Their ephemeral existence mirrors the reign of summer. The sun comes out in Vermont, and so do the snack bars — then, just as quickly, they’re gone. Even the most health-conscious can’t help but have a cheat day or two (or 10) when the options are so plentiful and, surprisingly often, the fare so fresh. Maybe some of the snack-bar magic comes from serendipity. When you’re driving along a lonely rural road, the discovery of an isolated creemee stand can be more exciting than that of the next great urban bistro.
For the second time, Seven Days’ food team hit the road to find a few of these eateries. (We wrote about nine in 2007.) This year, we expanded our definition of “snack bar.” A few of these joints are open year round and located in actual buildings — complete with restrooms and tables — but that doesn’t make their peak of popularity any less a summer phenomenon.
As before, we don’t claim this is a comprehensive listing — just some fine finds. One of our discoveries offers traditional snack-y food with a Cajun twist; another sells homemade donuts and the juiciest fried chicken around. In the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom, we chowed down on a particularly good rendition of poutine — the gravy-fry-and-cheese concoction beloved by French-Canadians and those who aren’t trying to diet.
With Memorial Day weekend behind us, we’ve entered the traditional hot-dog days of summer (for what that’s worth in a state with notoriously capricious weather). Roadside stands are in full swing, tourists zoom up and down our arteries to their camps and summer homes, and soft-serve ice cream flows like manna. Time to get snacking!
S.P. & A.L.
Cajun’s Snack Bar 1594 VT Route 100, Lowell, 744-2002 Season: Last week in April to last week in September Hours: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
The menus of most snack bars are populated with premade patties and frozen chicken fingers. Not Cajun’s. “We make everything from scratch,” owner Jason Boutin says proudly. He grinds the beef for his burgers from grade-A steaks “to ensure a really lean product,” Boutin explains. His kitchen crew also makes its own batter for frying the wide selection of seafood, from scallops to whole-belly clams. Boutin, who manages the kitchen at the Lodge at Jay Peak off-season, brags, “We have the best, freshest seafood in the area, even compared to real restaurants.”
Not that Cajun’s is some fly-by-night operation. With a dining room oozing Southern-fried nostalgia, from pictures of catfish to gollywog-splashed ads for long-forgotten products, the indoor eatery is a full-service theme restaurant.
For a more classic snack-bar experience, diners can stay outside and eat at the picnic tables. Either way, bathroom ablutions take place in one of the outhouse-like structures to the right of the building. Don’t worry, though — there’s running water and a flush toilet.
Boutin’s parents, Leo and Jane, the original owners of Cajun’s, met in Louisiana, where they lived for the first dozen years of their marriage. Though people call Leo Boutin “Cajun” — hence the restaurant’s name — his son says, “He’s lived all over. He’s a bit of a vagabond, but he’s been in Vermont for 25 years now.” Ten of those have been working at the restaurant, which Boutin bought from his parents last year.
While Cajun’s serves plain ol’ burgers and dogs, it tries to stick to its theme. “People are awestruck by the size of the menu,” says Boutin. “It’s a little overwhelming for some.” A new addition to the ever-rotating selections is the juicy grilled Swamp Dog, with a great natural-casing snap, which sits in a cheese-covered bun topped with mildly spicy ground beef. It’s like a Michigan with a bayou-style kick.
The garlic pork burger is made with a strong garlic mayo that blends beautifully with the melted cheddar on top. Most novel of all is the “chicken & biscuits”: The slider-sized fried-chicken patties come on fluffy biscuits slathered in a choice of country-style or spicy Cajun gravy. Add those dishes to Cajun’s page-long roster of original ice cream creations and it’s not hard to see why, as Boutin attests, “People come from Burlington and Island Pond on a regular basis.”
Pine Cone Snack Bar 1692 East Berkshire Road, Richford, 933-6630 Season: Easter to the weekend after Labor Day Hours: 8 a.m. - 9 p.m, or 9:30 p.m. on weekends
Want to turn that food run into a leisurely family outing? The Pine Cone is the place. After lunch, diners can head out back for 18 holes of free mini-golf — and aim balls through a miniature red barn or a traffic light with a wind-powered mechanism that forces them to time the shot perfectly.
The Pine Cone has character to spare. From the retro, Pizza Hut-shaped building to the golf course, the whole compound appears to have remained unchanged since its 1966 opening. Melissa and William Bonnette have run the place for the last three of its 33 years. William bought it from his nephew, Ron Larose, and now the West Virginia-based couple come up every year just after Easter to manage the restaurant. They hire help to take care of their llamas, goats and miniature horses down south, while they feed folks on the edge of the Canadian border.
