On the region’s ever-changing restaurant landscape, we mourn the passing of old favorites; we welcome new arrivals with a hearty good-luck-you’ll-need-it. It is not necessarily newsworthy when some dreamers throw their hat into this long-hours, tight-margins ring. But when said restaurant emerges from the gate with live music as an integral, explicit component of its mission and its design, not just an afterthought, it is big news indeed.
Stage space is a precious commodity in an area where qualified musicians practically outnumber fans. But adding a venue to a restaurant is rather like doubling down on a Hail Mary. It’s a hopeful vision of what a community can be, of what people love and what they can learn to love. And in this time of enforced isolation, the atrophying of public life and some very legitimate concerns about the psychology of civic space going forward, the act of opening a venue/restaurant takes on the quality of pure audacity, grit and faith.
What’s more, Scott and Betsy Mitchell, owner of Woodstock’s new Pearl Moon restaurant/music venue, never even imagined that this is what they’d be doing when, in 2015, they moved from the Midwest to Woodstock to be closer to their grandchildren. It was one of those stories where a “someone ought to…” sentiment gradually morphed into “we ought to” and finally into, “um, are we actually doing this?”
Even though this is at least her third time recounting the story for the press in the last few months, you can still hear traces of wonder and disbelief in Betsy Mitchell’s voice as she talks through the process by which she and her husband were drafted by destiny and found themselves as first-time restaurateurs and venue managers in a town that happens to be famous for both.
The Kalamazoo-area natives have a life of experience in manufacturing, a thriving family business in which Scott Mitchell played the role of process engineer, which Betsy believes to be key to the thoughtful design of the new Pearl Moon space, located on the site the former Harmony Café Wok and Roll in the center of town. “My family has been in the manufacturing business for generations. We went to Ohio in 2009 to expand the family business with a new plant, just Scott and I,” Betsy said. “After that, we were ready for something different,” she said, adding that the idea of opening a restaurant and venue was not even a wisp on their horizon.
“When we moved to Woodstock, we were just taken by the amount of live music you could be exposed to anywhere, whether you are going to someone’s home or a bar or a picnic. There is always live music. One of the places that we liked to go was Harmony/Wok and Roll, because it was a lot of the local musicians who would just show up there and jam. [Harmony owner] Sha Wu was already looking to sell it, but not to just anyone.”
Pearl Moon’s location, practically next door to the former site of Woodstock’s legendary townie venue the Joyous Lake — where the townies in question were Rick Danko, Paul Butterflied and that ilk — highlights the Mitchell’s plan to keep the booking focus local, drawing on the region’s absurdly rich reserves of musical talent. It’s a sensible and void-filling strategy in a town bookended by two recently refurbished venues with a national purview, Colony and the Bearsville Theatre.
“Bearsville and Colony bring in amazing acts, but there are a lot of local people with amazing talent that want to be able to play regularly. They get a chance to play from time to time at Bearsville and Colony but there is way more talent here than what three venues can handle. We have musicians coming in and saying, ‘When? When? When?’”
“Originally the plan was to be a music venue that also served food. We were going to have a café and serve light food items throughout with live music on the patio, live music inside and of course a full bar open in the evening for a nightclub atmosphere. When Covid hit, our plans didn’t immediately change until we realized how long things were going to be shut down. Having people gather for live music was something we weren’t going to be able to do for a long time. But there was a chance that restaurants were going to be allowed to open earlier, and we could take advantage of take-out. We said, well the product we have to sell now is food. We just kind of flipped the whole plan.”
A pivotal choice that all restaurant/venues face regarding music booking is whether the needs and tolerances of diners will determine what kinds of music is programmed, or whether the establishment will embrace a true dual identity, a nightly restaurant to nightclub conversion. The Mitchells are unambivalent about it: Pearl Moon will book adventurously and fearlessly, showcasing the full range of local musical product. “It will be conducive to dining up until 8:00 and then it will convert to a full-blown night club,” Betsy said. Our café has doors that shut it off to the rest of the venue, so that opens it up to a salon-type environment. The venue area is pretty wide open, with the bar and dance floor.”
Pearl Moon was inaugurated as a venue on Valentine’s Day evening with an intimate performance by the popular Woodstock-based jazz and soul singer/songwriter Lindsay Webster, who also works at Pearl Moon while her national touring schedule is grounded.
“We had two seatings. It was extremely successful,” Besty said. “We’re just getting our lights, stage installment and sound system in now. The building is on a slope, so the dining room is higher than the venue. People who are sitting in the dining area will look down onto the newly repositioned stage. There’s really not a bad seat in the house. We also have a full green room with bathroom and private entrance.”
That sound you hear is local musicians salivating.
Pearl Moon is located at 52 Mill Hill Road in Woodstock and is open now for breakfast and lunch. For more information, visit https://pearlmoonwoodstock.com.