- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Fish and chips
Julie Finestone and David Zeidler have had a busy fall. The Essex couple got married on October 21, took a honeymoon to New Orleans, got home, prepped an entirely new kitchen staff and reopened Barkeaters restaurant on November 7.
The cozy lunch and dinner spot near the shopping center in Shelburne operated for 13 years before closing at the end of August due to short staffing in the kitchen. Finestone, 36, was Barkeaters' bar manager for six years; now she and her husband are its new owners.
Previous owner Jenn Sinclair, who also owns Splash at the Boathouse on Burlington's waterfront, approached Finestone when she decided to scale back to one business.
"She said, 'I can see this as a future for the two of you,'" Finestone recalled. "We never considered the possibility of owning our own restaurant, but when [Sinclair] started Barkeaters, people took a chance on her, and it really changed her future. When she was selling it, she wanted to do that for someone else."
Zeidler, 42, is new to Barkeaters but not to restaurants: This is the fourth opening he's experienced in his 22-year front-of-house career. So far, he said, it's the smoothest, even though the couple are first-time owners.
"We only comped two things in the first week we were open," he said proudly.
The couple haven't changed the essence of Barkeaters — named for the English translation of "Adirondack," Finestone explained. The many regulars will still find their favorite dishes on the menu, and the $12 burger-and-a-beer special on Wednesdays is still the best deal in town. Décor such as oars, antlers and wooden canoes retains the restaurant's cozy, Adirondack-inspired feel.
But Finestone and Zeidler have their own long-term vision for the restaurant — a Vermont-centric one that they formulated while touring the state as members of the 251 Club. They started hitting all of Vermont's towns and cities during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, following Zeidler's extensive notes on farms, producers and places to eat.
"I think we both started to feel a lot more connected to the state," he said. "And we checked off a lot of restaurants along the way."
Back in the car after each meal, the couple debriefed on things they liked and didn't, from atmosphere to charm to food to service. Now, with a restaurant of their own, they draw inspiration from favorite places such as SoLo Farm & Table in South Londonderry and Broken Hearts Burger and Samurai Soul Food in Fairlee.
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- David Zeidler and Julie Finestone at Barkeaters
Sourcing every component on the menu from local producers isn't feasible for Barkeaters' bottom line — not yet, anyway, Zeidler said. But bringing in ingredients here and there is a step in that direction, such as kimchi from Flack Family Farm in Enosburg Falls for the kimchi ranch dressing with the Korean fried chicken wings. And the Shelburne spot has long celebrated its immediate community on Wednesday nights with that $12 deal on the LaPlatte River Angus Farm smash burger and a beer.
"I've always said, if you get the burger with a Fiddlehead IPA, it's the most local meal you could get," Finestone said. "It's almost one square mile to have dinner."
Now, diners can have a Shelburne-based dessert, too, with Sisters of Anarchy's ice cream sandwiches. Barkeaters' new chef, Peter Robinson, slices the gingerbread-molasses cookie and vanilla ice cream sandwich and plates it on top of silky crème anglaise.
Robinson recently moved to Chittenden County from the Mount Snow area, where he worked at high-end restaurants such as the Hermitage Inn and Cask & Kiln Kitchen. With his help, Finestone and Zeidler have implemented small changes, whether to speed things up on a busy burger night or jazz up Barkeaters' standby dishes.
"There are things that people genuinely love about both working at this restaurant and coming to this restaurant, and we're going to keep those and amplify them," Finestone said, noting that most of the front-of-house staff returned after two and a half months for the reopening. "If it ain't broke..." she added with a laugh.
If the busy dining room on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving was any indication, Barkeaters definitely ain't broke. By 5:30 p.m., the bar was full and the tables nearly so — when folks weren't getting up to chat with friends across the room, that is.
"The first night we opened, it felt like somebody rented the restaurant out for a private party," Zeidler said. "We're very regular-heavy here."
"That's always been Barkeaters," Finestone added. "We have the most regular regulars, and they all know each other."
That kind of atmosphere brings certain expectations, the couple said, especially when it comes to the menu. To keep longtime customers happy during the ownership transition, they've opted to keep old favorites and let Robinson "level them up with his technique," Zeidler said.
- Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
- Korean fried chicken wings
Robinson's tempura-style batter, for example, yields super-crisp fish and chips ($24), and the smoked cheddar fritters ($12) are now as light as air. The menu-staple chicken wings ($12) have a Korean-style twist — breaded, tossed in chile sauce and topped with sesame seeds, scallions, lemon zest and honey drizzle. Big and crunchy, they almost resemble pieces of fried chicken more than a traditional wing appetizer.
Robinson is also experimenting with specials such as ahi tuna-avocado bombs ($18) and pork ragu with housemade gnocchi ($29).
Despite spending his whole career at the front of the house, Zeidler gets credit for the most popular new menu item: the shawarma bowl ($25). The avid home cook brought the idea for the dish of seasoned chicken thighs, veggies and couscous to Robinson, who streamlined its many components.
"It was a nervy experience, because I've never trained professionally [as a cook]," Zeidler said. "But [Robinson] made it something we can actually do."
Judging by the number of people I saw tucking into shawarma bowls on that busy Tuesday, Barkeaters' regulars are embracing the restaurant's fresh start.