Recipes for Success From Seven Long-Lived Vermont Restaurants | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Recipes for Success From Seven Long-Lived Vermont Restaurants

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Published April 24, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 12, 2022 at 2:59 p.m.

  • Courtesy of Steak House Restaurant
  • Sam’s Hot Shoppe

In his 1980 novel Still Life With Woodpecker, Tom Robbins pondered the question "What makes love stay?" The answer: Lasting love is actually a crapshoot, but working hard at loving seems to improve the chances of success.

The same question could be asked about restaurants: What makes them last? We've all seen great ones fizzle fast, while seemingly mediocre ones linger on for years.

With Seven Days' Vermont Restaurant Week starting at more than 100 eateries statewide this Friday, April 26, the food team checked in with some of Vermont's most enduring restaurants to see if they had lessons on achieving longevity.

In Bennington, Sonny's Blue Benn Diner has been a North Street mainstay since 1948, bucking dining trends with a menu that blends deference to classics (head there for the stellar liver and onions) with crafty originals such as "crunchberry" pancakes. In Winooski, Sneakers Bistro began delivering flawless eggs Benedict and tuna melts in 1980, long before Winooski was "cool." And in Waitsfield, George Schenk launched American Flatbread — Vermont's original farm-to-table restaurant — in a field in 1987.

The seven restaurants featured here by no means represent an exhaustive list. From Burlington to Brattleboro, family-owned restaurants have been community hubs for decades. In Montpelier, the Wayside Restaurant, Bakery & Creamery has been dishing fried perch and eggs for a century; in Burlington, Leunig's Bistro & Café and Sweetwaters have been Church Street fixtures for nearly four decades.

What can we learn from our selection of long-lived restaurants? What do they tell us about ourselves as humans who gather to celebrate milestones, or mull over everyday life, with dinner and drinks?

Spoiler alert: As in Robbins' love story, there's no magic formula. Consistent hard work and tireless dedication seem to be key ingredients. Plus, customers like to eat good food and be taken care of.

The rest? It's all in the details, and you'll know it when you feel it.

— H.P.E.

Steak House Restaurant

  • Courtesy of Steak House Restaurant
  • Sam’s Hot Shoppe

Anyone who's driven the Barre-Montpelier Road since the mid-1970s is likely to be familiar with Steak House Restaurant. Its sign — taller than a monster truck and emblazoned with red letters and a beefy black steer — was for years accompanied by a life-size wooden bull. That animal finally succumbed to the weather and decades of winter road salt, but the spot remains an unmistakable local landmark.

Dinner at the restaurant feels a little like culinary time travel. The main dining room, with its dark-wood wainscoting and chunky wooden armchairs, hasn't changed much since the place opened in 1972. While the menu has grown to include pastas and vegetarian and gluten-free options, meals begin — as they always have — with a trip to the salad "corral" for crisp lettuce and fresh veggies, big black olives and bacon-flavored crunchies. Diners might finish with a DIY brownie sundae piled with hot fudge, cherry-pie filling, Froot Loops and flaked coconut.

Blooming onion - HANNAH PALMER EGAN
  • Hannah Palmer Egan
  • Blooming onion

In between salad and dessert, of course, there are fried appetizers and steaks. The latter arrive grilled to specifications with a baked potato or fries, ketchup, and A.1. sauce. Drinks include bottled beers, inexpensive wines, frozen piña coladas and fruit margaritas.

"If we did any major changes, I think we'd have a big uproar," co-owner Toni Palmisano said. "Our customers like us because we're not all bells and whistles."

  • Hannah Palmer Egan
  • Toni Palmisano

But if the restaurant lacks fancy flourishes, it delivers personal service. "I know the names of 90 percent of our regulars," said Palmisano, who runs Steak House with her brother, Tom. Their father opened the place when they were teenagers. A few of the older regulars still remember the carhops and rooftop concerts at Sam's Hot Shoppe, which Palmisano's grandfather opened on the same site in 1950.

After spending her entire adult life working at the restaurant, Palmisano has a long memory, too. "I have seen a lot of families come full circle," she said. "I did their wedding reception and their children's christenings and sweet-16 birthday parties. And then I've done their funeral luncheons."

— H.P.E.

Sneakers Bistro

The Sneakers sign - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • The Sneakers sign

A pair of red Converse All Stars hangs like a beacon over the front door of Sneakers Bistro in Winooski: the place for breakfast, lunch and crazy-busy weekend brunch. The food and feel at Sneakers are comfortable and familiar with a splash of delight, just like artist Abby Manock's red sneaks.