Maybe the location explains why the poutine is so good. Freshly hand-cut fries somehow stay crisp beneath brown gravy and real cheddar-cheese curds that slowly melt as you eat. The bacon cheeseburger is also made fresh on site, with gloriously crisp bacon that blends ideally with the hearty patty, creamy cheese and soft bun.
Most folks opt to eat outside, but every meal, from an early breakfast to a 9:30 p.m. dinner on weekend nights, is also served in the cozy, car-themed café. Tables of rough-hewn, varnished wood make it feel like a country farmhouse; the toilet-paper holders in the bathroom come in cloth-covered pink baskets, like somebody’s craft project.
And don’t forget dessert. The menu offers regular creemees of all sizes, but also, in the French tradition, waffles. Perhaps best of all are the donuts, prepared fresh daily at Mary’s Bakery in Berkshire. Get an ethereally light treat plain or covered in cinnamon sugar. Then we’ll meet you on the links.
Sunset Drive-In Porters Point Road, Colchester, 862-1800 Season: April to September Hours: Currently 7:30-11 p.m., or from sunset to the end of the second feature
Dinner and a movie: the classic date. For 61 years, people have been enjoying the combo in the comfort of their cars at the Sunset Drive-In. For the last 20, Kathy Pettengill has been running the kitchen.
With the credo “I won’t serve it if I wouldn’t eat it myself,” she has spiffed up the lineup. Fries are now crisp and hand cut each day. Burger patties are formed on site and cooked to order. The chicken tenders are crunchy and moist; the small paper cup holds three planks, each nearly the size of a whole filet. Try ’em with ranch dressing on the side.
Moviegoers can enjoy any of the above, as well as corn dogs, frozen novelties such as the Biggie Iggy ice cream sandwich and, of course, popcorn. Also on the menu? Nostalgia, and lots of it. The snack bar still occupies the original 1948 building, which was damaged by fire in 1977. Following the disaster, the interior was refurbished with more modern conveniences, but the building retains its postwar bomb-shelter look.
Newly released flicks start at sunset, followed by a slightly older pic in a double feature (a rarity nowadays). Film fans control the sound on their car stereos. We recommend turning it up for our favorite part of the evening, the intermission shorts. Animated baby-boom-era hot dogs parade across the screen, urging folks to “go to the lobby.” Though there’s technically no such place, who can help but obey?
Maynard’s Snack Bar Route 100B, Moretown, 496-3614 Season: May to Labor Day Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 8:30 p.m. weekdays, noon to 8:30 p.m. weekends; closed Wednesdays
“I used to come here when there were cows on the side,” says regular Rube Scharges. “One day in the early ’80s my son said, ‘I’m taking you to the finest French restaurant in the Valley, Chez Maynard’s.’ I’ve been coming ever since.”
OK, maybe there’s nothing French about it, but Wilma and Jerry Maynard cook up some of Vermont’s finest burgers in their tiny snack bar surrounded by pink flowering crab trees. Be careful to eat your loosely packed patty fast — as soon as you bite in, juices flow, soaking your bottom bun. We recommend the bacon cheeseburger for foreplay value alone. You order, bacon hits griddle, and the aroma follows. Never mind that the Maynards’ cows are eyeing you from Camel’s Hump View Farm across the street — you’re eating off-site steer.
A Michigan is a must, too. Wilma makes her own condiments, in mild “chili” and zingy “Coney” styles. Each is a smooth, saucy masterpiece set atop a McKenzie dog. Fries made from taters straight from the adjoining farm are extra crispy and unaccountably mild, even creamy tasting. Lettuce and tomatoes for the burgers are also grown here in season.
The maple creemees are another local treasure, made with a perfect portion of syrup tapped just down the road. Though the maple can’t be missed, save room for the Dusty Miller, a vanilla creemee topped with hot fudge and a thick pile of malt powder. When it means ordering this stunning sundae, “getting dusty” is a good thing.
Village Country Creemee 509 Village Square, Waitsfield, 496-6003 Season: Mid-April to Columbus Day weekend, Open weekends year-round Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Healthy snack-bar food? Why not? You’re in Vermont, after all, and Jim Greene has your back. The former dietician and current broker at Pinnacle Foods is happy to provide burgers, dogs and smiley fries, but he’s also got options for folks with fryer fatigue.
