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‘Of An Era’: The Horn of the Moon Café, And All It Stood For

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Fred Wilber had been waiting weeks for this day, and he wasn’t going to blow it now. So he arrived early at his store, on Langdon Street in Montpelier, well before it was time to open. 

But it wasn’t his own opening Fred was thinking about on this spring morning in 1979. It was the restaurant near the end of the block, just before the small bridge that arches across the North Branch of the Winooski River, where ducks quack and ice floes flow, depending on the season. The Horn of the Moon Café was opening at its new location, and Fred was determined to be its first customer. 

Years before, he had befriended its owner, Ginny Callan, when she managed Phase One, a store that, in Ginny’s words, “sold hip new clothing, along with Frye boots, pipes, and rolling papers.” 

An oddity about Fred’s store, known as Buch Spieler (which he sold in 2015 to Knayte Lander and Xavier Jimenez), is its entrance. There are two doors into the shop, side-by-side. 

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“There used to be a wall that separated those doors,” Fred explains. “I rented one side and the other was the entrance to Phase One. That’s how Ginny and I became close friends.”

But she had left Phase One in 1977 to pursue, full time, what had been a side gig for her. She found a small, available space on East State Street, and on May 2 opened the first Horn of the Moon Café. In the mornings, along with a staff of one or two assistants, she made Mother’s Best Sandwiches, vegetarian concoctions on whole wheat bread or bagels, with ingredients like sprouts, tomatoes and hummus, which she sold to a small roster of country stores and delis. Then she would open the café and serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“The place was very tiny,” says Ginny, who now lives, with her husband, Cort Richardson, in East Montpelier. “There would be a line out the door at lunchtime.”

In that line, quite frequently — or, if he was lucky, in one of the 13 seats inside — was Fred Wilber, who strolled over from Langdon Street for a sandwich or soup or salad. In the summer, there was a special feature: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which Montpelier’s aficionados scarfed by the pint before Ben & Jerry’s came along.

“We sold a lot of ice cream,” Ginny says. “It really built up our arm muscles scooping it out. People were into the carob bean ice cream, because in those days they thought chocolate [was] bad.”

It was quickly evident that a larger facility was needed. After casting about unsuccessfully, Ginny turned her attention to Langdon Street, a block-long, narrow strip of pavement and sidewalk that lay in semi-permanent shade cast by the buildings on either side. 

The street had been undergoing a slow-motion transition since around the time Fred opened Buch Spieler on January 23, 1973. Phase One was already there. Across the street, in a rump of a building — more like a shed, actually — that was attached to the rear of Bear Pond Books (which fronted on Main Street), Warren Kitzmiller and Jack Nash opened Onion River Sports. ORS, of course, later moved to a larger space across an alleyway, expanded, and became one of the street’s signature attractions. A paperback book store came and went. 

But in the early going those buildings housed mostly offices, apartments, a printing company. Actual stores — the kind of businesses that draw customers and bring a neighborhood to life — were a rarity. More typical of Langdon Street’s tenants was the March of Dimes, whose office space by the bridge was suddenly becoming available. 

That’s where Ginny Callan cast her eye.

“I lobbied Warren and Jack [the landlords] for that building,” she says. “Fred Wilber had the record store, and I thought it would be so great! It would create a unique, alternative feel for Langdon Street.”

Fred lobbied them, too. “I told Warren, ‘Man, bring the Horn of the Moon here and it will put Langdon Street on the map!’ And he did it. 

“So the day she opened for business I said, ‘I’m gonna be the first customer.’ She opened at 7, and I’m at Buch Spieler early, ready to be over there.”

But there was a fly in the ointment. And its name was: LARRY MIRES!

“It’s true,” Larry concedes. “I was famous for trying to be the first one at a new restaurant. When the River Run [in Plainfield] grew out of its little shack and expanded, I was determined to be the first person there. Marialisa Calta beat me.”

Back in 1979, because he had been a regular at her wee bistro, he was aware that Ginny was moving out of the hole in the wall on East State Street. In those days, he worked at Hunger Mountain Cooperative (for years now he has been administrative officer at the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board), and ventured up to the Horn of the Moon frequently with friends and coworkers for lunch. And ice cream. 