Location Details Sneakers Bistro
28 Main St.
Chittenden County
Winooski, VT
American (New)

Sneakers opened in 1980 at 36 Main Street, founded by the same businesspeople who two years later would open the Daily Planet in downtown Burlington. The skinny storefront bistro turned out fat omelettes, strong Bloodies, perfect eggs Benedict and hot jazz. As the city changed around it, bringing more restaurants and a dominating traffic circle, Sneakers kept its cool, its customers and its menu.

  • Oliver Parini
  • Sneakers

"People know that they can come and get the same thing that they had in college," said co-owner Jean Dysinger. She and her husband, Marc, discovered Sneakers as college students in the early 1990s. He was a chef there for a few years before they purchased the restaurant in 2002.

Former Sneakers owner John Gouvin (left) - COURTESY OF SNEAKERS BISTRO
  • Courtesy of Sneakers Bistro
  • Former Sneakers owner John Gouvin (left)

The staff, too, has been consistent: The kitchen manager and a dishwasher have worked at Sneakers for more than a dozen years. "We're like a family," said server-bartender Kristy Lanza. "It's really close-knit here."

In 2010, Sneakers doubled in size — from 25 to 50 seats — when the Dysingers moved their restaurant a few doors south on Main Street. They packed up their leased space after service on a Sunday and reopened in a building they purchased that Wednesday.

"I felt like owning our own space preserved our potential," Marc said. "We were protecting the legacy by moving it."

Trey Anastasio performing at Sneakers - COURTESY OF SNEAKERS BISTRO
  • Courtesy of Sneakers Bistro
  • Trey Anastasio performing at Sneakers

This spring, Sneakers is set to expand again — into a second-floor space featuring lounge seating, dining tables and a walnut bar that Marc built himself.

The crazy-busy part never changes, though: Every Sunday, Sneakers serves about 450 people. The work in the kitchen — churning out eggs Benny and home fries, chicken and waffles, tuna melts — is hot, fast and focused. Cooks on the line, including Marc, sub on and off owing to the intensity of the effort.

"It's like Apollo 13," Marc said. "The place goes completely sideways on you, but somehow you manage to land it."

— S.P.

Sonny's Blue Benn Diner

Sonny’s Blue Benn Diner - JANA SLEEMAN
  • Jana Sleeman
  • Sonny’s Blue Benn Diner

Diners never go out of style, but it still takes a lot of work to ensure the coffee is fresh and hot, the hash browns are crisp, and the booths turn over smoothly. Lisa LaFlamme knows that all too well. She was 10 when her parents, Sonny and Marylou Monroe, bought the Blue Benn Diner on Christmas Eve 1973.

Location Details Sonny's Blue Benn Diner
314 North St.
Bennington, VT
American (Traditional) and Diner

Her dad retired about a decade ago; her mother still does the books. And LaFlamme, an only child, is the diner's on-site owner-manager. "I'm it," she said with a mixture of pride and resignation.

The original 1940s-era Silk City Diner car has operated on Bennington's main thoroughfare since 1948; LaFlamme believes her family is only its third owner. Sonny, a self-taught cook, was working there when the manager abruptly left, and he and his wife decided to buy the diner. Though they officially renamed it Sonny's Blue Benn Diner, most people still call it the Blue Benn.

The kitchen amply delivers on diner classics. A hearty plate of liver and onions comes smothered in pepper-flecked gravy. Freshly baked chocolate or coconut cream pies tremble under waves of whipped cream. The sturdy meatloaf received an enthusiastic review from Americana food authorities Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the Roadfood series, who endorsed the Blue Benn as "a true-blue hash house."

Lisa LaFlamme - JANA SLEEMAN
  • Jana Sleeman
  • Lisa LaFlamme

But Sonny also loved to experiment and create. Prompted in part by local college students, he added not one but three vegetarian burgers over the years, including a cumin-scented falafel burger. The diner's "crunchberry" pancakes (the secret is rumored to be granola in the batter) are legendary. So is its efficiently delicious use of day-old cake doughnuts, which are sliced and grilled until toasty and served with optional ice cream.

Pies and doughnuts are made in-house, and whole turkeys are roasted almost daily for hot turkey sandwiches and hash. LaFlamme gives credit to her long-serving team, including head cook Brian Carpenter. "A new salesman tried to sell us premade gravy," she recalled. "We don't take shortcuts."

Generous portions for a good price keep longtime customers happy, LaFlamme believes. Longevity is about sticking with what you know, she said: "We're not trendy at all."

— M.P.

Colatina Exit

Rib-eye steak - SARAH PRIESTAP
  • Sarah Priestap
  • Rib-eye steak

From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, Thursday nights in Bradford were given to karaoke. Behind the upstairs bar at the Colatina Exit, longtime barman Tom Hall mixed screwdrivers, fuzzy navels and tequila sunrises as regular performers took the stage. Shortly before retiring a few years back, Hall calculated that he had presided over more than 1,000 packed karaoke nights.