Working with cooks across the country, Greene has learned a few tricks of the trade, including the Mexican recipes he uses at Village Country Creemee. Yep, Mexican. At a snack bar. In Waitsfield.
“All our sauces and salsas are homemade,” says the co-owner (with his wife, Linda). So is everything else that makes it into the enchiladas, barring the corn tortillas. Alongside the seven south-of-the-border options come slightly spicy, lime-infused rice with corn and black beans and a bright, citrus-topped salad filled with texturally delightful tortilla croutons — a pair of sides worth the trip on their own. Seafood fans can try a plate of garlicky Mexican lime shrimp. More due south than southwest, the smoked pulled pork is peppery, with that strong “real pork” taste that lures a barbecue enthusiast.
Fresh ingredients make it into dessert, too. Try a blueberry sundae, just as good as it sounds. (The superfruit is so dark, you can pretend it’s decadent hot fudge.) For the Fourth of July, Greene anticipates tossing in strawberries, too. When Seven Days visited, Greene had just added fresh orange juice to a batch of his creamsicle frozen yogurt. He crafts huge, bombe-shaped cakes, too, with each batch of ice cream mixed to order. When the black raspberries for your cake are harvested mere yards away, you can trust it’s fresh, maybe even a little bit good for you.
Stowe Dogs Mountain Road at the Gale Farm Shopping Center, Stowe, 253-7785 Season: All year Hours: 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., closed Tuesdays
When Dave Foltz, owner of Stowe Dogs, admits he’s a dog lover, he’s not just talking about frankfurters. The walls of his strip-mall snack shack are covered in photos of canines, with their names and hometowns scrawled on the mustard-yellow paint in black marker.
But his clientele, a mix of locals, college kids and ravenous hikers and bikers, is most interested in the 17 edible versions. Using McKenzie Beef as his standard sausage, with Hebrew National for the all-beef and Kosher crowd, Foltz tops ’em with everything from syrup and bacon to his homemade cheese sauce, made with mild cheddar and a touch of Velveeta to improve the melt. He concocts his own slightly spicy meat sauce and bean-less chili, too.
Want to increase the flavor quotient? Foltz keeps a collection of condiments on hand, from artisan mustards to Cholula hot sauce to plastic containers filled with salsa and sliced jalapeños. Or, you can get really creative and sprinkle your weiner with Old Bay.
If you don’t do dogs, there are options: Reasonably priced burgers come in traditional, vegetarian and salmon varieties. The fish edition gets a splash of dill dressing. Pair ’em up with regular or sweet-potato fries. Or try a taco.
Although Foltz is considering adding frozen treats from Ben & Jerry’s, Stowe Dogs is currently sans sweet stuff — the creemee machine is broken, and fixing it may not be worth Foltz’s while. “It wasn’t a big part of my business,” he admits. “And there’s a new ice cream shop in town.”
I.C. Scoops 112 Main Street, Stowe, 253-0995 Season: All year Hours: 2-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 2-9 p.m. Friday; 1-9 p.m. Saturday; noon - 5 p.m. Sunday
If all you seek is an ice cream fix, I.C. Scoops in Stowe fits the bill. A fun postretirement project for Bill and Lorraine Miller, formerly of New Jersey, the cheerful shop is filled with sweet treats, from Flavorburst and Crunchi “cremees” (blended with various candies and syrups via machine) to 12 flavors of homemade hard ice cream.
Bill, a graduate of Penn State’s “Ice Cream 101” short course, enjoys experimenting with flavor combinations. On one visit, folks on the go could snap up pints of mango coconut, chocolate cinnamon banana, and wild blueberry and honey. Full-time flavors live in tubs behind the counter.
Health-conscious Lorraine insists on wholesome ingredients, so the pair springs for Organic Valley milk, Cascadian Farms frozen fruit and local granola from Nutty Steph. The 66 percent dark chocolate chips and bits are also organic. To-go cups and spoons biodegrade.
Ice cream sandwiches come on homemade cookies, and shakes and sundaes abound. If you show up when school is letting out, expect to see a line at the door.
Beansies Battery Park, Burlington, no phone Season: April 1 to the end of September Hours: 11 a.m. to sundown
Sunny daffodils may be a reliable signal of spring, but in Burlington, people keep their eyes peeled for another bright yellow harbinger: the Beansies bus. Famous for its meat-sauced Michigan dogs and hand-cut fries — best augmented with a spritz of vinegar from a spray bottle — the conveyance takes up residence in Battery Park each April. Until the end of September, staffers twirl up cones, deep fry and grill for thousands of locals and visitors.
