PITTSFIELD, Mass — The Lantern Bar & Grill has been a landmark on North Street for more than a century. But the eatery's closing its doors again for the second time in recent years.
The first time it was shuttered for nearly two years before new owner Bjorn Somlo brought it back to life in 2019. But a decline in business, exacerbated by the pandemic, means the historic restaurant will close again by the end of April.
Somlo had been a customer and a friend of former owner Mark Papas. He said the Lantern created an open and friendly atmosphere that brought strangers together over burgers.
"I was a decent customer. I liked the burgers and eating out of the counter. And you make good friends," he said.
The investment firm Mill Town Capital purchased the building and later sold the tavern business to Somlo. Tim Burke, principal of Mill Town, thought bringing the owner of Nudel Bar in Lenox to downtown Pittsfield would keep the Lantern alive.
The Lantern underwent a six-month renovation to update the infrastructure but keep the interior authentic. The restaurant reopened in 2019 with a recrafted menu and improved plumbing, electric, a new hood for the grill, and handicapped access.
The Lantern's chef Raymond Stalker hoped to make the same impact that Lucas Confectionery and Wine Bar had in Troy, N.Y. Prior to opening the Confectionery, Troy was a rough city but Stalker said the restaurant sparked development throughout its downtown.
But the dreams for the Lantern did not become a reality and, for the last two years, the restaurant's popularly declined as the pandemic lingered.
"The pandemic really has been an exhausting experience. In my heart of hearts I believe that the Lantern is ripe, ready and bursting at the seams to be something wonderful," Solmo said. "I personally do not have the energy to give it the love it needs right now in combination with some family health issues.
"And you know, just the personal toll of the pandemic as well, I think it's nothing but opportunities and I don't want to see it go to waste."
Stalker has plans to move on and work as a chef for Cantina 229 in New Marlborough. Without his help with the restaurant, Solmo chose to close.
Solmo feels he does not have the energy needed to make the Lantern thrive but believes that the restaurant is prepped and ready for its next adventure with new occupants.
"My plans for the future is to get through April and say goodbye. Hopefully in a way that is celebratory and excited. Hope to find someone that's just going to take what we started and run with and just have amazing success," he said.
Solmo wants to make sure that the staff find a place that will make them happy and if not the same, at least better. Stalker said there has been a big outreach from local restaurants offering the staff jobs.
"Everybody's pretty sad but I've had a lot of local restaurants reach out to me about employment for my staff. I don't think they will love it as much as they love the Lantern. I think it is their home as well, but we're definitely getting them jobs," Stalker said.
Stalker has been cooking for 20 years and has been working at the Lantern since it reopened in 2019. Prior to that, he was chef at the Nudel Bar for two years and the chef de cuisine for five. During his time at the restaurant, he built close relationships with his co-workers and feels that they have grown to be a close family.
"The hardest part for all of us is not working together on a daily basis," Stalker said.
Solmo wants to make this last month a celebration of the restaurant's history and is hopeful of what is to come in the future.
With all the renovations and effort he has put into improving the space and bringing it up to code, he believes that the next restaurateur that takes up residence has the potential to thrive
"I released the information so early as we're hoping this whole month ... we're hoping that people that really remember enjoying it get to make a last trip out. ... I am so excited to say that we are leaving it really primed for the next person to skyrocket." Solmo said.
Somlo said he did not have plans to run multiple restaurants but often joked about purchasing the Lantern one day with Papas. The joke turned into reality when Papas decided to retire and sell the restaurant due to the hefty cost he would need to renovate the old building. Somolo went to work to attempt to save what he considered a great piece of Pittsfield's history.
"[The Lantern was] one of the few last standing pieces of the arc of the Pittsfield story. I think very few people understand just how incredible the city Pittsfield was in its heyday and how it was part of a global city and what was being done and how fast it was growing," Somolo said. "Effectively, electricity itself. And it's becoming commercialized really started in cities like Pittsfield, so they were just the center of the world in a lot of ways."
"And there was this amazing city, and there's these amazing jobs and all these people. And this is one of those things that lasted through the turn of what happened next in America's story. And I got to come upon it at a time in my life where I just got to enjoy something that was genuine, and original and honest. Real through and through. As a cook first, that's all you ever want."
Somlo hopes to find a buyer and said the landlord is very interested in seeing something that has the potential to thrive in the space.