by Dot Helling
I grew up in the 1960s. I did not attend Goddard College, but the reasons that drew me to Central Vermont and Montpelier were similar to those that brought many students and activists to our area. Fifty years ago, Vermont became a bastion of co-op startups, organic farming, and alternative lifestyles.
Last month, I sat through a City Council meeting that addressed the latest rendition of the Hampton Inn, transit center, and parking garage projecst. To some, the proposed complex is monolithic, particularly with the proposed increase in size and height of the garage and the area that will be covered by buildings along the downtown river corridor.
The proposed Confluence Park to be located next to it sounds lovely, but how will it resonate with the project? Will folks really want to swim and kayak in a park stuck between a large concrete building complex and Memorial Drive, along and in a river with questionable water quality?
In thinking about this project, my mind traveled to all of the changes in our capital city that have altered the daily lives of our residents over the past decades. Many of the changes had to do with places where we congregate to dine and converse. Food and dining have always been a hub for socialization.
Notable restaurants of the past included the Stockyard, now the site of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, and the Lobster Pot, which is now NECI on Main. Next door to the Lobster Pot was Central Market, where we bought fresh cuts of butchered meat and cheddar cheese off the wheel while catching up on local news. We also had the Country Store selling live lobster and catfish sandwiches, the Coffee Corner for breakfast, and Angeleno’s for pizza.
Then there was the one and only, nationally known Horn of the Moon restaurant on Langdon Street, Ginny Callan’s creation and still the subject of best-selling vegetarian cookbooks. It was my “go-to” place, especially when I practiced law across the street.
Of all the local, cherished meeting places over the past 50 or so years, only the Wayside Restaurant on the Barre-Montpelier Road carries on. No place remaining in our downtown has the longevity and history of our special drinking and eating meccas that have closed.
Capitol Plaza was home to the Montpelier Tavern, an interesting eating establishment with a giant fish tank at the bar and an adjoining swimming pool for entertainment, plus a gaggle of politicians as regular patrons. When a train went by, the lights would blink and the uneven floor would vibrate. I remember that the toy train circled the eating area back then just as it does now.
Another round of epicurean experiences came with the closing of M.J. Friday’s and the opening of Sarducci’s and Julio’s. Capitol Plaza’s J. Morgan’s Steakhouse has a place in that time period, as does the Thrush Tavern, which has been around forever in different iterations. Nothing is like the Thrush’s first bar and restaurant, a watering hole and lobbying center for our legislators.
When establishments like these change or close, there is a tizzy of activity until patrons settle on their next established meeting place. Today it’s become harder for the morning folks who gather at places such as Bagitos, Capitol Grounds, Skinny Pancake, and J. Morgan’s, none of which are as central a hub as the Coffee Corner, or open as early. Lunchtime in the warmer seasons brings crowds to the outdoor seating areas and pop-ups. In colder months, there are good soup and sandwich places, but many are take-out.
My current dinner favorites include Pho Capital, a BYOB where you can get a reasonably priced dish with lots of vegetables, located in the historic Thrush Tavern building. Unfortunately, the building is at risk. The Gulf station in front of it recently was sold, and new owner, Thom Lauzon, plans to erect an office building that could block the Thrush building and its historic facade from public view. The Thrush once sat closer to State Street on the Lauzon site.
Were the future of the building up to me, I would swap the parcels and put the Thrush back on State Street and place Lauzon’s new building behind it and next to the government’s parking pit. However, that’s not my decision, and I can only hope developers like Lauzon and our city leaders will use vision and move in a manner that preserves our heritage and fits what keeps “Montpeculiar” historic and unique.
In June, Beau Butchery on Barre Street closed, followed later this summer by Banchan on Elm Street. Just recently the doors closed at DeMena’s on Main and Asiana House on State. To me, the closure of four seemingly popular restaurants in four months is too much change. With change comes a shift. I’m not sure I like the direction Montpelier is going in, but, in the meantime, let’s wine and dine and celebrate our uniqueness and small town virtues. After all, in what other state capital without a McDonald’s or Burger King can your palate salivate on such international, wholesome, and local cuisine?
To keep our potpourri of delectables alive, we need to treat ourselves and partake. Nothing is better for the soul and our winter comfort than good food and libations served in cozy, local venues.