Parked conveniently near a playground, a lake view and the Burlington PD, the snack-mobile has been keeping marathon attendees, families and dating couples in reasonably priced fast food since 1944. Current owner Bill Peters purchased it in 1989 at age 46, after a failed attempt at early retirement.
“It’s a very big part of the park,” Peters attests. “You get to meet people and watch their kids grow up.” In keeping with that tradition, he notes, he’s hardly changed the menu since he arrived on the scene. “We added a chicken sandwich, we added ice cream, we added a small coffee business,” he recalls. “The cooking procedure has never changed.”
Case in point: Peters steams the McKenzie’s hot dogs — which are standard but unadvertised. “We’ve always had good luck with a steamed hot dog,” he explains. Then continues dismissively: “[Other places] grill them or whatever.”
It’s hard to be original with fries — but Peters seeks out potatoes from Prince Edward Island, then lets them age like fine wines. “The older the potato is, the sweeter it is. It tastes almost like butter as it gets older,” he explains. The superlative ’taters are then fried twice, first at a lower temperature to “blanch” the strips, then at a higher temperature to crisp them. “You add the salt, vinegar and ketchup, and you have the real ballgame going,” Peters enthuses.
But filling hungry bellies is less important to Peters than filling hearts. A devout Catholic, he has journeyed to miracle sites such as Fatima and Lourdes, even made a pilgrimage to see the Shroud of Turin. Now, he says, he’s one of the Virgin Mary’s “little soldiers in the world.” A little bit short-order cook and a little bit counselor, Peters remarks, “I deal with a lot of people who have brokenness in their lives. I always extend myself to [discuss] these personal matters.”
Whether you’re seeking salvation or just a bucket of fries, you can probably find it at the Beansies bus.
Dinky Donuts 1663 Route 7 South, Middlebury, 839-5099 Season: All year Hours: 7:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. on weekends. Lunch served 11 a.m. to closing.
Most snack-bar proprietors enjoy cooking, but it’s a safe bet not many are trained chefs. The owners of Dinky Donuts on Route 7, just yards from the A&W Drive-In, both have degrees from the French Culinary Institute and boast impressive résumés: Between them, Nicholas and Alexandra Cavalli have worked at famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns, BLT Steak and Cru in New York City, and beloved local spots such as Smokejacks and Penny Cluse Café in Burlington, and Christophe’s on the Green, in Vergennes.
But when they opened their own business, the couple took a less fancy route. They started a gourmet donut-delivery biz, then added a roster of casual fare after moving to their brick-and-mortar location last October. Now the restaurant is among the top-rated in the Seven Nights guide.
Located in a former one-room schoolhouse, Dinky Donuts glows with bright colors and features a picturesque antique cash register. The homey lunch menu is yet another slice of Americana. Sabrett dogs come dolled up with homemade sauerkraut and mustard or beef chili and cheddar. Not enough calories for you? The “Dinky Destroyer” is the chili version, with a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped dog.
Burgers are made with Wood Creek Beef. The “Douglas” is plain, but the “Sanders” comes with American cheese. A weekly burger special provides added pizzazz: The endearingly messy “pizza” burger, for example, features pork-sausage-studded tomato sauce, peppers and onions.
For a summery taste of the South, order a BBQ pulled-pork sandwich on homemade rolls. The bread is sweet and soft, and the shredded meat is topped with just the right amount of sauce.
As pleasant as the pork is, though, the fried chicken may just be the star of the show. Brined for flavor and juiciness, with a crisp, perfectly seasoned crust, it makes a superlative meal. Feeding the fam? Get the 10-piece version with cornbread and two sides — ’slaw, homemade chips, potato salad or mac ’n’ cheese — for just $15.
When your meal is ready, take it with you or eat al fresco at the picnic table. A bottle of homemade lemonade is the perfect way to wash it down.
The Cavallis don’t offer ice cream, but who cares when there are nine kinds of donuts? If they’re out of the famous maple-bacon variety, try a Middlebury cream — like a Boston cream, but with maple glaze replacing the chocolate. Jelly-filled is a Sunday special.
And when you stop on your commute for a warm pastry in the depths of January, take a moment to appreciate these precious days of high summer.