- Molly Zapp
- From left: Handlebar Mustachio, Grand Guy and owner Lee Kinsey of Blackbird Bistro
It's common enough for carpenters to discover surprises when they respond to a client's call — rotted support beams, perhaps, or a family of raccoons in the crawl space. But when she went to work on a friend's property, carpenter-bartender Lee Kinsey found something less common: a home for the restaurant she had dreamed of.
It was November 2018, and Kinsey's friend of 15 years, Jessie Sedore, had torn out some cabinets at her bed-and-breakfast in Craftsbury, housed in the 19th-century farmhouse where Sedore had grown up. While Kinsey repaired the walls, the two got to talking.
Sedore was interested in doing something different with the space, which she owns with her two sisters. Kinsey was looking for a brick-and-mortar home in Craftsbury for her mobile bar, Blackbird Bar Catering. The two had worked together at Claire's Restaurant & Bar in Hardwick; quickly, an idea was born.
"By that night, our significant others were both there, walking through the space and sharing our thoughts," Kinsey says. "I love this area, and I knew that it was in the center of enough that it would be kind of a hub."
A year later, on Black Friday 2019, Blackbird Bistro opened its doors, becoming the only full-service restaurant in Craftsbury.
Kinsey, 42, has a strong but easeful presence and a warm, butch charm. She bartended at Vermont Pub & Brewery in the '90s, then bartended and did landscape construction in Australia and New Zealand. In 2008, she returned to the Northeast Kingdom, where she worked at Claire's, built her house on family land and started Blackbird Bar Catering in 2012.
Kinsey put the carpentry and plumbing skills she'd learned from her father, Earl Kinsey, to serious use as she transformed the Craftsbury space into a restaurant. Standing behind the bar she built, she points to an area across the room that was a small bathroom a year ago. She tore it out, rerouted the plumbing to other bathrooms and turned the area into a booth table.
That cozy "mob booth" is now frequented by the Sedore sisters' parents, who live just up the hill. Kinsey says that locals have been supportive of Blackbird Bistro, including the 160 who signed up for memberships that provided her with capital in the restaurant's infancy.
As a ninth-generation Craftsburian, Kinsey says she understood the need to appeal to a varied clientele. Haute cuisine would dictate a price point too risky to draw locals. So she developed a menu of simple comfort food with a local flair: Burgers, sandwiches and various inventive grilled cheeses dominate the menu.
Kinsey also wanted to appeal to tourists from the nearby Craftsbury Outdoor Center who might not be accustomed to such NEK realities as limited food options, spotty cellphone reception and the absence of ride services to drive them home safely after partying. Her inventive mixed drinks, which are Blackbird's focus, could be at home in a hip cocktail bar in Brooklyn or Montréal.
As the wind whipped snow across the dark fields of Craftsbury, a friend and I began our meal with sweet potato fries, served with honey mustard. My friend raved about her cocktail, the Excuse Me, Sir! ($11). Created by bartender Melissa Fortuna, who has worked at Blackbird since the mobile days, it starts with gin infused with balsam gathered from Kinsey's homestead, mixed with local maple syrup, lime and tonic. For my part, I sipped on a pleasing blend of loose-leaf herbal chai and contemplated the downside of my two-week-old commitment to a Dry January.
Blackbird's food did exactly what it was intended to do: comfort and satisfy. The fried chicken sandwich ($14) features deep-fried chicken breast from Vermont Country Meats drizzled with honey, plus crunchy house pickles and aioli. All of the sandwiches come with a choice of regular fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings or a house kale Caesar. Judiciously dressed, the Caesar was fresh and generously portioned.
Served on grilled marbled rye, the Beef & Blue toastie ($13) offered McKenzie Natural Artisan Deli pastrami, a mild horseradish mayo, and melted Bayley Hazen Blue and fontina cheeses. I got the dense and melty sandwich with a side of fries, which were crispy and tasted freshly fried. North Country Cakes makes Blackbird's desserts; we devoured the flourless chocolate cake, served simply with fresh whipped cream.
Kinsey says Blackbird's cheeses come from Jasper Hill Farm, Cabot and Sweet Rowen Farmstead. She sources many of her meats from Vermont and the region, including beef from East Hardwick's Snug Valley Farm. A field across the road from Blackbird, farmed by Pete's Greens, supplies some produce.
Kinsey has known many of these producers for years or even since childhood, and some of them frequent Blackbird. While my friend and I dined, in walked Paul Lisai of Sweet Rowen, who provides the cheese curds for the poutine.
The community vibe was palpable; liberated by spotty cell service, people at Blackbird tend to strike up conversations with old friends and strangers instead of retreating to their screens. Kinsey calls it "pretty sweet."
Although the food is solid, Blackbird's forte is drinks. When I interviewed Kinsey a few days after our meal, journalistic integrity moved me temporarily to suspend Dry January in favor of some day drinking.
The thoroughly respectable wine list includes natural French and Italian wines from California-based importer Kermit Lynch, starting at $9 a glass. Most of the bistro's signature cocktails have at least one housemade ingredient.
I tried the Grand Guy ($10), created in honor of the Sedore sisters' recently passed grandfather, which features rye, Gran Gala orange liqueur and a housemade cinnamon bark simple syrup. Warming and bright, it's the liquid equivalent of sitting next to a fireplace.
To make Lime in da Coconut, a riff on the Hemingway daiquiri, Kinsey toasts coconut flakes and uses them to make a simple syrup. She adds aged rum, Luxardo Maraschino, grapefruit and fresh lime juices to create an easy, beachy sipper. For the Handlebar Mustachio, she purées whole roasted pistachios to create a syrupy nut milk, which she combines with vodka, pineapple and nutmeg and serves in a pineapple-shaped tiki glass.
Kinsey makes her simple syrups about half as sweet as most, so at Blackbird, that tiki glass does not portend an imminent sugar rush. She says her drinks have converted many who are unaccustomed to elaborate cocktails.
"We have dairy farmers come into the bar with their dirty boots — the whole place smells like cow poop — and they drink Handlebar Mustaschios," she says. "I love it."
Come late spring, Kinsey hopes the owners of those dirty boots will want to eat and drink outside, perhaps while listening to live music. She plans to expand the restaurant's patio by building a roof and an outdoor bar. Blackbird occupies the same building as Whetstone Wellness, run by the Sedore sisters, which has a hot tub and sauna, so Kinsey intends to offer spa-side drink and food service — after she relocates the sauna outside, of course.
"I've left my tools in the basement," she says, smiling.