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On the town
A young fogey’s guide to Saturday night

by Annamaria Goosens


Ben Barnhart photo

On a Saturday night this past winter, at the request of UMass Magazine, I ventured out with two friends to sample nightlife in Amherst. Our mission: to assess the validity of that old student saw, “There’s nothing to doooooooo in this place!”

 


Our most intense observation: being a single woman out for fun these days is not for the thin-skinned or cold-sensitive. In bar after bar, on a near-freezing night, we encountered women dressed in their nicest spaghetti-strapped tank tops.

     We couldn’t figure out how this became de rigeur winter party wear, but, as my friend Allison intoned from the depths of her turtleneck, “I’m soooo glad I don’t have to feel obligated to wear a tank top in November.”

     Maybe they keep warm dancing. While we stood mesmerized by the hip-hop lyrics being blasted in one club – “Put your back into it,” ran one, delivered in tones suggesting something other than lifting of boxes – the dancers crowding the floor swayed effortlessly. I admired their style.

     It’s a little weird to have become an old fogey in one’s late 20s, but there it is.

Amherst Center, after 8, Saturday night

     If students are willing to go anywhere in search of a good time, it seems at first glance that no one has told the student population of Amherst.

     We cast about for signs of nightlife. The Black Sheep on Main Street is mostly empty, as are Amber Waves and the Asian Tea House next door. Around 8:30 we come upon the first crowded bona-fide hangout: Rao’s, the coffee shop off Kellogg Avenue.

     It’s a mellow crowd – sweat shirts and jeans are the uniform here. Judging by the number of books or reading packets lying open on tables, the crowd is mostly students. The reading is often neglected, though; conversation is muted but constant.

     One couple prevails upon someone at a nearby table to take a photo of their date. Outside, a few dedicated smokers shiver.


Night life in the greater Amherst area gets mixed reviews. Some alumni who still live here wax rhapsodic over legendary, long-gone night clubs and hang-outs, while disparaging the current offerings.

     “I do remember the Drake. It was a Sunday-afternoon kind of place, a great little cool, divey place with pool tables,” says Cheryl Dellecese ’78, assistant editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly. “And the Rusty Nail in Sunderland – it burned down – was a really well-known place. They had bands. All the old blues guys ended up there.”

     David Lenson, a professor of comparative literature at UMass since 1971, remembers Quicksilver on North Pleasant Street, where you used to be able to play pinball. He also recalls Rashid’s in the Mountain Farms Mall, which featured one of the first gay nights in the area and had a racially diverse clientele.

     Other alumni headed to Northampton for their fun. Until the early 1990s, Sheehan’s, located on Pleasant Street, was the place to go for live shows.

     “Many hearts broke when Sheehan’s closed,” says Northampton writer Greg Lauzon ’90.

9:30 p.m., Amherst Brewing Company, 24 North Pleasant

     Students of drinking age say they like ABC because it offers beer beyond the Bud and Michelob level. The place is divided into two sections. On the left as you enter is the dining room, where some are finishing a late supper as the crew for tonight’s band begins setting up; on the right is the brewery’s mammoth bar, around which are arrayed groups of mostly students.

     The dress code here appears a bit more chic than at Rao’s: pretty sweaters or tank tops and nice jeans for the women, ironed shirts or maybe sweaters for the men.

     A woman in search of a date approaches a likely-looking guy. As her opening gambit she tries telling him she’s really drunk. It doesn’t work. Neither does the tank top. She rejoins her companions across the room.


While some students say there’s not enough to do in Amherst, others say it’s a matter of taking the initiative.

     “I think there are definitely places to go,” says Dina Mouldovan, a senior from Teaneck, New Jersey. “Maybe Amherst doesn’t have a million bars, but you can also go to the movies, iceskating, hang out, go to Northampton.”

     Of course, says Mouldovan, it is easier if you’re over 21. While some bars and dance clubs offer 18-plus nights, many won’t admit younger friends even if they have no intention of drinking. When Mouldovan wants to go to Mike’s Billiards on North Pleasant, one of her good friends can’t join her because he’s still 20.

     Ari Zuckerman III agrees with Mouldovan that being 21 is a big help. This senior from Park Ridge, New Jersey thinks Amherst needs more dance clubs open to all ages, and that there’d be less drinking among students if there were.

