There’s a certain pleasure in arriving at a usual haunt and having the server pour your favorite libation without a word. But sometimes it’s fun to swing by a place where everybody doesn’t know your name.
Suddenly, even just a few minutes from home, possibilities seem to burgeon: You might make friends with a stranger, try a drink you’ve never heard of before or feel brave enough to wow the crowd with a spot-on karaoke rendition. The quirkier the place, the more fun is likely to be in store.
To offer you some options, a couple of Seven Days staffers volunteered to visit a few truly unusual bars. Staff writer Andy Bromage got to sample beers — and learn about the mysteries of trout fishing — at the Blackback Pub & Flyshop in Waterbury.
Meanwhile, food editor Suzanne Podhaizer stopped at Waitsfield’s Big Picture Theater and Café, the state’s only combination movie theater, bar, restaurant, flea market, community gathering space and doughnut shop. Then she headed to the only bar in Middlesex, located in Nutty Steph’s granola and chocolate shop, for some uncommon edibles.
Though food writer Alice Levitt toured some other curiosities around the state, we were struck by the coincidence of locating three such colorful spots in Washington County. Was it just chance? Or do central Vermonters know how to have an especially good time?
When he was in college, Ricky Binet would go to keg parties armed with a six-pack of fine English ale. While his buddies swilled Natty Light out of plastic cups, he would pour six bottles of Fuller’s into a pitcher and drink that instead.
Binet doesn’t suffer bad beers, and it shows at the watering hole he now owns in downtown Waterbury, the Blackback Pub & Flyshop. His nine taps feature a rotating selection of some of the world’s best small-batch beers, from Old Rasputin’s Russian Imperial Stout by California’s North Coast Brewing Co. to the almost wine-flavored Dark Woods by Nantucket’s Cisco Brewers.
But, on a sweltering day last week, the main attraction was three handcrafted India pale ales by local brewer Shaun Hill, whose Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro won two golds and one silver at the biennial World Beer Cup in Chicago this year.
The single-hop Sorachi Ace IPA and its cousin, the Citra IPA, have been generating buzz, Binet says. But the crowd favorite — the one beer the Blackback never rotates out if Binet can help it — is the Edward IPA, a bitter, almost lemony ale named after the brewer’s grandfather.
“The Vermont Legislature should convene and declare this the official Vermont state beer,” Binet says, dead seriously.
Hard-to-find draft beer isn’t the only thing that sets the Blackback apart. As its name suggests, the pub doubles as a fly shop — as in fly-fishing — and sells lures, rods and reels. Binet is a fly-fishing nut who moonlights as a fishing guide on the Lamoille, White and Clyde rivers. He would normally fly-fish 100 days a year, he says, but that changed recently with the opening of the bar and the birth of his baby boy. Now, Binet says he’s “bar bound and baby bound.”
Flies with names such as Tung Prince and Swisher’s Rub-a-Dub sit in glass-topped boxes on the windowsill behind the bar stools and sell for $2 apiece. New Hardy rods and reels — and vintage bamboo rods made by Orvis and South Bend — rest on the wooden beams above the bar. Binet says fishing equipment sales are steady; he’s sold a few rods and guesses he sells a half-dozen flies per week. For anyone who buys a rod, Binet throws in free fly line, casting lessons and a guided fishing trip.
“I basically do a boot camp,” he says.
A Vermont Law School graduate, Binet worked for years as a lawyer, first as a Bennington County prosecutor and later doing criminal defense work. He grew tired of the job, he says, and finally decided to hang up the suit in favor of his barkeep’s uniform: shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps.
“I love beer, love bartending and didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore,” he says.
So Binet opened the Blackback this past February in a Main Street storefront last occupied by a yarn store — just across from one of Vermont’s most celebrated brewpubs, The Alchemist. “Blackback” is a nickname for the brook trout.
His ale education came from home brewing in college and tasting every beer he could in the years that followed. He’s tended bar in Florida, England and Vermont.
