At Berlin’s Wayside Restaurant, a Good Meal Goes Beyond Good Food | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At Berlin’s Wayside Restaurant, a Good Meal Goes Beyond Good Food


Published November 28, 2023 at 1:35 p.m.
Updated November 29, 2023 at 10:10 a.m.

Becca Harley taking an order at the Wayside Restaurant - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Becca Harley taking an order at the Wayside Restaurant

Earlier this fall, my husband and I loaded up our 2-year-old twins in our farm truck to buy transom windows off an old maple sugar shack in Cabot. "These windows are impossible to find for this price in good condition," my husband said. "Plus, it'll be an adventure."

It takes a very good deal to convince me to take squirmy toddlers on a three-hour round trip, but who was I to quash the excitement of an antique score? I quickly packed a lot of snacks.

The three rectangular windows turned out to be as sturdy as we had hoped, but my lasting memory of that day is the meal we had at the Wayside Restaurant, Bakery & Creamery in Berlin on our return trip.

In my 11 years of living in Vermont, I'd never heard of the Wayside. This is particularly embarrassing, as my whole life revolves around food: I work as a food writer and recipe developer and own a farm. Yet a diner that serves 1,000 meals a day had never made it onto my radar, nor that of many of the self-proclaimed foodies I know.

Sometimes we are too easily obsessed with the latest shiny new restaurant opening when true gold is right under our nose. What could be more appealing than a century-old, certified-green diner that still serves liver, gin distilled with Vermont honey just down the road and the most incredible pillowy dinner rolls, accompanied by precious squares of salted Cabot butter?

Green Mountain breakfast - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Green Mountain breakfast

The Wayside Diner is older than most living Vermonters. It opened in 1918, when Effie Ballou rolled up the garage door on the Barre-Montpelier Road to serve her famous pies and doughnuts, among many other classic homestyle dishes. Since 1945, two other families — each spanning multiple generations — have continued the tradition of maple cream pie and Yankee pot roast. The parents of the current co-owner, Karen Zecchinelli, bought the business in 1966. Karen and her husband, Brian, took over the Wayside in 1998 and are now working with Chris Moore, whom they've brought on as a managing partner. In 2011, the Wayside became the first restaurant in the Montpelier area to be certified green by the State of Vermont for its efforts conserving water and energy, reducing waste, and composting.

The owners may have changed, but the people who come to the restaurant have not. Multigenerational families line the booths and tables, while the often-single seniors take prime seats at the U-shaped bar. The diners aren't the only ones who tend to stick around: 10 employees have each worked at the restaurant for more than 25 years.

"Our manager, Jeff Virge, has been here over 43 years. His mother worked here, and now his son does, too," said Moore, an industry veteran but relative newcomer to the Wayside, with only two years under his belt.

Moore quickly learned the names of regulars, including one who eats three meals there daily. "Some of our customers are just like family to us," he said.

Country-fried steak with onion rings - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Country-fried steak with onion rings

Devoted Wayside diners go for the buttery, tangy hollandaise generously draped over eggs Benedict ($10.95); the $4.95 quarter-pound burger; tomatoey-sweet and meaty barbecue pork ribs ($14.95); and Sunday turkey dinners ($11.95) served with gravy, mashed potatoes and tart cranberry sauce. Part of the appeal is the extensive menu; odds are whatever you're craving is on it, from hash and eggs ($9.95) to country-fried steak ($12.95).

But the allure of restaurants, as the pandemic made clear, extends far beyond the food. A meal doesn't taste quite as good when you're eating it from a takeout container at home in your PJs as it does in the companionable vicinity of nonfamily members, with a server refilling your drink and delivering dishes you don't have to plan, cook or clean.

Walking into the Wayside after our trip to Cabot, a twin clinging to each hand, I wasn't met with the glare from the host I often face when bringing my little ones to a restaurant. Instead, she cheerfully ushered us to a booth with crayons in hand and asked if we needed something to drink. We soon had a glass of wine, a Mad River Distillers bourbon Manhattan and two milks. We then ordered fish and chips ($11.95), mozzarella sticks ($6.95), a cheesy broccoli pasta special ($10.95), sweet potato tots ($5.95), and applesauce ($2.50).

Manager Jeff Virge at the counter - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Manager Jeff Virge at the counter

As we messily chomped through our meal, what struck me was how unpretentious and comforting the food was, as if we had been served straight from someone's home kitchen.

Almost everything is still made from scratch at the Wayside — including all the desserts, the ice cream, the famous rolls, sandwich bread, coleslaw, French fries and onion rings. And the restaurant sources many ingredients locally, such as corn from Paquet Farm in Barre and butternut squash from Dog River Farm in Berlin — though many farm vendors struggled this year due to flooding. But what keeps people coming is the homestyle comfort food, thoughtful service and the fact that the Wayside serves up a slice of history at reasonable prices.

Some dishes have faded away, such as the salt pork and milk gravy, but you will still find liver and onions ($11.95) and fried honeycomb tripe ($15.95) on the menu. While Moore says these aren't the most popular dishes, as a Chinese American who grew up eating tripe and being told it was gross by friends, I was thrilled to see it offered on a menu at the same price as a sirloin steak.

Affordability is a pillar of the Wayside. The second time I ate there, with two former food magazine colleagues, we plowed through hand-cut onion rings ($5.95), spring greens with a lobster salad scoop ($13.95), country-fried steak ($12.95), chicken Parmesan with spaghetti ($16.95), a half-rack of ribs ($14.95), Grape-Nuts custard pudding ($3.95), New York style cheesecake ($4.50) and chocolate cream pie ($4.50). Our feast added up to less than $80.

Fresh-baked rolls - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Fresh-baked rolls

Nothing was overly seasoned or spiced, nor was it perfectly composed with the now-overdone mélange of salt, fat, sweet and crunch that I see in fancy restaurants. The country-fried steak had a generous crispy coating with a blanket of peppery gravy. The lobster salad's creamy mayonnaise dressing was enough to coat the greens without needing to add more dressing, though we all poured on a little more of the salad's blue cheese dressing for an extra kick. The chocolate cream pie's deep cocoa flavor and velvety texture scored high among the desserts.

"I love places like this. It's like they bake nostalgia into every dish," my friend Jessie Price said as she sipped her Smugglers' Notch Vodka-spiked Bloody Mary ($8.45). "Plus," she added, "those rolls are heavenly."

I'd probably return for the rolls alone, which are baked fresh daily by the hundreds. But the Wayside's appeal lies in being a home away from home — where you're not eating in your pajamas, but you feel like you could be.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the Wayside's physical location in the town of Berlin.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Wayback Machine | At Montpelier's Wayside Restaurant, a good meal goes beyond good food"

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