Barre as dining destination? That seemed unlikely until 2012, when Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen began changing the city's reputation as a culinary desert. Now, in recent months, a new wave of tasty businesses have followed Cornerstone's lead and set up shop in the Granite City.
On Main Street, Derby native Dustin Smith opened Morse Block Deli across from the courthouse in late May, two doors up from Espresso Bueno. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he runs his shop on a locavore model. With produce from Bear Roots Farm in South Barre, and Myer's Bagel Bakery bagels on the way, Smith is aiming for maximum freshness. "We're really trying to have a premium product at a reasonable price," he says.
Breakfast sandwiches with local eggs and meats go for $3, and coffee from Speeder & Earl's in Burlington is $1.50 a cup, while signature sandwiches — on Manghis' Bread from Montpelier — fall in the $7 to $8 range for a standard-size option or half sub. Those sandwiches, stuffed with Boar's Head meats, include a variation on the classic roast-beef-and-cheddar with horseradish mayo, a turkey-provolone-cranberry concoction and a towering pastrami decker on rye called the Undertaker. Smith also prepares salads, and stocks cookies and other sweets from Maureen Morey, who opened Maureen's Sweet Treats just down the block in February.
While Smith brings extensive training to the table, Morey serves a mom-and-pop menu. "I grew up in a household full of bakers and great cooks," she says. "I learned from my mom, who learned from her mom."
Morey's repertoire includes 60 different cupcakes in fun but homey flavors such as banana cream, Andes mint, strawberry cheesecake and Boston crème, all crowned with handmade buttercream frosting that the baker spent two years perfecting. "[The buttercream] is kind of my baby," she says. And she's not shy about pie — nine-inchers cost a mere $15 — cream pies or fruity confections in traditional styles.
Maureen's Sweet Treats also stocks candy and ice cream — today, Dippin' Dots make their central-Vermont debut there. For customers willing to spend $15 or more, Maureen's delivers to Barre, Berlin and Montpelier.
In late July, Chris Conti opened a new wine bar inside her Depot Square sweet shop, Ellie & Shirl's Simply Delicious. Conti says the idea grew from her gift-basket business. A request for a wine basket inspired her to stock wine at the shop and hold in-store tastings, and, eventually, to adopt a new business model.
"I was doing these wine tastings, and I found I was selling a lot of wine," Conti says. "Then I looked at the numbers and realized I was really selling a lot of wine." So she built a 25-seat bar into the boutique (with covered outdoor seating on the deck) and offers eight wines by the glass, available in flights, and six additional bottles, all curated with both taste and value in mind.
With the bar came snacks; customers can sip those flights paired with truffles from Birnn Chocolates of Vermont or local cheese and charcuterie. For Conti, it's all about making a friendly place for after-work relaxation. "People come in and they sit down and they don't know anybody; by the time they leave, everybody's friends," she says. "And that's the environment I wanted to create."