"Karaoke was huge for us," Colatina owner Vin Wendell said, sitting in the restaurant's third-floor office earlier this month. "Particularly during the winters when times were lean. It was about losing your inhibitions so you could get up there and sing."

The Colatina has been a village hub since 1971; Wendell bought the place in 1981 and runs it with his wife and business partner, Angela. The boozy sing-alongs ended a decade ago, but the bar's weekend bands still draw a lively crowd. And the restaurant's candlelit dining room is the go-to place for date nights and graduation dinners.

Location Details Colatina Exit
164 N. Main St.
Upper Valley
Bradford, VT

Pizzas and pastas anchor the menu. Some things seemingly never change: "As an Italian restaurant, you can't just get rid of spaghetti and meatballs," Vin said. But plates have been added, updated and caressed, both to stay relevant and to make use of the Upper Valley's bountiful produce, meats and cheeses.

"It's crazy how much we can get locally now," Vin said. "Years ago, you could get lettuce for maybe two weeks during the summer."

While the crust of the New York-style pizza is basically unchanged since 1972, a newish wood-fired oven now turns out super-thin, blistery 12-inch pies — and housemade cauliflower crust for the gluten-free crowd. "People are committed to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free," Vin said. "Part of our success is paying attention to that stuff and incorporating it into what we do."

Any decent restaurant worker knows that hospitality means taking care of people. And savvy business owners can attest that happy, long-term workers take better care of customers. Chef Dave Litchfield has worked the Colatina line for 20 years. Assistant kitchen manager and sous chef James Perry has worked alongside him for 10, as has assistant front-of-house manager and bar manager Garrett Cook.

In recent years, Angela said, "We decided to focus on reaching out and pulling up the people who have gotten us here. It's a little more purpose-driven." Six of the restaurant's managers will soon become partners in the business, Vin said, and the restaurant regularly gives goods, services and volunteer hours to local nonprofits and community groups.

The new mind-set has worked well for everyone, Vin said: "When we started focusing on giving back instead of profit, [the restaurant] became more profitable than it's ever been."

— H.P.E.

The Daily Planet

Copey Houghton - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Copey Houghton

When Kate Hays moved from Boston in 1986 to become head chef at the Daily Planet, she recalled, the Burlington food scene was at least five years behind the larger metropolitan area. "It was easy to do fun stuff and make it seem incredible," she said.

Location Details The Daily Planet
The Daily Planet
15 Center St.
Burlington, VT
American (New)

The Planet had been founded four years earlier by a group of Burlington entrepreneurs — Priscilla and Jack Hurley, Kathy and Clem Nilan, and Janice and Ken Russack (the same original team behind Sneakers). The restaurant space with its unusual glass-windowed, plant-filled greenhouse room was striking and unique, Hays said, and she was given free rein to create an equally distinctive menu.

Maura’s Salad - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Maura’s Salad

In Hays' six years at the restaurant before she moved on to cofound a catering business with fellow Planet chef Sandy Morris, the two established a beachhead of new American cuisine in Burlington. The eclectic mixture of globally influenced dishes included "a shameless rip-off" of Wolfgang Puck's smoked-salmon pizza, Hays recalled, and an invention called the Korean pancake: soaked, ground mung beans and shredded vegetables fried into a disc, cut into crispy triangles and served with a sesame-soy sauce. "That was one of my all-time favorite recipes," she said.

The Daily Planet - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Daily Planet

In 1991, Copey Houghton started looking for a restaurant to buy. Then 30, he had been in the industry since age 12 and knew what he wanted. "The Daily Planet had a very good reputation and, back in those days, it was unique," he said, citing the restaurant's strong vegetarian options and three distinct spaces: the bar, the greenhouse and the more upscale back dining room.

The Daily Planet’s original owners - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Daily Planet’s original owners

Twenty-seven years after Houghton bought the Planet, new American is no longer new, and Burlington has several vegetarian and vegan destinations.

The Korean pancake - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Korean pancake

But the Planet's multicultural menu, solid bar program and trio of settings continue to serve it well. In a downtown food scene that Houghton described as "a little on the saturated side," the place continues to appeal to college students, businesspeople and parents out for a date night. The Korean pancake is long gone, but classics such as the always-satisfying Planet Burger and the '90s-era Maura's Salad, with blistered grapes and updated blue cheese croutons, still deliver.

— M.P.

American Flatbread

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • George Schenk

On summer evenings at Lareau Farm in Waitsfield, home of American Flatbread, grown-ups hang out drinking beer and kids run around a field. It's a picture-perfect way to wait for pizza.

