By Joyce Marcel
While Brattleboro was priding itself on being an arts town, was it secretly turning into a food town? Or maybe, one simply follows the other and it’s not such a secret after all?
“There are so many of us to choose from, you never have to travel far from your home,” said restaurateur/chef Ken Flutie. His intimate Blue Moose Bistro, across from the Latchis Theatre, anchors the lower part of Main Street.
Flutie is right. In just a few short blocks — all in walking distance — you can find daily Thai and Korean food, Indian take-out three days a week, Mediterranean food, hamburgers, barbecue, upscale pizza, Turkish kebabs, crepes, fish and chips and Mayan cuisine. There’s a bakery, several coffee shops and three craft breweries. The Whetstone Station, located right on the Connecticut River, packs them in with bar food, its own beers and a nationally praised selection of craft beers. The Backside Cafe does breakfast and lunch for the business crowd. The Brattleboro Food Co-op serves a different organic menu every day. Just down the road is the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market open on Saturdays.
On the upscale dining side, Duo, Peter Havens, The Blue Moose and T.J. Buckley’s serve haute American cuisine using farm-fresh ingredients — Vermont terroir leads the way!
“We’re partnering with more than 25 local farmers and food artisans, cheese-makers and chocolate makers,” said Stephanie Bonin of Duo. “If you count brewers, the number shoots way past 25.”
Bonin and her husband, Keith Arnold, co-own Duo restaurants in Denver and Brattleboro. Do those towns even belong in the same sentence? Thanks to Bonin and Arnold they do.
Bonin was behind the bar, putting away glasses and getting ready to open for the evening crowd. Already that afternoon she had held an advanced wine-tasting seminar for her wait staff; they had discussed three of the white wines on Duo’s exhaustive 50-bottle list.
“How do you even begin to navigate it?” Bonin said. “We have some education every night — about the food, the politics of the food (for example GMOs) and the wine.”
The Denver iteration of Duo has made “Best of” lists for the whole of its 10-year existence. But when it came time to raising their children, the couple chose to live in Bonin’s hometown of Brattleboro.
The fact that they early on claimed the anchor spot in the fire-devastated Brooks House, with its large windows facing Main and High streets, helped enormously as developers raised the capital to rebuild and restore the 1871, Mansard-roofed building in the center of town. Now that it’s perfectly restored, the couple is giving the hometown folks a taste of what they can do with the best of local and seasonal foodstuffs.
“The town has received us really well,” Bonin said. “And it’s exciting to see the tourists coming in.”
Duo specializes in “food that you’re familiar with, but better,” Bonin said. “Like fried chicken with buttermilk mashed potatoes and country ham gravy. Or a shepherd’s pie made with lamb instead of hamburger, as you might make it at home. And we use locally-raised lamb.”
The sophistication that Bonin and Arnold have infused into Brattleboro’s restaurant scene is often credited with helping the town recover from the 2011 fire and the Whetstone Brook flooding that devastated the town the same year. Since then, Brattleboro seems to have rebounded. New and interesting stores are popping up all the time and very few storefronts remain vacant.
“Every single vacant store front that’s filled is a boost to all of us, and Brattleboro has seen a lot of them filled,” Bonin said. “Brattleboro is exciting!”
Duo joins two long-established fine-dining Brattleboro establishments. TJ Buckley’s has been receiving rave reviews for decades. Sitting in a restored little red vintage diner car on Elliot Street, it seats only 20 people and offers a “chef’s menu” of several choices, depending on what chef/owner Michael Fuller finds, grows or forages for in season.
For years, TJ Buckley’s was next to a defunct Laundromat; the building has now been restored and turned into a performance space. That means this area of downtown will soon be having a gentrification experience. One sign? Just down the block, the Restless Rooster (formerly the popular Elliot Street Cafe), a coffee house specializing in breakfast and brunch, will open in late August.
Peter Havens, also on Elliot Street, is in its 20th year now under new ownership. Chef/owner Zachary Corbin has added a deck to his cozy, softly lit, art-filled, 10-table restaurant and upscale bar. Such entrees as honey brined pork chop grilled and served with a warm rhubarb compote, potato gratin and season vegetable, or pan seared filet of beef au poivre finished with demi-glace and roasted garlic served over mashed potatoes with grilled broccoli rabe, illustrate its American, farm-fresh haute cuisine.
Restaurateur Matthew Blau has opened — and sold — several restaurants and bars in Brattleboro. A big believer in “quality fast food,” he now has two restaurants going on Main Street. Fireworks has been a staple since February 2008. Although it started as a place for craft pizza and craft cocktails, its menu has blossomed — the spring menu offers roasted beef risotto, mussels with red curry and green papaya, and pork belly with sesame noodles.
“Fireworks is an effort to keep up with the times in quality American food,” Blau said. “And that means we wanted to do great, fresh, farm-centered food that was served in a cosmopolitan, somewhat elegant and hip atmosphere, but at the same time entirely affordable. We’re definitely a cut below the price points of upscale restaurants. And we’re accessible to everybody — kids, families, people out on a date night, or people out with kids to get a quick bite before a movie. Especially in an area like this, your demographic needs to be nearly everybody in order to survive.”
Since Fireworks worked in Brattleboro, Blau opened another one 15 miles away in Keene, N.H. It seems he has found a successful formula.
“At Fireworks you can also get a wonderful arugula salad or a great plate of pasta — everything is consistent and made from scratch without cutting corners,” Blau said. “You can get out of there for 35 or 40 bucks for two people. There was a big call for it and I think we hit the mark.”
Blau had a Mexican restaurant on Main Street that he closed because “it took far more labor to create that food.” Since he still had the lease, he opened brattle burger instead. Besides burgers, its menu offers wild-caught salmon, pulled pork, and Nathan’s all beef hot dogs.
“It’s reflective of food in this country right now,” Blau said. “There’s this new, up-and-coming genre of food which is basically quality fast food. Like Shake Shack and In-N- Out Burger. We use quality, all natural, locally raised, grass-fed beef to create flavors that are familiar to people. It gives fast food a whole different taste.”
For handcrafted pizza, barbecue and high-end drinks at a bar made out of the floor of a former bowling alley, Hazel on Elliot Street offers a contemporary, modernistic take. That’s because Temple Peterson and Nathan Rupard both carpenters by trade own it. The walls here are decorated with chalkboards on which things that you wouldn’t think need deconstructing are deconstructed, like a pizza and a smoker. There are also some high-tech robots and what appears to be a space station.
Hazel has been open for a little more than a year and is steadily finding its audience.
“It’s sustainable,” Peterson said. “We have an amazing group of regulars who come in once or twice a week on specific days. It’s gotten so I can look at a ticket in the kitchen and know who’s sitting in the dining room. We’ve been well-received by the community.”
Peterson said the Brattleboro restaurant scene is booming.
“I’m a fan of Keith and Stephanie’s project, Duo,” Peterson said. “They are a destination place and people are coming from all over to check it out. Turquoise Grill, with its Turkish food, is a great place to eat. Fireworks is well established and well liked. Whetstone? What’s not to like? It’s got lovely beer and lovely views. Blue Moose has a great menu. Peter Haven’s has five stars and a new deck. It’s a great place to sit and hang out. Brattleboro has good live music and good art, and now it has damn good restaurants.”