“I’d never heard of Häagen-Dazs,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. We thought it was terrific.”

So Fred Wilber’s plans were indeed imperiled that spring morning as, at the other end of the street, the new Horn of the Moon was preparing to open.

“I’m looking at my clock,” he recalls, “and sure enough, I see Larry Mires come around the corner! And I bolt! And he bolts! And I beat him. So I was first.” 

History does not record the temporal dimensions of Fred’s victory, and Larry claims not to recall it. But he is magnanimous in defeat.

“I’m sure I was trying to beat him,” he allows, “but he deserved to be first.”

More important was that Montpelier now had a new, culinarily groundbreaking restaurant. And true to Fred Wilber’s prediction, it put Langdon Street on the map.

Serendipity

It all started with those sandwiches. In 1976, when Ginny, a former Goddard College student from Queens, New York, was working at Phase One, she developed a ritual of walking over to the (now defunct) Bean Bag deli for lunch. Her first choice was Mother’s Best Sandwiches. They were made and provided to the Bean Bag by David Champous (whose name, delightfully, is pronounced “shampoo”).

But she had a gripe.

“David was very inconsistent in his deliveries. I complained to the person running the store and they said, ‘Talk to David.’ He came in one day while I was there, and we decided that I would become a partner and we would expand.”

The next thing Ginny knew, she was arising at 5 a.m., five mornings a week, at her home in South Woodbury. David would show up, and they would litter her kitchen counter with whole wheat flour and sandwich makings. There was flatbread cooked on a griddle, chapatti, hummus… all manner of exotic vegetarian fare just beginning to find its way into central Vermont. They finished just in time for Ginny to get to her job at Phase One, with a few deliveries along the way.

“There was plenty of demand,” she says. “I had Mondays off and I would drive to Stowe and Burlington. David had, maybe, Thursdays off. The other days, all our deliveries were local. But sometimes a customer in Burlington would run out and ask for more sandwiches and we’d send them up on a bus — all of which, I’m sure, would not have met with Department of Health approval.”

It was a grueling schedule, and when autumn came David Champous threw in the towel. Ginny kept it up on her own through the winter, but made her life marginally easier by moving to Montpelier and in May, 1977, leaving Phase One and opening that first, postage-stamp-size iteration of the Horn of the Moon Café on East State Street — still churning out those sandwiches every morning.

Her friend and former housemate in South Woodbury, Mason Singer (currently a member of the board at The Bridge), suggested the name.

“I came up with it based on the Horn of the Moon Road [in East Montpelier]. I just liked the sound of it. It was pure serendipity.”

Freelancing as a graphic designer in those days, before he founded Laughing Bear Associates, he contributed from the get-go to the look and style of the Horn of the Moon Café, creating and/or participating in design decisions pertaining to signage and menus at both locations. 

After the move to Langdon Street, the restaurant became a fixture, and indeed part of the identity, of Montpelier. This was particularly true for a certain demographic, which might be approximately described as young people intent upon an alternative lifestyle that emphasized healthy and locally produced foods, a commitment to the environment, a dedication to rural roots that were actually new to many of them, and the dogged pursuit of informality.

Mason captured it all in the logo.

“It was of an era,” he reflects. “Sort of funky, but not amateurish. With an intentionally hand-crafted feel to it.”

The Horn of the Moon logo became iconic. To create it, Mason stacked the words atop each other and sketched them with a magic marker upon a white paper napkin, which allowed the ink to thicken the letters and bleed away from them. He tidied them up to ensure they were legible, and voila! — the culinary ethos that Ginny Callan brought to Montpelier had an apt visual representation.

Now all she had to do was learn to run a restaurant.

Organic in every sense

“I’d never even worked in a restaurant,” Ginny recalls. In a way, that made things easier, she added. If you don’t know what the norms are, you can get away with breaking them.

“When I opened the first place I had about $3,000. I went to the Small Business Administration and they laughed. ‘Come back when you have $10,000.’ So I opened small and did things economically.”

