The skilled and artful staff at the Sierra Grille always strives to bring creativity and personality to its unique blend of culinary craft, casking and culture. Be it hosting a night of "food pyramids" for last year's "Eat Your Art Out" event or holding monthly beer dinners that bring the flavorful matchmaking of wine pairings to the masses, owner O'Brien Tomalin and company are constantly working to fine-tune the Sierra experience. Readers just missed a Pennsylvania-themed event that featured ale and cheese soup with a pretzel, cheese steak sliders, venison roulade, and even (gulp) scrapple with a poached quail egg, which they bravely christened "Pennsylvania Foie Gras."
"In a month or so my wife and I are traveling to Chico, California to take part in a brewing at the Sierra Nevada Brew Camp," Tomalin says with a smile. "The beer comes back to us when it's done. Sierra's been great to us—they've also got a 30th anniversary thing going where they're putting out a bunch of craft beers. I think the first is in collaboration with Fritz Maytag [owner of San Francisco's Anchor Brewing Company], and the others are similar collaborations with well-known brewers; we'll get some of those. We're also going to the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston in May." The Grille typically has 10-20 distinct beers on tap, including pilsners, lagers, ales, stouts, Belgian whites, IPAs and even the odd barley wine, cask offering or lambic, as well as a full complement of red and white wines. Sierra is big on local ingredients and tries to use them whenever possible. Its buyers shop at local farmers' markets, acquire fish from Australis Aquaculture in Turners Falls and buy corned beef (a St. Patty's Day favorite) from Millstone Farm Market in Sunderland. Though Sierra is, relatively speaking, the new kid on the block (it opened in 2006), it's done a good job of juggling various parts of its bottom-line equation with tapas/small plates, full dinners and the beer and wine element. "Our cost per head really went down since the whole economic crash," Tomalin laments. "People have definitely been spending less. But we've made it work. We try to find wholesale deals and such to keep our costs down, and we still charge our customers reasonable prices."
The neighborhood bar/restaurant occupies not only a prime piece of downtown Northampton real estate at 41 Strong Ave., but a place that's practically synonymous with musical and cultural history in the Valley. Though tastefully redone in a cleaner, more attractive style, including beautiful custom woodwork, custom-blown glass lights and a metal sculpture version of its twisted bonsai logo that hangs on the wall (by famed area sculptor Sam Ostroff), the Sierra still retains a few of the warts of the old Baystate Hotel.
Most notably, the famous painting known as "The Handsome Waiter" still hangs at one corner of the bar, offering glasses of cheer with an expression that looks as if the waiter has already had a few himself. "Someone actually offered me money recently for the Waiter," Tomalin recalls, "but I told them he belongs to the building." Tomalin's commitment to preserving at least some of the location's history is commendable and probably to the Grille's advantage on some level; whatever else it is, though, you can tell it's genuine when you talk to him. Thursday nights still "reanimate the Baystate" in the back room with weekly rock shows booked by Valley impresario Mark Sheehan, and the Grille features free jazz on Sundays and Mondays as well.
Occasionally, area creative whacko Scott Alden puts together one of his infamous "Versus" shows, engaging bands in competition based on themes like "Dogs vs. Doughnuts" or "Neo-cons vs. Sugar Cereals."
More than anything, the Sierra Grille has become a place with not just a few but a bunch of reasons to find oneself there: hunger, thirst, a desire for good company or a passion for local music. And you can always go upstairs to Bishop's Lounge for late-night drinks if you're not quite done by one.
2nd place Wine list
2nd place Restaurant for desserts
3rd place Place for tapas
3rd place, Restaurant