Home Commentary The Way I See It: Here’s to the Hardy Culinary Survivors

The Way I See It: Here’s to the Hardy Culinary Survivors

I recently happened to be passing through Waitsfield in late afternoon with a friend when hunger pangs set in. The Valley was my home back in the 1970s and early 1980s and I knew every pub and eatery, of which quite a few were legendary. Many are now closed, such as the Common Man and Sam Rupert’s, or changed (think the Den, Waitsfield’s answer to the Shed in Stowe). But living in Calais for decades now, the Valley had become terra incognita to me, prandially speaking. 

However, I had heard good things recently about the Hydeaway, the rambling eatery tucked on winding Route 17 up toward the Appalachian Gap. Its history dates back to the 1950s and the founders of Sugarbush and Glen Ellen. I had somehow never eaten there, so we decided to give it a try. It was a good decision. 

There are many joys of dining out, beyond not having to cook: Great food, new tastes and cuisines, the atmosphere, and the road trip itself. We hit on all culinary cylinders, from our hearty entrees (meatloaf and ribs) and the extensive menu, the beers on tap, the cocktails, and the bar layout (which allowed us to converse with patrons across from us). The rambling layout and sloping floors hint at the Hydeaway’s old farmhouse roots, which after a cocktail or two can resemble walking on a rolling ship. Watching your step aside, it’s a definite part of the place’s charm.

I relate this experience because it reminded me how rare longevity is in the restaurant world. Chef-owners and proprietors burn out or sell out, rebrand and move on, even actually pass away. Tastes change too, as do locales like the Valley. The Den is now Blue Stone pizza, and a great summer twofer now is having brews outdoors at Lawson’s Finest Liquids and then going across the street for great fried chicken takeout at Canteen Creemee.

In short, restaurant changes are sad, but also good, as new places open up. 

It’s easy to forget that 40 years ago, aside from ski resorts, many Vermont cities and towns were, if not dining deserts, certainly also not oases. For a few years, I wrote restaurant reviews for the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Sunday edition, a side beat in my career as a journalist and editor. My credentials for this were slim, primarily my mother’s Hungarian proverb that says “a man who loves food can’t be all bad.” But I brought my enthusiasm for food and a reporter’s penchant for people to my explorations, which allowed me to meet and tell stories about many of Vermont’s transformative chefs and restaurant owners. 

Looking back, the impact of Montpelier’s New England Culinary Institute in all this can’t be overestimated. Founded in 1980 by Fran Voigt and his wife, Ellen Bryant Voigt, with business partners John Dranow and his then-wife, Louise Glück, NECI’s innovative hands-on model to teach professional chefs forever changed the culinary landscape of Vermont, presaging “localvore” before it became a word. The culinary institute brought fine dining, international cuisines, and a European style pastry cafe to a little city bereft of all three, and its students (some 800 at the peak!) spread throughout Vermont to raise palate awareness and the farm-to-table dining ethos, elevating the dining landscape statewide. 

The pre-eminence of NECI is a sad memory now — the school closed in 2020 — a reminder of what I call Montpelier’s restaurant roulette. Fate and the odds conspire against any longevity in this business, and at times over the years, it has been almost head-spinning keeping track of comings and goings. 

No one felt the passing of NECI’s La Brioche Cafe more than me, as a European-born pastry lover. But the roulette wheel brought me the Bohemian and Birchgrove Baking to ease my sweet cravings. I count it a fair trade.

We recently lost Down Home Kitchen’s southern delights, but down the street is the unlikely hit, the Hippy Chickpea and its Mediterranean pleasures. Now we have two Indian/Asian places, two Vietnamese, two Thai, one Mexican, and the Skinny Pancake, but no more simple in-town diner fare for breakfast and lunch (thank God for the Wayside!). The more things change, the more they don’t stay the same, apparently?

Personally, I’ve decided I don’t have a problem with that. At the same time, I think it’s worth giving a shout out to the places that have endured for years, successfully adjusting to tastes and trends, let alone business challenges and pandemics. I mean, of course, the always reliable and good places I enjoy, like Sarducci’s and J. Morgan’s, which both opened in the mid-1990s and somehow have survived all the spins of the roulette wheel for decades. That’s worth a toast. 

Retired journalist and writer Andrew Nemethy is eagerly awaiting prime garden tomato season at his Adamant home.