Don’t drink beer? Binet is also proud of his Scotch whiskey selection. He’s got 16 single malts on hand, including his favorites: Aberlour a’bunadh, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Laphroaig Quarter Cask.
“If there’s someone in the state that has better whiskey than me, I’d like to see it,” he says.
Blackback Pub isn’t a dive, but you do step down from street level to get inside — a drop that seems to catch many patrons off guard despite a prominently posted sign on the door. Inside, the walls are sponge-washed Kelly green and decorated with vintage tin beer trays, stuffed fish and paintings of fish. Copies of Draft magazine are fanned out on the bar, and a corner chalkboard lists the specialty ales on tap that day.
Everything about the Blackback is intimate. The L-shaped bar seats no more than a dozen, and no conversation or interaction is really private. You can go there to chat with a friend, but inevitably the other barflies, and Binet himself, will join the chorus. And that’s part of the charm.
On our first visit in February, we had front-row seats to the spectacle of a man and woman at the bar whose flirtation gradually gave way to a full-on make-out session, still on their barstools. Nobody else seemed to pay much mind.
Quality beverages are the focus at Blackback. While Binet may seem boastful about the superiority of his beer and Scotch selection, he says his customers are just as snobbish.
“You get really arrogant beer geeks who come in here and say, ‘I don’t even want to see a Budweiser tap. I don’t even want to see a High Life tap,’” he says. “If I have a Bud Light tap in here, it’s going to be on the toilet flush.”
— Andy Bromage
Getting the Big Picture
Vermont doesn’t have many movie theaters where you can sip a cocktail or a glass of wine. And there’s only one place that lets you drink and fork up food while you watch, say, Despicable Me: the Big Picture Theater and Café in Waitsfield. It also serves as an art gallery, hosts a monthly flea market and offers plenty of other special events.
Even on a weekday afternoon, the mint-and-cream-colored dining room is well populated with families hungry for localvore burgers and the venue’s famed miniature maple doughnuts. Adults can sample a glass of vanilla Stolichnaya vodka mixed with maple syrup and seltzer served in a glass that resembles a cowboy boot. Other specialty drinks of the day include a classic mojito, “fizzy vodka lemonade” and blood-orange mimosa.
The maple-laced drink may be a bit sweet for some tastes, but it’s easy to counterbalance with, say, a ham sandwich featuring homemade honey-oat bread, thick slices of Vermont ham and bacon, and ripe avocado. Many of the kitchen’s high-quality, organic ingredients come from Big Picture’s own nearby Small Step Farm.
At the bar, which includes a classic soda fountain, one can find all the usual liquors and liqueurs, as well as Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout, Switchback and PBR on tap.
As she foams up lattes and makes a mimosa, staffer Tammy Cote talks about some of the many ways in which Big Picture owners Claudia Becker and Eugene Jarecki support the Mad River Valley community. “We’re open seven days a week, and we offer live music, political forums and playgroups during the school year,” she says.
There’s a popular karaoke night, too, and a monthly jazz brunch. Becker “donates the space to a lot of community groups” for their gatherings, Cote notes. Coming this fall: high-definition live broadcasts of performances by the Metropolitan Opera.
A tour of the two theaters makes it clear why Big Picture is a popular gathering spot. The “blue room,” where most of the movies are shown, has plenty of comfy seating and a retro feel. The “red room” has fewer seats, but the hardwood floor can be set up with tables and chairs or cleared for a dance party. The back rows of both theaters hold love seats with little tables for drinks and snacks.
State Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) is a regular customer. She notes that the Big Picture is that rare establishment where she and her children can sit together at the bar — they sip freshly made sodas or eat a scoop of ice cream, while she has a glass of wine. When the kids get bored, there’s a playground and selection of board games.
In short, says Grad, “[The Big Picture] is really an oasis of community.”
— Suzanne Podhaizer
It’s already 5 p.m., and the bacon chef hasn’t yet made an appearance.