 She did the same at Langdon Street, but on a larger scale, because it could seat 50 instead of 13. She found used kitchen equipment in Boston, and picked up tables and chairs where she could find them. A cadre of friends knocked down walls, painted the ones remaining, and scraped and polyurethaned the floors. WallGoldfinger Furniture, in Northfield, manufactured a fine wooden counter.

And now she needed an actual staff. She was able to recruit a dozen people who weren’t looking for full-time work anyway, and put together a rotation to manage breakfasts and lunches. Heidi Broner (now married to Mason Singer) was among them.

“One thing I really liked about Ginny was that she was creative about finding ways to work with people,” Heidi recalls. “I wasn’t an early-morning person, so she would work with me to find a schedule I liked better.”

(Heidi also recalls that, with no air conditioning, the café sometimes got stultifying. Ginny armed the staff with water pistols, which were probably more effective at keeping spirits alive than actually cooling people off.)

Soon she saw an opportunity for dinners, and added those on Friday and Saturday nights, then other nights besides. Sometimes there’d be a pizza night, sometimes a vegan night. The staff grew to about 25.

But what really stood out about the Horn of the Moon Café, and still does in memory today, is that in so many ways it was 25 years ahead of its time. Or perhaps we’re where we are today because the Horn, and a few places like it, pointed the way.

“We were serving a lot of local food,” says Ginny, citing the Upland Bakery, Butterworks Farm, and a roster of pioneering organic vegetable farmers in the area: Richard Wiswall, Alan LePage, Joey Klein, and Robert Houriet. “And we were composting our food scraps. We were also one of the first restaurants to ban smoking.

 “We got coffee beans and ground our own coffee,” she adds. “We offered French roast at a time when people were starting to learn that there was more than Chock full o’Nuts.”

Later, she hired a baker, so now there were morning muffins, and homemade bread, pies and cakes. Local artists and photographers displayed their works. Sometimes there was live music.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing. The Horn’s dependence upon local growers made for good times from spring to fall, but in winter her produce costs soared. “There were months when I ate well but took no salary.”

In 1987, Montpelier’s little secret — the quirky, unabashed, counterculture restaurant tucked away on an inconspicuous side street — got out, with the debut of the “Horn of the Moon Cookbook.”

 “People had been asking for recipes as soon as we opened,” says Ginny, “and I decided it would be nice to get them all written down. But they were made to serve large amounts. So I would go home on Monday afternoons and work on them, to scale them to normal, family-sized portions. It took a number of years.”

Enhanced by Mason Singer’s designs, the book was published by Harper and Row.

“That really put the restaurant on the map,” she says. “There were lines out the door during fall foliage and weekends. It was actually hard on us to adjust.”

And to think it was all happening on Langdon Street.

Egalitarian (if inconvenient)

As much as a haven for safe, nutritious consumption, the Horn of the Moon Café was also a garden of people — their comings and goings, their growth as maturing human beings and as citizens, their attunement to and understanding of each other, and sometimes their flagrant failures in all of the above. Staff and customers, they were the molecules of a burgeoning community in central Vermont.

Heidi Broner, although reserved by nature, is voluble in her appreciation of what she learned working for Ginny Callan, which she did, off and on and in both locations, for a dozen years. She is an artist, now employed as an engraver, of scenes and portraits, in the granite industry. In her Horn of the Moon days, she sang with Word of Mouth Chorus and performed with Bread & Puppet Theater, and leaned toward the ethereal. By contrast, she says, “Ginny was a real pragmatist, and I got to see the joy of pragmatism: Look at something, see what needs to be done, and accomplish it.”

It was the kind of grounding she needed. And, figuratively speaking, she found gold in it. 

“One day I was working there and had an epiphany, which was that these are the minutes and hours of my life right now. And I decided I wanted to throw myself into each task — learning new recipes, better cooking skills — and learn how to do it better.

“I also thought it was an important thing to do, feeding people. I could walk down the street and see people and think, I fed those people. I liked the intimacy of that,” she says, adding (with a laugh), “without the personal involvement.” 

