- James Buck
- To-go cocktail, wings, burger and onion dip at Deep City
In a given month, we typically see one or two new restaurants open in Vermont. These past months have been no different, except that everything is different.
As dining rooms shuttered in compliance with Gov. Phil Scott's March 17 order and food businesses weighed the realities of adapting to takeout and delivery service, two new restaurants were in the midst of opening for the very first time. After months — or years — of dreaming, developing concepts, planning menus, building out dining rooms and prepping for health inspections, their owners had to adjust — fast.
Now, in the wake of Scott's May 20 announcement allowing restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining — with strict guidelines — these newcomers are adapting once again, trying to prove even a global pandemic can't stop their momentum.
Off the Deep End
Deep City, 112 Lake Street, Burlington, 800-1454
The weekend of March 14 marked the culmination of months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in Deep City. Owned by Foam Brewers, the new restaurant is located at the opposite end of the Burlington waterfront building where the brewery opened in 2016.
The opening was set for Thursday, March 19. The preceding weekend, the brick-walled dining room, anchored by a blond wood bar, hosted several successful soft-opening events.
Led by executive chef Christina Scifo, the kitchen churned out bubbling skillets of provoleta, which is melty cheese topped with an herby citrus sauce; wood-grilled local pork chops with bacon-braised kale and red pepper romesco sauce; and piles of poutine fries soaked with short-rib gravy or a vegan mushroom version.
"I've opened a lot of restaurants, and I felt very confident. We were ready to go," Scifo, 40, recalled last week. "Then it was just, like, a screeching halt."
Sitting, well spaced, on the brewery's back patio, Scifo and Jon Farmer, 28, one of five Foam business partners, reflected on the 10 weeks since the pandemic ended in-person dining at Vermont restaurants.
"It feels like 10 years ago," Scifo said.
Even before the mandate, the team had reluctantly concluded that they couldn't open their dining room as planned. They quickly pivoted to takeout and delivery.
It was not an ideal way to introduce a new restaurant to the community. Dishes meant to be served freshly prepared on plates don't always transition well to takeout. "We were worried," Scifo said. "We had to stay alive and not compromise who we are."
The 2006 New England Culinary Institute graduate and South Florida native moved back to Vermont last summer after five years working in New York City, where her positions included executive chef at Maxwell's Chophouse. She has seen a lot over her career, but this was a brand-new challenge.
Deep City's takeout menu features its excellent local beef burger with crispy shallots and housemade pickles on a brioche bun. Chicken sandwiches include fried, jerk, and "hot and blue" — the last comes dressed with housemade hot sauce and Vermont blue cheese. Scifo's signature ranch-and-romaine salad bursts with flavor and crunch, due to a masterful mix with pickled shallots and pumpkin-seed croutons. A spicy paloma cocktail came with a sophisticated garnish of dehydrated grapefruit slice.
Whatever you order, I recommend adding a ramekin of crunchy chili oil, Scifo's version of chili crisp, the current foodie condiment darling.
But that provoleta didn't translate so well to takeout, Scifo said: "By the time you get it home, it's a congealed piece of cheese." Initially, she also kept poutine off the takeout menu, worried it would become soggy in transit. But customers begged for it.
"This was never the way we wanted to present our food," Farmer said, seconding Scifo. But, with even Foam's rainy-day fund spent on the restaurant project, Deep City needed to generate cash flow.
"We didn't have a choice," Farmer said. Plus, the partners felt responsible for their staff: "We look at this very much as a family," he added.
While takeout doesn't employ as many people as a full-service restaurant, it has allowed Deep City to keep a few on payroll. Recently, steady business and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan enabled the owners to rehire some staff.
For now, the dining room is the staging area: barstools pushed to the side, china plates stacked on a wooden banquette. "So we can dream about when we can use them again," Scifo said.
With outdoor dining now possible, Deep City is tiptoeing closer to that day.
Foam's front and back patios will open on Wednesday, May 27, for table service of beer, wine, cocktails and a modified version of Deep City's takeout menu.
Though it was tempting to open for Memorial Day, Farmer said, restaurants didn't get enough notice from the state. "It's a huge bummer to miss a beautiful holiday weekend," he said, "but we really want to make sure we're doing everything right."
Scifo will gradually bring back more original menu items, depending on the availability of local ingredients, but food will be served on compostable dishware.
The upside of the situation, if there is one, has been "the insane amount of support," said Farmer.
"We're even starting to get to know our regulars through their takeout orders," Scifo added.
Farmer said, "I can't wait to have them all here in person."
The Drake Bar and Kitchen, 30 South Main Street, St. Albans, 528-5991
- James Buck
- Waldorf salad, hand-cut French fries and tacos from the Drake Bar and Kitchen
Eben and Tessa Hill envision the Drake Bar and Kitchen filling a farm-to-table niche in downtown St. Albans. Dressed up or down, their customers will tuck into Negronis and wild-crafted mocktails, plates of housemade gnocchi with seasonal produce or duck-fat-gravy poutine.
The couple wants to offer their customers an adventure when they step into the Drake. They'll find wildlife prints by local artists on the walls and selfie-inviting jungle wallpaper in the bathroom; the tacos will be topped with foraged edible flowers. The vibe might be better called nature-to-table.
Many details remain theoretical, though. When the Hills opened the Drake on May 5 — just a week and a half after their pre-pandemic target — they introduced a menu of simple, familiar dishes that work well for takeout.
"The mind frame for success in opening a restaurant always has to be a flexible one," Tessa said, sitting outside the restaurant on a beautiful May day. "We were prepared to always have option A, option B, C, D and E. But our business plan was absolutely flipped on its head."
That plan had involved opening with dine-in service, then slowly adding takeout, catering and an ambitious bar program. Instead, the Hills are boxing up Waldorf salads, crispy fries, pulled pork sandwiches, burgers and tacos to go. Their first "dine-in" customers are dining outside, at two appropriately spaced tables on the sidewalk.
"I would have been much more adventurous," Eben said, referring to his original menu plan. "Right now, it's gotta be familiar, it's gotta be right every time, and they've gotta see us wearing gloves, wearing masks."
"The phase we're in right now is gaining trust," Tessa added. "First, we have to let people know we're here. Then we have to let them know they're going to be safe eating our food and coming into our environment. Then we get to share the exciting things that we're experimenting with and rolling out."
While the situation is far from ideal, the restaurant's point of growth ended up being well timed. In mid-March, the Hills had neither a perishable inventory nor a staff, so they weren't burdened by payroll or worries about wasting food.
Now they can hire as they get busier and expand their offerings — though, they noted, it hasn't been easy to find kitchen staff when laid-off workers have extra unemployment benefits available.
"We really need experienced cooks," Eben said. "Unemployment is going to stay this way for a couple of months, so getting staff in here is going to be one of our biggest challenges."
The restaurant's roomy, windowed kitchen could be a draw. The bright space is as large as the dining room. Finding an affordable space this size is a perk of doing business in St. Albans, the couple said.
"We feel so lucky that we chose the town of St. Albans," Tessa said. "This is such a business-friendly community, and we've found that a lot of our first customers have been other local business owners."
That sense of collaboration has created a thriving dining scene in the town, and the Hills are eager to support it: They've joined the newly formed Vermont Hospitality Coalition, posting actively in #savetherestaurants, and have served meals at the local hospital through the Frontline Foods program.
"There's a risk involved, and it's definitely harder to survive than it was prior to COVID," Eben acknowledged of the restaurant business. "But we're going to survive."
"We are in the middle of our metamorphosis," Tessa said. "The Drake is a functional caterpillar right now, and it's going to be an amazing butterfly."