Road Trip: Green Mountain Diner Drive
Across southern and central Vermont, a handful of historic diners are putting a hyper-local twist on roadside fare.
It was quiet when I stepped into the Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vt. At eight in the morning, the vintage dining car smelled of syrup and grease, just like it should. I slid up to the worn marble counter and planted myself on a red-vinyl stool. The waitress nodded at me, as if to say, "I'll get there when I get there." By the look of it, the Farmers was just like any other New England diner. At least until I picked up the menu.
It wasn't that I didn't recognize the food; there were classics like omelets and club sandwiches. It was the ingredients that caught me off guard. Eggs from a farm down the road. Bacon smoked over ground corncob and maple shavings from just north of town.
Leave it to Vermonters to turn a blue-plate special green. Across the state, Yankee practicality is blending with back-to-the-land values in the form of diners that promote local foods. On any given day, three quarters of the ingredients at the Farmers come from within a 70-mile radius. Statewide, at least half a dozen other diners are following a similar path.
The Farmers Dinerwas my first stop on a four-point greasy-spoon tour of southern and central Vermont (5573 Woodstock Rd. Rte. 4, entrées from $5). From there, I headed south down Route 5, a two-lane road that parallels busy Interstate 91 and hugs the Connecticut River. Rather than speed down the highway, I chose to take my time, cutting through farmland and passing from one former mill town to the next: Windsor and Bellows Falls (both a little down on their heels), and finally, Brattleboro, a small riverfront city resurrected in recent years by artists and entrepreneurs, as evidenced by the new galleries, brewpubs, and meditation centers set up in old brick storefronts.
In many ways, mill towns like these are the reason that diners exist. In the late 1800s, mobile lunch wagons would park outside mills and factories to feed workers on the late shift. They were bawdy places filled with factory men, and in an effort to draw more customers, proprietors began sprucing them up. The wheels came off. The names were feminized to make them more approachable. (Ever notice how many diner names begin with "Miss"?) And the diner as we now know it began to take shape, driven by a handful of manufacturers, such as Worcester in Massachusetts and Silk City in New Jersey, that modeled their wagons after railroad dining cars.
Just outside Brattleboro, I pulled up to a picture-perfect example: The Chelsea Royal Diner, a 1938 Worcester lunch car (487 Marlboro Rd. Rte. 9, West Brattleboro, chelsearoyaldiner.com, entrées from $6). Inside, I grabbed a booth beneath the classic barreled ceiling. Like the Farmers, the Chelsea Royal showcases local food: A garden out back supplies fresh greens and tomatoes; omelets are made with eggs from a henhouse on the property. I asked Kristy, a waitress in milkmaid braids, what was good that day, and she told me the peach cobbler had just come out of the oven. "The peaches traveled down from Dutton's this afternoon," she said, referring to a farm stand I had passed earlier.
It's tempting to think of Vermont's local-foods movement as just that, a movement. But, really, it's a continuation. Farming (and eating) has always been locally oriented here. Green diners might seem like by-products of our Michael Pollan–inspired times, but they're at least an equal part old-fashioned Yankee practicality.
This point was driven home to me at theBlue Benn Dinerin Bennington (318 North St. Rte. 7, 802/442-5140, entrées from $2). I had left Brattleboro that morning and made my way across southern Vermont on Route 9, weaving through pine forests, past the overlook at Hogback Mountain, and through Wilmington, a whitewashed town with flower baskets hanging from the bridges. The Blue Benn, a 1949 Silk City chrome dining car, has been packing in crowds for decades. I settled onto a stool in front of a mini jukebox at the counter. Dozens of signs tacked to the wall touted an eclectic mix of specials—everything from nut burgers to pumpkin-pecan pancakes. I ordered the veggie enchiladas, filled with zucchini, onions, and tomatoes, and topped with Vermont cheddar. The vegetables, the waitress told me, come from owner Sonny Monroe's garden, and the menu changes based on the morning's yield. "When it's cleaning-out-the-garden time, it's gazpacho time," she said. Does it get more Yankee than that?
Like Brattleboro, the town of Bennington has witnessed a small rebirth in recent years. I spent the rest of my afternoon poking around pottery and antiques stores and cooling my heels at The Eddington House Inn, an elegant and uncluttered 1857 gray-clapboard B&B (21 Main St., eddingtonhouseinn.com, from $109). The next morning, I woke up to stuffed French toast and a yogurt parfait topped with raspberries, and then set out on Route 7A, heading north through Green Mountain National Forest. At Manchester, I dodged the traffic aimed for the dozens of designer outlets nearby (even in Vermont, you can't wear Birkenstocks all the time) and veered northwest to the off-the-beaten-track town of Castleton.
Fifteen miles west of Rutland, Castleton (population 4,000) is not the kind of place you'd visit—unless you're on a diner tour. But I could see immediately that the Birdseye Dinerwas worth the detour (590 Main St., birdseyediner.com, entrées from $11). The gleaming 1940s Silk City car sits on Main Street, just across from the clapboard Castleton Village Store. Inside, a group of Castleton State College kids were eating blueberry pancakes under an art deco clock. I ordered the meatloaf and mashed potatoes and paired it with a summer ale from Otter Creek, a brewery in nearby Middlebury. I asked the waitress if the diner's owner bought ingredients from area farms. "Well, yeah, the eggs and lettuce are local," she said. "But the milk? Um, no, that's from Rutland." I guess in Vermont, 15 miles may as well be 1,500.