- Charlotte Dworshak
- Penny Cluse Café
Pennies don't count for much these days, but Penny Cluse Café in downtown Burlington counts for a lot. When married co-owners Charles Reeves and Holly Cluse announced the upcoming closure of the breakfast and lunch restaurant they opened in 1998, legions of customers and employees, past and present, poured their gratitude — and grief — into social media posts and emails and trekked to Penny for one last meal.
Reeves and Cluse have revealed only that they will close between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One day soon, we'll wake up and there will be no more slabs of warm banana bread slathered with maple-walnut cream cheese; crunchy home fries blanketed with melted cheese and fresh salsa; flaky buttermilk biscuits drenched in creamy herb gravy; or huevos verdes served with a soul-warming puddle of black beans.
Like the most beloved restaurants, Penny Cluse delivered far more than thick, green-rimmed plates and bowls filled with unfussy, always satisfying food. The warm, humble restaurant became a symbol of Burlington. Its team, which included longtime kitchen manager Maura O'Sullivan and floor manager Anastasia Evans, worked smoothly together to welcome and nourish every guest, from regulars to movie stars to a U.S. vice president, now president.
From its start, Penny Cluse has always been one of a kind, a very personal enterprise, named for Cluse and her childhood dog, Penny. "Penny Cluse was unique in all the world," Reeves said. "This was our restaurant."
It was their restaurant — but the unique magic of Penny Cluse is that it became our restaurant, too.
Seven Days asked a few notable fans with different perspectives to share what Penny Cluse meant to them in words and images.
- Charlotte Dworshak
Artist, 31, Burlington
From 2008 to 2020, my main source of income was working in restaurants. If you have ever worked in the industry, you have dealt with your fair share of shit from people — from customers to your fellow employees to the owners. The most shocking part about my job at Penny Cluse was that customers respected us; my coworkers were dreamy as hell; and Charles, Holly and Maura wanted us to succeed and took care of us in a way I had never experienced.
From when I was a kid ordering the breakfast combo with French toast, to my days working there, to the restaurant becoming a cherished and delicious part of my grown-up Burlington life, there will never be another Penny Cluse. We are so lucky to have had it for as long as we did.
Special times, guests here
And on some Fridays just 'cuz
Cluse always perfect.
Mayor Miro Weinberger, 52, and Stacy Weinberger, 51, Burlington
Founder and co-owner of Higher Ground, 47, Burlington
Every town needs a truly exceptional breakfast spot, a place that takes the first meal of the day and elevates it to an art form. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they help define the identity of a place — the first recommendation when someone hears you're visiting that town.
For me, that was Penny Cluse. I was one of their very first customers and immediately became a regular. My love for the restaurant was rooted in the food, of course. It's a rare restaurant where you struggle with your order every time because you love everything on the menu. But our love was equally balanced by the personalities, the attention to detail and the never-ending search for perfection.
Penny Cluse is where Anaïs Mitchell and I had countless lunches to manifest the Hadestown tour of Vermont in 2007. It was where I learned, six years earlier, that the World Trade Center had been attacked. It is where I send every band in town looking to fuel up before hitting the road. When those artists talk to their friends about Burlington, they always mention Penny Cluse.
As Anthony Bourdain said, "What nicer thing can you do for somebody than make them breakfast?"
Freelance editor and former executive editor of cookbooks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 72, Ferrisburgh
When visiting food personalities asked, "Where should we eat in Burlington?" I had one answer. Other cities had their pizza joints, Italian restaurants, sushi bars and Vietnamese places. They did not have Penny Cluse. Penny Cluse was the purest possible representation of Burlington, with its eclectic mix of dishes: tofu scramble, Bucket-o-Spuds, and garlicky kale and eggs.
Penny Cluse was not only my favorite restaurant in Vermont, but I could also recommend it without a qualm to cookbook authors and food editors from larger, more cosmopolitan cities. Penny Cluse never had an off day, maintaining a level of consistency other restaurateurs would kill for. And it did so casually, as if it were impossible to make bad food. Eating there always involved several minutes of agonizing indecision, as if you were deciding your last meal: Andouille sausage with corn bread? Biscuits & Gravy? Huevos rancheros?
In other cities, food people can slip into the most sought-after restaurant by knowing the chef, or the chef's literary agent, or a prominent restaurant reviewer. Not at Penny Cluse. In the People's Republic, the 40-plus minute lines were just part of the deal. You inched forward, past the photo of the myopic-looking dog, up to the imperturbable host, and then you were in, nodding to old friends and breathing a sigh of relief that everything was the same, still the same.
Dear Penny Cluse,
"Penny Cluse Forever!"
- Abby Manock
- "Penny Cluse Forever!"
Thank you for immediately recognizing that I was never going to be a good waitress, allowing me to instead develop the infamous "Ms. Pac-Man Model for Super Bussing" and spend countless hours alone in your windowless bathrooms painting and repainting the walls eight times. I am insanely honored that Cup Guy became your mascot, and my handwriting, your font. Thanks for being my home away from home, my patron and my biggest fan.
