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Beyond Stone Soup

The Granite City gets serious about cuisine


Polish, Greek, Lebanese, Lithuanian, Swiss, Danish, Italian and more: The roster of ethnic groups who set down roots in Barre, Vermont's cultural melting pot, rivals that of Manhattan. In the town's heyday as self-proclaimed "Granite Capital of the World," thousands of skilled craftspeople and artisans emigrated there. They brought along culinary traditions and skills such as pasta making, meat curing and the art of fine pastries. Less than a century ago, Barre blossomed with bakeries and butcher shops.

So why doesn't Barre today look more like Broadway? In recent years, dining establishments and stores in the economically depressed city showed little of their former riotous color. With a few exceptions, pizza joints, sub shops and pubs were the name of the game. The Farmers' Diner, with its focus on local ingredients, didn't make it. Despite the city's proximity to Montpelier and its culinary institute, Barre boasted no fine dining to speak of. "We had and we still do have fast food and convenience food," explains Matt Lash, executive director of the Barre Partnership, "Barre has always been a hardworking town, so convenience is an absolute necessity."

You can't argue with the value of a strong work ethic. Lately, though, some Barre residents have started to pour their labors into the creation of edibles that are fresh and homemade as well as refreshingly unpretentious. That's right — a culinary revolution is afoot in Barre. The past few months alone have seen the opening of three eateries, all within a few blocks on North Main Street: Granite City Brewery, L.A.C.E. Café and the NASCAR-themed Pit Stop Diner. A new java joint, called Espresso Bueno, is slated to open there by the end of the month. In October, El Sol, known for making its Mexican food from scratch, will move from Berlin into the space that used to house Quiznos. These newer joints are following the example set by 1-year-old Delicate Decadence Bakery, which offers everything from coffee drinks and macaroons to fancy cakes at its retail location on Cottage Street.

It was four years ago that Sean and Nora's brought linen tablecloths and filet mignon to town, making that restaurant the granddaddy of Barre's maturing culinary scene. Owner John Mayfield served as chief operating officer of NECI before opting to put his culinary skills to work for himself. Why Barre? Mayfield says it was partly because his family already owned a home there and partly because of the thriving cultural attractions, which include the Opera House, the Vermont Historical Society, the Granite Museum and the gallery at Studio Place Arts (SPA).

At Sean and Nora's, an alliance with the arts goes far beyond feeding folks who come to town for the shows. "We believe in Barre," muses Mayfield. "If you're going to be a successful community-based restaurant, you've got to support the community."

How does he do it? By hanging local art on the walls, donating desserts for SPA events, and participating in Opera House Fundraisers. But the restaurant's biggest coup was feeding a bunch of 7-foot B-ball players for free. That turned out to be a taller order than expected. "I said we'd become the official restaurant of the Frost Heaves," Mayfield relates. "I had it in my head that these weren't the pros, and they wouldn't be that big."

Mayfield admits to having held another misconception: that the onslaught of new cafés and eateries might cut into his sales. "My first thought, as a local business owner who's worked hard, is 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen to my business?'" he explains. Nowadays he insists that "good business is never really hurt by competition . . . it brings more people to Barre, ultimately."

The way Mayfield and other owners see it, their city is transforming itself from a ghetto for grub to a home of excellent edibles, like a form emerging from a granite slab. "This used to be the town you'd come to to go to the hardware store. Now it's a place you come to for arts, for a show at the Barre Opera House and for dining," he enthuses.

Besides the arts scene, Barre has something that makes it extra-attractive to the young folks who own the majority of the new businesses. Unlike nearby Montpelier, it's still pretty cheap. Michelle Lunde, 31, of Delicate Decadence and Ariel Zevon, 30, of L.A.C.E. bought homes in Barre before it crossed their minds to open businesses. Same with Elizabeth Manriquez and Patrick Clark of Espresso Bueno. "We decided to buy a house and couldn't afford Montpelier," Manriquez relates. "I said, no way I was going to live in Barre." But that changed when Clark spotted an affordable home. "As soon as I saw the house, I jumped on the 'Barre's great' bandwagon," says Manriquez.

While bakeries, breweries, diners and coffee shops are all comfortingly familiar edible options, L.A.C.E., which stands for Local Agricultural Community Exchange, is something unique. It's a local-produce-oriented grocery store and café run as a nonprofit educational center. "I kind of had this seedling of an idea for something," explains Zevon, the daughter of classic rocker Warren. "I was living in Barre where there's no grocery downtown . . . and knew that there was local, farm-fresh food to be had, but it wasn't available."

L.A.C.E., which opened on June 10 to much fanfare and a concert by Zevon family friend Jackson Browne, offers a bright children's playroom and a small stage to be used for musical performances or special events in addition to shelves and freezers full of Vermont products. Additional renovations will create a dedicated section for Vermont-crafted non-food items, although handmade soaps and cleaners are already available.

Unlike a cooperative, which divides its customers into members and non-members, L.A.C.E.'s "Vermont Fresh Market" is meant to serve the whole community equally. "One of my goals is to reach across the gamut from gourmet foodie types to low-income families," explains Zevon, "and to make sure that everybody feels welcome and like they can afford it."

Affordability is often a sore spot for stores that specialize in local produce. But because L.A.C.E. is a nonprofit, Zevon can maintain a lower-than-average mark-up on the cured meats, local condiments and dairy products that make up much of its stock. A 16-ounce tub of yogurt from The Vermont Milk Company in Hardwick costs only $1.50. A stick of pepperoni from Barre-based Vermont Smoke & Cure is a reasonable $3.59. But don't go looking for deals on global hits such as Cabot cheeses or Ben & Jerry's — they're not available. "It's giving those smaller producers a fair shot not to have the big brand names next to them," Zevon explains.

While L.A.C.E. offers the fun of novel flavors of jam and myriad types of cheese, the small but artful produce department may be its greatest service to local producing and consuming communities. Even in winter, says Zevon, the produce will come from Vermont farms. On a recent day, the colorful offerings included numerous lettuces, dark purple and pale green kohlrabi, garlic scapes, rainbow chard and tender new red potatoes. But unlike in most stores that cater to localvores, the veggies weren't divided into organic and conventional sections. Explains Zevon, "All of our produce is grown naturally; not all of it is certified organic." The organization didn't want to exclude starting growers who couldn't afford the cost of certification.

Community cooperation matters to Zevon, as it does to the other new business owners. They see strength in interdependence. Michelle Lunde, for instance, sells cookies and pies wholesale to L.A.C.E., desserts to Granite City Brewery and "special occasion cakes" to Sean and Nora's. A benefit of dealing with other up-and-coming business owners is "just being able to talk about everyday difficulties or give each other a little pat on the back," she says. The brewery, owned by brothers Bud and Jason Stevens, supplements its own offerings with a few other Vermont microbrews on tap and buys a selection of items from Barre-based specialty food producers, such as Ramiz's Bakery, El Sol and Cottage Street Pasta.

The newly thriving art scene, which brings in tens of thousands of visitors each year, has joined with the growing number of restaurants and specialty food producers to lead the way toward a better-tasting Barre. Mayfield speculates, "I think it's just beginning . . . There will be a mixture of arts, services and industry that will all mutually support one another and make Barre a vital city. Honestly, I think Barre's best days are yet to come."