New York Times, September 21, 1997
Where to Eat Like a Vermonter
By ERIC ASIMOV
VERMONT'S gentle beauty reveals itself modestly as you thread your way by car over the rolling hills and streams, past white churches, village greens and town gazebos. Unlike the magnificence of a Pacific seascape, or the reverence inspired by the Rockies, this landscape offers tranquillity.
And so it is with food. Vermont has no shortage of pretentious inns and restaurants, generally clustered around ski resorts and promising epicurean delights at New York prices. Their allegiance is not to durable, purposeful Vermont but to a tourist trade that wants to travel without leaving home. No, the soul of Vermont is better tasted in a dish as unpretentious as the landscape: pancakes.
Pancake houses appear from one end of Vermont to the other, as much a part of the vista as dirt roads and pickup trucks. Why pancakes? Obviously, nothing else goes quite so well with maple syrup, the state's lifeblood. But there are more elemental reasons. Long before marathoners used the term ''carbo-loading,'' Vermonters knew that a filling pancake breakfast was just the thing to fuel a day battling the snow of winter and mud of spring. Pancakes meant energy.
That remains true, though many people simply enjoy pancakes for no greater reason than their taste. These pancakes are grainy, irregular and occasionally lumpy, with a real batter tang rather than an airy or greasy taste. Here are four restaurants where you can find this true taste of Vermont.
The Wayside Restaurant And Bakery
The last thing you'd expect to find in bucolic Vermont is a typical suburban strip littered with fast-food joints and auto parts stores, but Route 302 just southeast of Montpelier, the capital, rivals any other strip in the country as a purveyor of generic clutter. Given that, the last thing you'd expect to find there is a restaurant as distinctively regional as the Wayside.
This homey, friendly place fits the marketer's concept of a roadside family restaurant, with matronly waitresses, silly place mats, crayons and special children's menus. But the menu always offers Vermont specials, like salt pork and milk gravy, or chicken pie. And, of course, pancakes.
My heart sank when my pancakes arrived with little plastic cups of syrup on the plate, usually a sure sign of bland griddle uniformity. But a closer look at the labels revealed that the cups contained real maple syrup, sweet and pure.
The Wayside's pancakes are simply superb, light and buttermilk fresh, wonderful on their own or with blueberries stirred into the batter. This time of year, blackberry pancakes are available, too. ''Folks give up when the bears starts chasing them,'' was one explanation for the short blackberry-picking season.
Pancakes are available from 6:30 A.M. to 4 P.M., an important consideration to those who also want to sample desserts, but are constitutionally unable to before noon. These are wonderful local specialties like maple cream pie, tasting richly of maple sugar; blackberry shortcake, thick with blackberries and fresh whipped cream, and homemade doughnuts.
And as I was told, ''If a person has a hankering for pie with breakfast, we won't stop them.''
There's nothing plain about Plainfield, a picture-perfect Vermont town about 10 miles east of Montpelier that looks as if it had been grafted onto Berkeley, circa 1971. The biggest building in town is white clapboard, naturally enough. It's a futon shop. Down the road is a martial arts studio. Community bulletin boards are full of ads for contradancing, reggae and massage therapy. At one end of town is Goddard College, where the pierced, tattooed and hair-dyed students gravitate toward River Run, a six-year-old restaurant that combines hippie friendliness with an aura of experimentalism.
The owners, Jimmy and Maya Kennedy, moved there from New York City, where Mr. Kennedy had been a partner in Acme Bar and Grill and Nadine's. By night, River Run is ever changing, with takeout barbecue one season and sit-down dinners the next (but only on Thursday). ''I don't know why we keep changing it around, but we do,'' Mr. Kennedy said.
Luckily, the mornings don't change much. The students arrive, joining the equally colorful locals at the melange of tables and chairs that could have come from any New England used-furniture barn. They come for eggs, omelets, excellent coffee and, most of all, the terrific pancakes, thick and puffy but dense and crisp around the edges.
They are especially good with blueberries baked into the cakes, and walnuts give them the perfect little crunch. I also liked them with fresh sliced apples or pears on top.
French toast, with raisin or wheat bread, is another can't-miss option.
Just to show that the 1990's are alive in Plainfield, River Run sells T-shirts, condiments, and the same beautiful crockery that the restaurant uses, made by local artists.