— Abby Manock, artist/prop maker/scenic painter/set stylist, 45, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Artist, 50, Colchester
- Sarah Ryan
- Some of Penny Cluse Café's signature ingredients
I worked at Penny Cluse at the beginning, from 1998 to 2004 as a cook and kitchen manager. We all were so dedicated to the restaurant. We were a family of people that grew up together and supported each other.
As an artist, I was inspired to contribute to the art and gallery space that Holly had fostered there. I made the avocado and orange pieces in the front windows, as well as the egg panel. I had many shows at the restaurant selling these pieces and also worked on signage, menu graphics and the mural in front of the cooking line.
The best thing Penny Cluse did was make everything from scratch with commitment and love. It upped the standards for the food scene. It was fresh food made by hand by people who were excited to make it and proud to serve it.
Charles understood the importance of the title chef-owner, and that is the reason the heart of the restaurant has sustained and provided a communal place that people have grown to love and depend on for nourishment. Pair that with Holly's art background and ability to establish a dialogue with the local creative community, and you have a recipe for success.
Founder-owner, the Skinny Pancake, 41, Stowe
When I arrived in town in 2003, Penny Cluse was firmly established as the best brunch in Burlington. In those early years, I worked the late-night shift at our Skinny Pancake cart until the bars closed. In the morning, my greatest indulgence was to roll over to Penny Cluse with the crumpled wad of tips from the night before to enjoy their signature banana bread and maple-walnut cream cheese followed by the Bucket-o-Spuds.
I have always been impressed with the integrity Charles and Holly demonstrated in their approach to business. From their food quality, to their reputation as employers, to their choice to stick with one shop, to their decision to close rather than sell, the through line of integrity is so clear. Folks in the industry regularly ask me about scaling up. I often point to Penny Cluse and suggest they consider the many benefits of the alternative.
Penny Cluse has made such a steadfast, humble, heart-centered cultural contribution to Burlington. Folks take for granted that an institution like that is here to stay. But in the end, what makes a restaurant precious is in fact that it is human-powered, which means it is finite, just like us.
When I'm at Penny Cluse, I feel happy and grateful.
Tofu scram with salsa ranchera and mango-coconut smoothie
- Ada Weinberger
- Tofu scram with salsa ranchera and mango-coconut smoothie
Ada Weinberger, 9, Burlington
Musician, 38, Brookfield
I think I've had about as many first dates at the Penny Cluse bar as I have had breakups. I've rolled in for a Bucket-o-Spuds after a night of too much "fun" and, as of recently, watched my daughter stuff her face with those very same spuds. Penny Cluse didn't just make good food, they made soul food — and soul is something you just can't replace. How lucky we've all been to enjoy it for this long.
Deputy publisher and co-owner, Seven Days, 47, Winooski
Where were you on January 1, 2000? I spent that morning bussing tables at Penny Cluse. I'd signed up for the shift because everyone was freaking out about a Y2K apocalypse. At Penny Cluse, at least I knew they'd have food.
Bussing there was one of many part-time jobs that sustained me during my early twenties while I pursued a writing career. Waiting tables paid more, but it required mental energy, and I needed mine. I also relished the physicality of the job. On busy weekend mornings, I cleared table after table and lugged heavy tubs full of dishes down the stairs to the kitchen at a brisk, unrelenting pace.
Many of my coworkers were also writers or artists. It was a creative crew. At some point, we organized a Penny Cluse writers' reading at Rhombus Gallery on College Street (RIP). Penny Cluse probably appealed to so many of us because Charles and Holly paid us well — and fed us well at the end of our shift, too. A veggie Reuben with a side of orzo salad was the best meal I was going to have on any given day, guaranteed.
I left after a few months but never stopped eating there. It's one of the last places where I can still catch a glimpse of that era of my life. At least I'll always have my turn-of-the-millennium story.
The last visit
Meet me at Penny Cluse for a bottomless cup.
We'll stand in line reading the newspaper,
people-watching in the crowded hall. Who's here?
An ex, bussing tables. A former neighbor,
seated by the window—looks like they're on a date.
Everyone on staff greets me by name:
host, server, busser, cook.
The painting above the bar—quintessential
Vermont landscape: steeple-church,
a green hill dotted with yellow and red.
How long has it been since I hung my art
on these walls? A decade? Certain pieces
never change: the cow skull by the mirror,
dried gourds, Abby's patterns everywhere.
Finally, we're seated—upstairs, as usual.
Our server, another old friend, pours coffee
while we browse the menu. I notice she's wearing
wooden earrings that match the painting
by the window seats: avocado fresco.
It's fun to pretend that we haven't memorized
every item on this menu. Perhaps there's a dish
we've never tried. You choose immediately:
the banana bread with maple-walnut cream cheese.
When it arrives, you moan and sigh with the delight
of Sally in the diner scene, to my (and Harry's) horror.
I'm conflicted: old faithful, or the special?
We're familiar with the charm of the biscuits,
so I venture into new territory: the fish bowl.
You lick the remaining maple cream from your plate,
and we both dig into my coconut rice
with battered pollock and steamed greens.
How is this so good? We shake our heads
in disbelief, too full to think of standing up.
We rest in bliss.