     His friend and classmate Peter Frost agrees. The local entertainment options are “pretty homogeneous,” says Frost. His conclusion: Amherst nightlife “caters to just geting drunk.”

10:30 p.m., Atlantis, 14 Boltwood Walk

     Atlantis, having opened last summer, is the new kid on the block, but already has its legions of devotees.

     Restaurant by day, laid-back lounge by night, this teal-painted room has a cooler-than-average ambience – any club with live animals is a good thing, and Atlantis boasts several aquaria where the fish must be grooving to the thumping hip-hop. Atlantis also has the niftiest bar stools in town (they look like giant springs).

     Atlantis seems to have a more ethnically diverse crowd than many Amherst nightspots. And as at ABC, patrons don’t seem to be drinking for the sake of drinking. One group is sipping cognac, too expensive a liquor to throw back if you’re just trying to get a buzz.

     People here seem stylish in a subtle way – few plain old running shoes and jeans, but no eye-brow-raisingly short skirts. Tank tops, interestingly, are at a minimum.


Straight from students’ mouths: Which are the best places to hang out? Although it’s only a few months on the scene, Atlantis has emerged as a favorite of many for a combination of music, ambience and environment. “It’s not people against people, it’s not a crowd,” says Mouldovan. “And it has live animals.” And although Mouldovan is annoyed by the cover charge at ABC on nights when a band is playing, she likes that spot, too.

     Peter Frost’s picks are Atlantis, ABC, Mike’s Billiards, and Charlie’s. Rachel Graber, a junior from Chicago, also puts in a vote for Charlie’s, a Pray Street spot with a fun vibe.

     Some nights, it’s time to get out of town, and Northampton is usually the destination: Fire and Water, a folk music and spoken-word joint on Old South Street, is one of Mouldovan’s favorites. But tonight we’re sticking close to campus, and will check out a couple more spots in Amherst before calling it a night.

11:20 p.m., The Spoke, North Pleasant

     “Service with a grunt,” is the motto of the Spoke, and it’s but one of several signs of the no-nonsense vibe of this college-and-town mixed bar.

     A group of students enjoys a game at the bar’s pool table, while the rest of the customers lean against the bar or hang out at tables.

     There’s no make-up, no fancy shoes, and continuing our census of tank tops, we find not a single one here. In fact, the sweatered and sneakered denizens of this bar would probably laugh at you if you showed up in one.


Jodi Butler ’98, now an editor at Family Fun magazine in Northampton, didn’t spend much time in downtown Amherst as a student, she says. But even an infrequent visitor knew the hot spots.

     “Mike’s Westview was where you would go to get blitzed,” says Butler, recalling the recently closed North Amherst landmark. “And Barselotti’s on Pleasant Street – that was the big bar people used to go to hang out.

     “Also, I remember driving through Amherst Center and there’d be a line down the block in front of Time Out,” Butler says, miming the elbows-in shuffle that people adopt in really crowded bars. By reputation, Time Out was heavily populated by sorority and fraternity members and residents of the Southwest area.

     Bars still have their stereotyped audience. Mouldovan claims that the Monkey Bar, a fairly new spot, attracts a heavy sorority crowd, and the conventional wisdom is that the Pub is also often populated by Greeks.

11:40 p.m., The Pub, 15 East Pleasant

     If it’s true that the Pub attracts a crowd from the Greek organizations, someone should do an epidemiological study on the prevalence of colds and flu among sorority sisters. To a woman, near-freezing temperatures notwithstanding, they are wearing spaghetti-strapped tank tops.

     The Pub’s dance parties are weekly, and judging by the photos posted on the website of the production company that offers them, they are always crowded, sweaty affairs. That is evidently a drawing card. Certainly this spot has the most overt pick-up scene we’ve encountered in this evening’s rounds.

     The women’s outfits are one indication of this collective intensity of purpose. Another is the increasing grimness of the unlucky men still sitting by themselves in booths lining the dance floor. One solitary gentleman is all but fetal by the time we leave. Still, a frequent attendee boasts on the website that he’s never gone home alone from these parties.


It seems after all, the most accurate assessment of the Amherst scene is Zen-like: It’s what you make of it. If you want to mellow out with your friends and a cup of joe, this town’s for you. If you want to pick up a guy and a case of frostbite, that’s an option, too.

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