Jaquelyn Rieke, owner of Nutty Steph’s granola and chocolate shop, seems unfazed. With a pink and gold chef toque bobbing on her head, she peeks outside to see if she can locate her frying expert.
Every Thursday evening, Rieke’s emporium morphs into a bar. A bar that specializes in bacon. And chocolate.
A couple of minutes later, with the aroma of smoked meat drifting through the room, Rieke returns to pour glasses of Japanese Hitachino ale for me and regular customer Stephen Morabito of Middlesex, who perches on a cushy stool at the corner of the bar.
What brings Morabito back to Nutty Steph’s? “It’s the whole experience, the music, the food, everything,” he says. Asked if I can quote him, he remarks thoughtfully: “You can quote me on anything I say before I’ve had two beers.”
In the corner, a pair of fiftysomething women pop quarters in an old-fashioned arcade game, which offers a choice of Pac-Man or alien-shoot-’em-up Galaga. They choose the former and take turns getting gobbled up by ghosts. Before they leave, they stock up on chocolate confections.
Behind the bar, Rieke’s next task is peeling cloves of garlic, which will be grilled and served with cups of dark chocolate for dipping. Mint, plucked from a patch out back, is muddled with housemade orange syrup and turned into a classy soda.
Until Rieke got a liquor license this June, the towns of Middlesex and Moretown were effectively dry. The lack of other public drinking establishments is one reason some 30 to 40 patrons come through the tiny shop every Thursday evening. But the inventive snacks and piano music don’t hurt.
Neither does free chocolate tasting. Glass jars filled with dark-brown buttons of high-end stuff — Valrhona, Schokinag, El Rey — line the bar, organized from lightest to darkest. When one first-timer asks if the chocolate bits are for sampling, Rieke replies seriously: “No, they’re just for torturing.” Then she breaks into a grin.
With the goal of determining their own chocolate preferences — from creamy white to rich and super-dark — customers can select the ones they want to sample. Rieke doles them out with instructions that sound positively erotic.
“If you suck on this and let it get warm in your mouth, it will release all of these flavors,” she explains of one particularly complex variety. “The longer you keep it in your mouth, the more you get out of it.”
It’s nearly as fun listening to customers describing how they want their bacon. When I order the $7 “flight,” which includes strips from Hormel, Vermont Smoke and Cure, and nearby Tangletown Farm, I ask for it crisp, but not so crisp that the fat won’t wiggle.
Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and her husband, Alec Brecher, who are visiting the bar for the first time, want their bacon to “defy gravity.” They’d like it “not so limp that it bends, but with a little bit of play.”
After consulting with the bacon chef, Rieke returns with a drawing that illustrates her understanding of the couple’s preferred level of doneness. She got it right.
How have Bolger and Brecher ended up at Nutty Steph’s on this sunny Thursday evening? They heard rumors about beer milkshakes — best made with chocolate stout, Rieke says — and wanted to give one a try. Once they were here, the wacky snacks sound too good to resist.
I’m in the same boat. Alongside my bacon, I ask for Rieke’s full selection of foods you can (though usually don’t) dip in chocolate: basil, cheddar cheese, Red Hen bread, fresh berries, dried pineapple, garlic and popcorn. The cheddar, the pineapple and, surprisingly, the basil turn out to be my favorites. A hint of chocolate rounds out the herb’s bitter chlorophyll notes, making the verdant leaves a surprising treat.
The garlic, which hasn’t been on the grill long enough to cook through, is a bit of a shock. The nearly raw clove’s spiciness overpowers the chocolate, leaving me reluctant to talk to strangers, but less worried about the odd vampire.
At 7 p.m., as the piano music begins, Rieke looks around her little domain with obvious pleasure. About 10 people are currently in evidence, and all of us have drinks — including glasses of wine, Belgian-style beers and homemade sodas — paired with strips of smoky meat.
“I like it when everybody has bacon,” the granola maker, chocolatier and bartender says with a laugh.
— Suzanne Podhaizer