Sonny's Cup n' Saucer
The contrast between River Run and the gritty blue-collar Cup n' Saucer in Wilmington, midway between Bennington and Brattleboro in the south, represents the panoramic appeal of pancakes in Vermont. Here, the community bulletin board is populated by plumbers, haulers and day care workers rather than the New Age merchants of Plainfield.
The reception inside is dour -- choose your own seats at the S-shaped counter that snakes through the room. It feels like a closed world, the kind of place where everybody has their name written on their personal coffee mug, except for you.
But this is Vermont, where gruffness always manages to give way to amiability, and the waitress seems charmed that we've somehow found our way into her domain. The Cup n' Saucer usually offers five or six pancake selections, including unusual additions like melon, which sounded less than appetizing, and raspberry, a delicious combination.
The unadorned pancakes here are straightforward, beautifully tasty and batter fresh, served with little cups of pure maple syrup. The coffee is exceptional, and I loved my side order of ham. ''Where does this ham come from?'' I asked, picturing hams smoking over cobs on a Vermont hillside. After a long pause, I got the answer: Iowa.
Oh well. But if a restaurant can make generic ham taste like Vermont country ham, imagine what they can do for pancakes.
Blanche and Bill's Pancake House
No question, breakfast is what counts at Blanche and Bill's, a homey houselike structure on Route 4 near Route 100 in Bridgewater Corners, in central Vermont. ''Breakfast anytime,'' the sign out front trumpets, before conceding, almost as an afterthought in smaller print: ''Lunches served. Limited but good.''
Signs are very important at Blanche and Bill's. Except for a shrine in one corner to the Boston Red Sox teams of the 1970's, almost all available wall space inside is covered with handwritten signs. Dozens of them detail various combinations of pancakes and eggs, specifying the various fillings and alternatives. Others convey the sort of information sure to intrigue nosy busybodies:
''Since 2-9-83 our cook has been Tina Prior of Bridgewater Corners, trained by Blanche,'' and ''Bet you can't guess how long we age our batter.''
Oh yeah? So why isn't Blanche cooking herself? And what about Bill, anyway? (Just so you know, Blanche and Bill Toth moved here from New Jersey and opened their restaurant 19 years ago. Bill, in fact, used to do the cooking; he died six years ago, and Blanche still runs things. Bill's recipe calls for batter to be aged -- in the refrigerator -- three days).
All these signs, and the time required to read them, may just be Blanche's clever way of keeping the clientele from getting restless. Proper preparation requires time and patience, as another sign admonishes.
But the wait is clearly worth it. These pancakes are big and simultaneously soft and firm, tasting purely of buttermilk batter rather than of the griddle or oil. The plain pancakes here are ideal; the blueberry variety comes with a compote on top, fragrant and minty, but I prefer mine baked in. Chocolate chip pancakes -- too sweet for grown-ups, perhaps -- are adored by young children, though they mean big business for the manufacturers of facial wipes.
Midway through my meal, I found my favorite sign. It's the one right in the middle that reads, ''Ignore all signs.''
* * *
Stacks worth stopping for:
The Wayside Restaurant and Bakery, Route 302 between Barre and Montpelier, (802) 223-6611, is open 6:30 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. daily. All major credit cards are accepted. Pancakes cost $3 to $5.
River Run, 3 Main Street, Plainfield, (802) 454-1246. Open 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. Wednesday to Friday, and 7 A.M. to 3 P.M. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Cash only. Pancakes are $5 to $6.
Sonny's Cup n' Saucer, 159 Route 100 North, Wilmington, (802) 464-5813. Open 6 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. Saturday to Thursday, till 6 P.M. Friday. Visa, Mastercard and Discover. Pancakes are $2.55 to $3.55.
Blanche and Bill's Pancake House, Route 4 (just east of Route 100), Bridgewater Corners, (802) 422-3816. Open 7 A.M. to 2 P.M. Wednesday to Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Visa and Mastercard. Pancakes are $3 to $5.
Photos: Sonny's Cup n' Saucer in Wilmington is a simple place, but the pancakes there are special. (Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times)(pg. 14); Anna Noel Woolf, left, and Charlotte Patok dig in at River Run in Plainfield. (Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times)(pg. 18) Map of Vermont. (pg. 14)