She also enjoyed the female comradeship, and admired Ginny’s self-confident feminism.

In a way, the Horn of the Moon Café was like a petri dish, a social setting like no other. Some of the stories, remembered today, are funny. Some are head-scratchers. The café had a reputation for often excruciatingly slow service and an idiosyncratic wait staff. 

Marialisa Calta, in a review of the restaurant in The New York Times in 1988, described waiting half an hour for a lemon wedge that should have come with her tea, but didn’t. When she eventually delivered it, the waitress observed, “Funny the way the mind works.” There’s no evidence that Marialisa walked out.

One Saturday morning, this writer and his (now) wife dropped in for breakfast, found a table, and waited to be served. 

And waited. 

And waited. 

Finally, the waiter (a better word for us than for him) came by, dropped our menus on the table, and grumped, “I’m decompensating,” then walked away. 

Larry Mires has a story about his friend David. Larry went in for coffee one morning at about 7:30, saw David seated at the counter, and joined him.

“Okay,” David said in a hushed voice. “Don’t say anything. I’ve been here a half hour and no one’s asked me anything. Just stay quiet and we’ll see what happens. This could be a record.”

Another 15 minutes lapsed, Larry recalls, before someone came by.

Yet somehow it seemed incumbent on the customer to accept these transgressions. And, somehow, the customers complied. Complaining, or demanding prompt, efficient service, would have implied adherence to a social hierarchy that many, at that time, weren’t buying into.

Ginny was aware of the phenomenon — “We had wait people who would sit down at the table and chat with the people they were going to serve” — but to seek conformity, by her employees, with the mores of conventional restaurants would have been rowing upstream.

“It was accepted most of the time,” she sighs.

Still, Heidi insists that many of her coworkers were diligent and attentive. And she points out that sometimes the shoe was on the other foot; it was customers misbehaving.

“There was a piano there, and people would just let their children bang on it, which was really not nice.” Seeing a woman change her baby’s diaper on one of the dining tables was truly a bridge too far.

Other social aspects of the restaurant, also reflective of the times, were endearing. Fred Wilber would arrive each morning for coffee and a muffin (they were waiting for him, perfectly prepared) and leave without paying. In return, Ginny occasionally dropped in at Buch Spieler to choose, gratis, a few records to spin at the café: Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Van Morrison, Billie Holiday. 

And it wasn’t just Fred.

“Andrew Kline didn’t pay,” says Ginny. “He did our photographs. Mason did our graphic arts, and he never paid. There was a lot of untabulated bartering going on in those days.”

Toast

Time passed, as time does, and Ginny sold the restaurant in 1990. Yet under the new owner, Gary Beardsworth, the beat kept on. But these were the ’90s, not the ’80s, and it seems the vibe shifted. Regulars met there with goals in mind. They convened. They planned. (These are, of course, preposterous generalities.) Jake Brown, a Montpelier resident who, as a freelance and contract writer, has worked for innumerable Vermont organizations, lived in an apartment across the street and passed long hours at the Horn of the Moon, in meetings or lingering over projects with a cup of coffee.

“It was like an early version of a cyber café,” he says. “Gary was very welcoming. You didn’t feel like you had to rush through your meal. You could spend a couple hours at a time there.”

In fact, the Horn was a bit of an incubator. Mason Singer recalls that the organizers of many groups that became, and still are, statewide leaders in progressive causes held their early conversations there. Among those, in fact, was The Bridge.

“It was that kind of place,” says Mason. “A nexus. It reflected the energy that was going on at the time.”

Sadly, that second era of the Horn of the Moon ended when proprietor Gary passed away in June 2000, and the restaurant closed. Yet it remains part of the lore of central Vermont, a dynamic hub of permanent, cultural transformation. 

In fact, when Heidi thinks back on it, one of her fondest memories is not specifically of the Horn of the Moon, but of the culture associated with it.

“It was right before Ginny sold the restaurant,” says Heidi. “She and the baker and I were catering a wedding, and we had just finished cleaning up. We opened a bottle of champagne, and Ginny held up her glass and toasted, ‘Here’s to three self-taught women!”

 And here’s to them again.