Williston's big-box stores beckon buyers with products from plywood to pantyhose to plasma TVs. But there's more to the town than just asphalt and franchise anonymity. East of Maple Tree Place, Route 2 starts feeling more like Vermont. "Historic Williston Village" has a genuine town green -- complete with gazebo -- the Old Brick Church and, beside it, the Old Brick Cafe.
The restaurant opened a year ago, serving breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch in a renovated 1824 farmhouse. A loyal local clientele comes for neighborly conversation over killer chocolate chip cookies, and for a weekend brunch of Eggs Benedict made with Canadian bacon or grilled seitan. In January, owner David Herskowitz upped the ante by adding dinner three nights a week. The menu brings residents a level of culinary sophistication previously unavailable in town. For those who live elsewhere, the satisfying dishes and attractive setting are well worth the drive.
"I wanted a place like the Starry Night Cafe," says Herskowitz. Like the funky and elegant Ferrisburgh restaurant, Old Brick offers local ingredients in creative combinations. Local maple syrup sweetens the butternut squash soup, which is topped with a crispy parsnip chip. Steak arrives surrounded by a demiglaze dotted with bleu cheese from Highgate. Salads such as blood orange with gold beets, and Belgian endives with walnuts and Gorgonzola, are as delicious as they are gorgeous.
Though the vibe is upscale, prices are pitched to encourage more than just special-occasion parties. The generously portioned dinner entrees range from homemade beet ravioli ($13) to a $19.50 seafood cioppino. Appetizers average $7, desserts $6. No liquor license means no wine-list sticker shock. And unlike some BYOB businesses, the Old Brick doesn't charge a corkage fee. "I don't like nickel-and-diming people," Herskowitz says. "I want to give people what they want and have them come often." Plus, "My mom convinced me not to. You have to listen to your mother."
Herskowitz, 44, grew up in South Jersey, where his father built some of the country's first planned residential developments. After college, David Herskowitz joined the family business, building shopping areas for Wendy's, Rite-Aid Drugs and Wawa supermarkets. But within a few years, he decided he didn't like the work -- which was more Taft Corners than Williston Village -- and went to California to study photography instead. A 9-month trip around the world followed; his images of the Taj Mahal and Jerusalem's Western Wall are on display in the cafe.
Back in the States, Herskowitz moved to Philadelphia, where he ran a 70-bed hostel in an old building he'd renovated. It was there he fell in love with a physical therapist from Germany. When her work took her to Vermont, he followed, and worked for a while as a photographer for The Burlington Free Press. After the couple married, he built their hilltop home in Williston. Then he started searching for a new project.
"I needed something to do," Herskowitz explains. "You can only walk in the woods for so many hours a day."
Why a restaurant? "I was looking for a challenge," he says, noting he was also frustrated by having to drive whenever he wanted to eat out.
An opportunity arose when Brent Sloan, then a co-owner of Wine Works in Burlington, moved to Texas. Sloan and his family had been living in the old farmhouse in the center of Williston Village that had once served as the town clerk's office. Herskowitz bought the building, and then invested nine months and "close to half a million dollars" to turn it into a restaurant. He points out the architectural features with obvious pride, and speaks animatedly about his parking-lot permit and exterior sign design.
Acting as his own designer and builder, Herskowitz separated the attached barn, moved it back and constructed an entry area to connect the barn and the house. Although the original front porch still faces the street, visitors enter the restaurant as they would a friend's house: through the back door and past the open kitchen. A patio accommodates outdoor seating in warm weather.
Coffee roasted at Burlington's Uncommon Grounds is available at a self-serve station. A glass case displays mocha almond and peach scones and blueberry and raspberry muffins. A couple of tables have chessboard tops, but they have yet to be used for play, Herskowitz says. Three walls are bright yellow scribbled over with dashes of turquoise and maroon.
The fourth wall is the house's original brick façade, with a door and a preserved casement window opening into the area where long-time residents still remember coming to pay their taxes. Today it offers shelves of books and toys for kids to explore while their parents enjoy lunch or a latte. That way, young families don't disturb diners in the grown-up eating areas at the front of the old house.
Herskowitz had trouble finding help when the restaurant first opened. "I had my hands full," he recalls. "I was doing dishes three to four days a week. I threw my back out. It was too much. Once I got a steady crew, I started thinking about dinner."
Since his own expertise is more entrepreneurial than epicurean, Herskowitz hired two new chefs to make that happen. He defers to them on culinary questions, creating a rare opportunity for Darryl Sawyer and Robert Hunter Prichett, who are just 24 and 23, respectively. Sawyer has been at the Williston venue for about a month. He's a South Burlington native who studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Prichett worked at Vermont Pub & Brewery, Leunig's and Cannon's in Burlington, and at Jeff's Maine Seafood in St. Albans before coming to work for Herskowitz in September.
"Dave is very supportive," Sawyer says of his boss. "We have quite a bit of freedom. We're both pretty young to be chefs."
The fare is still somewhat in flux, he adds. "When you first start a menu, you're going to have to tweak things. Our pork dish changed the sides three times, trying to get it right."
Lots of items don't need improvement. Chicken stuffed with bacon, cheddar and sage is delicious, as is the duck breast. Tangy chicory slaw and barely grilled broccolini sides are perfectly prepared. A risotto with black trumpet mushrooms is a definite keeper, though the trout with which it was paired in a recent special was overpowered by scallop stuffing and sunflower sprouts.
Sauces are a strong suit, from the cognac-shallot pan sauce served with the chicken to the subtle cardamom crème anglaise that comes with the apple tarte tatin. Other notable desserts: dark, molten chocolate souffle, homemade walnut-brittle ice cream, and the cafe's super-soft signature cookie stuffed with chocolate chips.
While Sawyer and his crew concentrate on the kitchen, Herskowitz is a genial host out front, warm and down-to-earth. Having given his community a welcome gathering place, he hopes he's found the recipe for renovating the town's reputation in the wider world. "No one comes to Williston," he says, "to see the Thomas Chittenden statue."