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What's the Matter with Middlebury?

Why one of Vermont's toniest towns is so tough on restaurants


There was a lot of anticipation one year ago when Tara and Pip Vaughan-Hughes were putting the finishing touches on a new restaurant in downtown Middlebury. After a successful run with Eat Good Food in nearby Vergennes, the couple had high hopes for a sister eatery: Eat Good Food Grill, Bar and Deli. Addison County's shire town would at last boast its own version of the hip and luscious restaurants that have helped transform the adjacent, once-sleepy burgs of Brandon, Bristol and Vergennes into favorite foodie destinations.

But EGF stopped serving dinner in January. Its ambitious, adventuresome - and pricey - menu has been replaced by familiar yet still tasty offerings for breakfast and lunch only. The scale-back doesn't seem successful, though; the dramatic, high-rent setting remains sadly under-populated.

What happened? Did EGF flounder for reasons specific to its concept and execution? Or does this disappointment indicate broader issues in Middlebury's upscale restaurant scene? How come an elite college town can't generate the dining buzz that hums in seemingly less sophisticated places 15 miles to the north and south?

Some proprietors of high-end eateries reject the proposition that Middlebury can't support the equivalent of Café Provence in Brandon, Bristol's Inn at Baldwin Creek and, in tiny Vergennes, both Christophe's on the Green and the Black Sheep Bistro.

"Just because Eat Good Food didn't make it doesn't mean that Middlebury's not a good place to eat," says Laurie Tully Reed, co-owner of Tully & Marie's, on the Otter Creek near EGF. "Middlebury has some very good restaurants," Reed insists, declaring that his own place serves "the best food between New York and Montréal."

Reed adds, however, that "Middlebury doesn't market itself very well." Excitement is absent not because the town's restaurants serve boring food but because they aren't imaginatively publicized, he suggests.

That complaint is echoed by other restaurant owners who also see themselves as offering top-quality dining experiences.

Middlebury doesn't do much to beckon travelers en route between Burlington and Rutland, says John Hughes, who purchased the popular Storm Café four months ago. Hughes muses that the lack of an all-purpose retail outlet, for example, diverts even some locals from respected restaurants such as his. "When you need a bathmat, you have to go to Burlington to get it," he says. "So when you get to Burlington, you may say, 'Let's just get something to eat around here.'"

Unless the college is staging an event, there's also not much reason to visit Middlebury on a weeknight. Shops in the village almost all close at 5, ensuring that commerce on Main Street dies with the day. In the evening it's devoid of pedestrians who might spontaneously decide to eat out.

Local business leaders realize that many diners and shoppers are bypassing Middlebury, says Dan Brown, who owns the grand Swift House Inn off Route 7 near the center of town. The Middlebury Business Association and the Chamber of Commerce discuss the problem regularly, he reports, "but they don't have an answer to the question of what to do about it."

Brown and others suggest that the town has coasted too long on the reputation of its college. Presuming that the school was a sufficient draw to outsiders, Middlebury didn't bother to conjure much magic of its own, says Tom Weiner, who manages the Swift House Inn's American bistro-style restaurant.

In fact, the college itself is part of the problem: A decade or so ago, the school morphed into a major culinary competitor, observes Robert Fuller, owner of Leunig's in Burlington, Pauline's in Shelburne and the Bobcat Café in Bristol. "The students were a big factor in the success of downtown restaurants in the '70s and '80s," says Fuller, who used to work at Mr. Up's, a casual bar and eatery that still attracts plenty of Midd kids. "Then the college opened The Grill and all sorts of dining halls. Students who used to eat in town don't anymore."

When students do eat off-campus - during parent weekends, for example - "Mom and Dad will take them wherever they want to go," Weiner says. But that's much more likely to be a relaxed place like Mr. Up's than, say, the more formal Swift House restaurant.

The town's tight layout poses further troubles. Chef Robert Barral of Café Provence says he first looked for a suitable spot in Middlebury before taking the "huge gamble" of opening his restaurant in Brandon. "I couldn't find exactly what I wanted there," Barral recounts. "There weren't many spaces, and none of them seemed right."

Only the storefronts along Main Street offer high visibility, but the narrow roadway through town makes parking nearby impossible. That proved a debilitating handicap for Eat Good Food. Motorists perceive its central location as inconvenient - even inaccessible.

"These days, everyone in a family has their own car," Fuller notes. "You might have three or four people meeting for dinner, with three or four cars. They're not going to meet in the center of Middlebury, that's for sure."

Another issue, in the case of Eat Good Food: Vaughan-Hughes misread the local market. So suggests the Swift House's Weiner, who's been part of the town's restaurant scene since 1970. Although locals may have money, that doesn't automatically equate with culinary sophistication. "Middlebury has never supported fine dining," he declares. And EGF sought to position itself in that niche, says Weiner. He defines "fine dining" as excellent service, elegant ambiance, an extensive wine list and an expensive, à la carte menu - a formula that flies at Christophe's in Vergennes.

"Tara put together a very urban menu, very slick," Weiner says. "Most people were stumped by what she was making. She was putting items on the menu that needed an explanation."

Hughes, whose Storm Café caters to the same eating adventurers EGF targets, agrees that "a lot of people actually aren't educated about food." Hughes says he noticed that some of his restaurant's regulars shy away from unfamiliar offerings - bok choy, for example. "It's also intimidating to some customers to have to order from a wine list with French names they can't pronounce," he says.

Weiner seconds the anti-exotic observation. In his view, "There's a patina of sophistication in Middlebury." Food-wise, he suggests, it's not really what it might seem to be.

Weiner recounts how a former chef at Swift House made a delicious appetizer he dubbed "artichoke beignet." "Unless you've been to New Orleans," Weiner notes, "you may not know what 'beignet' means. So I urged him to call it 'artichoke fritter.' He wasn't interested, but that's what we call it now."

Fuller affirms that EGF's menu was overly ambitious. "You have to figure out what people want to eat and provide them with it," says Fuller, whose restaurant successes speak to his authority on the subject. "You can lead them a little bit, but Tara was too far out in front of her clients."

Pricing matters, too, as Vaughan-Hughes herself acknowledges. EGF was never as disproportionately expensive as was supposed, she says, "but that's how it was perceived, and by the time we lowered the prices the damage had been done."

Ironically, Middlebury's long-standing reputation for sophistication may also put the town at a disadvantage compared to upstart locales such as Brandon, Bristol and Vergennes. These towns formerly had so little appeal to outsiders that when high-quality food arrived there, it "made people take notice and come running," Vaughan-Hughes asserts.

Weiner agrees that recent gentrification has given those nearby communities a cachet that Middlebury lacks. "They typically got a good restaurant," he notes, "then a gallery opened, then some upscale shops, then maybe another restaurant. Middlebury already had all that, so there was no room for a new place to burst onto the scene."

Brandon presents a classic case of how the process works, Fuller says. "That market had been lagging for a number of years, so you get somebody of the quality of a Robert Barral, and that creates a lot of excitement and encourages other people to try something. Pretty soon, you've got some synergy going."

Barral himself suggests the same thing can happen anyplace - including Middlebury. "If you put a good restaurant in Middlebury or anywhere and try your hardest to deliver an excellent product with consistently good service, people will definitely come," he says.

It's a tall order, but Vaughan-Hughes isn't giving up. She says Eat Good Food may soon start serving dinner again, at least on Friday and Saturday. "A year from now this place will be successful," she asserts, adding, "All I want to do is have a beautiful space where people can eat really good food."