T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant Pioneered Locavorism in a 1920s Railroad Dining Car | 7 Nights Spotlight | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant Pioneered Locavorism in a 1920s Railroad Dining Car

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T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant - TOM MCNEILL
  • Tom McNeill
  • T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant

When chef Michael Fuller decided to open a restaurant in 1983, he didn't take the easy route. First, he committed to using vegetables and meat sourced mostly within a 15-mile radius of Brattleboro, long before locavorism was in vogue.

Second, he chose a location as distinctive as it is challenging: a funky, 1920s railroad dining car that seats 20.

Location Details T.J. Buckley's
132 Elliot St.
Brattleboro/Okemo Valley
Brattleboro, VT
802-257-4922
American (New)

Almost three decades later, it's still hard to get into T.J. Buckley's, especially on weekends. But once inside the ultra-intimate eatery, diners are treated to what the chef describes as "restaurant theater": The open kitchen affords a clear view of Fuller roasting, sautéing and glazing away.

Once the nightly mélange of local meat, game, fish, wild edibles, herbs, cheeses and vegetables is assembled, the show begins. Fuller's prix-fixe menu gives diners five or six starter and entrée choices each night, but always includes a chèvre-topped green salad so artfully arranged that it's painful to ruin it with a fork.

T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant - TOM MCNEILL
  • Tom McNeill
  • T.J. Buckley’s Restaurant

A few arm's lengths away from diners, Fuller might plate smoky trout tartlets sexed up with salty roe and crème fraîche; sauté delicate, citrusy crab cakes; bathe a flaky slab of poached striped bass and local brown rice in an earthy broth; or stuff the inside of a rabbit leg with wilted Swiss chard and bacon, then nestle it beside white heirloom beans and poached pears.

Fuller's execution of exquisitely layered dishes — for multiple staggered seatings each night — qualifies him as a consummate culinary performer. But he works hard backstage, too. He maintains his own garden, as well as relationships with local farmers, friends, wildcrafters and suppliers. Fuller defers to the expertise of another neighbor, pastry chef Patricia Austin of Wild Flour, for his delicate cakes and tarts, which are often decorated with edible flowers she cultivates herself.

As an early pioneer of the local-food movement, Fuller qualifies as a hip elder of the southern Vermont dining scene. He's still cool. "Some people like it," he says with a shrug, "and some people don't." Three decades later, the numbers are still in Fuller's favor.

This article was originally published in 7 Nights: The Seven Days Guide to Vermont Restaurants & Bars in April 2012.

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