages 20 to 80, that “came to sit and eat at the bar and they’ve all become friends.” She says it is the reason for her Firefly renovation, a rebranding to Gastropub, and a doubling of the bar size, since she found that 70 percent of the year the dining room is empty, and people just want to cozy up around the bar with others. She will change the hours to open the kitchen at 3 p.m. to midnight, and she’s going to make it “couchy and loungy,” but still have a dining area for nice dinners. Since the remodel started, she says she’s even opened her home to these regulars for burger nights.

Logo10May2016 copyAt 20 Railroad, Shack said she’ll create a “tavern” atmosphere for that same feeling of comfort, something that makes sense for an accomplished but “self-taught” chef who comes from a Hungarian Jewish family of home cooks “who just love to feed people.”

But Shack, a New York City native who spent childhood summers in the Berkshires is also professionally trained; she studied with James Beard for three years and ran a catering business in New York for 10 years before moving here and opening the Roseborough Grill, which she eventually turned into Firefly.

Shack says when 20 Railroad opens she’ll be “hands on in the beginning to make sure the quality is there,” and that Downing will be there full time to oversee it all.

20 Railroad will be open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the bar open until midnight. The restaurant won’t close for breaks, Downing added.

Downing, who grew up in town and went to local schools, including for college, said he’s been “plotting for years to build something with a sense of community.”

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