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Bistro 63 Creates Unique Experiences for Partygoers

Mixing It Up

Alyssa Blumenthal says many clients make use of Bistro 63’s outdoor deck.

Alyssa Blumenthal says many clients make use of Bistro 63’s outdoor deck.

Located at the edge of the UMass Amherst campus and central to the other Five Colleges institutions, Bistro 63 has done a brisk business in events for those schools, from department holiday gatherings to retirement parties to student events.

It’s an ideal space for the wildly divergent tastes of college students, faculty, and staff, said Event Manager Alyssa Blumenthal, because it easily transforms from a banquet space to a nightclub — often during the same event.

That makes for a memorable experience, she added, which often brings those undergrads back a little later in life.

“Many students come back to us later on,” Blumenthal said. “Five years after graduating, people are getting married, and we see them again when they choose to do a rehearsal dinner with us, when they want a nightclub-style party after dinner. We’re a venue that can provide any atmosphere you can imagine for a private gathering.”

Current owners Rasif and R.J. Rafiq bought Bistro 63 — the restaurant attached to the popular Monkey Bar at 63 North Pleasant St. in Amherst — from its original owner, who opened it in 1999. The brothers both worked there for more than a decade before taking over the business, learning every aspect of the operation. Today, the space hosts parties of all types — holiday events, corporate dinners, cocktail parties, rehearsal dinners, reunions, and more — ranging from small gatherings to large events up to 240 people. A large room can be divided into smaller spaces, including a covered deck outside. A 131-inch projection screen is available as well.

“We also love music,” Blumenthal said, referring to both live bands and DJs that frequently perform. “Atmosphere is important to us, and it really permeates every part of the restaurant.”

She noted that Bistro 63 has become a popular event site not just for UMass and the colleges, but area law offices, financial-services businesses, and a variety of others. Business tends to pick up starting in October, not only with the approaching holidays, but because it tends to be a hot season for convention business — and those events tend to spur further bookings. In fact, two weekends ago, Blumenthal welcomed three separate gatherings all booked by companies who attended a Bistro 63 event during last year’s International Conference on Soils, Sediments, Water and Energy at UMass.

“We’re really lucky to have some great, loyal customers,” she told BusinessWest. “At the end of the day, we love creating memorable experiences for guests with a personalized touch.”

Drinking It In

Nowhere is that personalization more evident than in the facility’s cocktail program.

“This is a Prohibition-style bar, known as a speakeasy, that sort of illicit atmosphere,” she said. “Our translation is using modern techniques on classic cocktails, putting our own personalized spin them. I’m not a cocktail drinker, but I will drink every cocktail on the menu; they’re not too sweet, but perfectly balanced. We make all our syrups in-house, squeeze all the citrus fresh to order.”

With that kind of reputation to uphold, the bartenders have a demanding job, she added. “But it shows in the quality drinks they produce. We have more than 250 craft and specialty spirits we can use, and the owners give the bartenders free rein to use our stock at their delight.”

Bistro 63’s location at the foot of the UMass campus

Bistro 63’s location at the foot of the UMass campus makes it a popular spot for party bookings by students and faculty.

While Rasif Rafiq focuses on food and events, R.J., who studied under master mixologists, specializes on the drink side and trains the bartenders.

“The interviews are intense,” Blumenthal said. “He’s the most stern you’ll ever see him. He’ll laugh and be casual with us because we know him. But during the bartender-training process, there’s no smile. He wants to make sure they’re at the top of their game. And it shows — guests know they’ve had an experience above par, something they’ve never had before. He’s a great mixologist who has trained the bar staff to be the same way.”

In addition to a rotating list of custom cocktails, Bistro 63 has been known to create unique concoctions for specific events. “For one event, probably my favorite bride of all time had this idea: she wanted to describe her fiancé, and wanted him to describe her, and she wanted us to make drinks based on those descriptions. It was like a lab test to see how well they knew each other.”

That sort of customization tends to spur repeat business, she added. Even the UMass soil convention requested a custom cocktail, which included elder flower liquour, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and vodka. “They’re having another one this year, and they want the same cocktail, but they want an additional cocktail as well. In five years, we’ll be running a fully customized bar for this group.”

It all stems from the philosophy that no two events are the same, and each should spring from a unique vision, she went on. “We try to bring it to life with those extra touches they weren’t expecting. It makes it more memorable in the end.”

As for the food, clients may choose from a number of appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts, creating a custom package for their event. Those options — which may include anything from wild saku sesame tuna to rack of lamb ‘lollipops’ to truffle mushroom risotto — change throughout the year, not only for variety but to focus on seasonal ingredients.

“We definitely want people come back,” Blumenthal said. “At the end of the day, the customer is boss, and you want them to come every day if they could. We order from a lot of local producers and work with a lot of farms in Hadley. Why wouldn’t you? We have some of the best farms in the world, so we put those local eggs, local potatoes, and local meat on the menu.”

Keep Calm and Party On

Party planning, Blumenthal said frankly, can be difficult, and it’s easy to forget details like that guest who requires gluten-free options. So she aims to create a stress-free experience.

“If we can make a plan without you having to think about it too much, we’re more likely to book you,” she said. “We think ahead all the time; we have gluten-free and dairy-free food on all the menus.

“For every inquiry, we try to go the extra step, make your life easier, and make the planning process more straightforward and streamlined,” she went on. “We get repeat events because people like that personalization and like that we give them a plan straight off the bat. When they come back next year, we say, ‘this is the event order from last year; these are the updated menu items; do you want to keep the menu the same or try some new items?’ We don’t have people asking questions — we’re already anticipating their needs.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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