The dough is made with organic flour; for a while, in the mid-1990s, it was mixed with hand-fetched spring water. Toppings are grown in the restaurant's garden. The wood-fired oven was built by Flatbread founder and owner George Schenk from clay and alder saplings gathered at or near the farm.

Location Details American Flatbread Waitsfield Hearth
46 Lareau Rd.
Mad River Valley/Waterbury
Waitsfield, VT
Pizzeria and Eclectic/Fusion

For 32 years, Flatbread has been perhaps the most Vermonty of Vermont brands, shaping its identity organically and innovatively before branding was de rigueur. With practices put in place in the 1980s and an ethos expressed in his menu "dedications," Schenk has helped set the course of Vermont dining.

He grew, cooked and served "farm-to-table" cuisine before that was a phrase. He started Flatbread in 1987 as a pop-up at Tucker Hill Inn when "pop-up" wasn't part of the parlance, either — much less in vogue.

Weekly pizza at Tucker Hill lasted until the spring of 1992, when Schenk's outdoor oven fell down the hill. He rebuilt it and moved to Lareau Farm; on opening night there, Flatbread served 105 people, more than double the crowd at a busy night at Tucker Hill.

"People were sitting out on the lawn," Schenk recalled. "It was transformative in many ways."

Soon he was selling flatbreads at Mehuron's Market in Waitsfield and other local stores, an aspect of the business that, after 20 years of production in Vermont, grew into a frozen-pizza licensing deal with a national company. Schenk's restaurant business expanded, too, through a restaurant development company he owned until 2013. Flatbread Company in Hampton, N.H., today owns and operates nine restaurants and has franchise arrangements with nine more, according to Schenk. The latter group includes American Flatbread restaurants in Middlebury and Burlington, and the original one in Waitsfield that Schenk owns with his wife.

"I was all in, and so in a lot of ways failure wasn't an option," Schenk said of his restaurant's longevity. "I come in to work every day and put my head down and try to do the very best work that I can."

These days, Schenk's micro-local focus is on building biodiverse soil for healthier food. He's got his head down and his hands in the dirt, just like in the old days.

— S.P.

Silver Palace

Eddie Lee (left) and Ting Ng - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Eddie Lee (left) and Ting Ng

Ting Ng, chef/co-owner of Silver Palace, stood in the dining room of his South Burlington restaurant one recent night and reminisced about his career.

"I was kind of young when I was first here," he said. "Now I'm a senior citizen."

Ng, 60, and his business partners, Eddie Lee and Ken Wong, opened Silver Palace, a Chinese restaurant on Williston Road, in 1986. They'd moved to Chittenden County from New Jersey, where Ng and Lee worked together at Hey Birds, a Lakewood restaurant owned by Lee's father.

"We shared the same interest, the same idea about restaurants, and we decided to go on our own," Lee said.

Opening Silver Palace was an opportunity to bring Chinese food from an area with an abundance of the cuisine to one where it was lacking, the restaurateurs said. They found a space to rent, a former steakhouse and dinner theater that seats 90 people, and set up business. "Initially, it's tough," Lee said. "We're not used to it. But we got used to it: living the quiet life in Vermont."

Shrimp Gwin Jin - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Shrimp Gwin Jin

Ng, who learned to cook at Hey Birds, worked in the kitchen and became head chef. Lee ran the front of the house; Wong did a bit of everything.

A newspaper article about Silver Palace, published shortly after the restaurant opened, helped generate business. "In Vermont, anything new will get a crowd," Lee said. The trick is to keep people coming back.

Silver Palace offers a full range of Chinese fare, including staples such as orange beef, crispy pork Grand Marnier and Kung Pao chicken. In addition, Ng prepares specials such as softshell crab cooked in fish sauce with lime juice and herbs; and crispy T-bone steak with garlic, ginger, rice wine and soy.

"I still love cooking," he said. "And I'm pretty intense."

Silver Palace - GLENN RUSSELL
  • Glenn Russell
  • Silver Palace

In the three-plus decades since Silver Palace opened, restaurants representing a wide range of Asian cuisines have opened in Chittenden County. Not only has competition increased, it's become harder to find reliable employees, Lee said. His four children, who worked at Silver Palace in high school, aren't interested in the restaurant business — instead, they're pursuing engineering and game design. "They're smart," he said.

"It's too hard," said Lee, who is semiretired. "It's tough work; it's long hours."

Ng, who wants to keep Silver Palace in business, said he's open to finding new and energetic restaurant partners.

— S.P.

The original print version of this article was headlined "We're Still Open | Recipes for success from seven long-lived Vermont restaurants"