Taste Test: The Farmers Diner
99 Maple Street, STE 10, Middlebury, 458-0455
Maybe The Farmers Diner could only happen in Vermont, where robust, modern “localvore” principles coexist with old-fashioned American ag of the plaid-clad-farmer variety. With an emphasis on acquiring its fare from local farms — up to 80 percent when the season allows — the casual eatery has landed on the pages of Travel and Leisure magazine, the New York Times and Bon Appétit.
The first iteration of the diner opened in Barre in 2002, and it moved to a larger space in Quechee in 2006. As of early June, owners Tod Murphy and Denise Perras are running two locations, with their new resto now open in the Middlebury Marbleworks. Later this summer, they hope to explore possibilities in Chittenden County, and to create a commissary kitchen to whip up supplies for all The Farmers Diners.
Eating local may be a virtue, but it’s got to taste good, too. Luckily, the diner offers eaters plenty of reasons to check it out, despite some curable glitches in the cooking and the service. Chief among its assets are the cured and smoked meats — made under The Farmers Diner and sister business Vermont Smoke and Cure labels — that find their way into numerous dishes.
Another draw for locals is the restaurant’s current 24-hour service on weekends, starting Friday night. If you drop in for gravy fries or a slice of pie at 4:30 a.m., expect to see Midd students mixing it up with early risers. It’s a perk even Burlington lacks.
In keeping with its name, The Farmers Diner boasts red-and-white vinyl booths, folksy knickknacks on the walls and a menu of casual breakfast and lunch fare. (Small plates and dinner entrées are on the horizon.) The bathroom labels suggest that bulls and roosters are as welcome in the men’s room as, well, men.
The kitsch continues on the menu, which is jam packed with the kind of names that make me blush when I order: A buffalo chicken wrap, for example, is called “Cock and Fire.” (Sounds more like late-night premium cable than a meal.) The children’s menu offers more confusion, and hints of the macabre. It makes sense to name a hot dog “Little Pup,” but why is a barbecued chicken sandwich called “Oxen”? And does your tot really want to eat a “Calico Kitten” omelette or a “Pony” short stack for lunch?
Service at the Middlebury Farmers Diner varied dramatically from one of my meals to the next — nothing unusual for a restaurant just wrapping up its first week. On a Wednesday night, the place was busy but not packed. Nonetheless, appetizers took ages to get to our table, and a chocolate shake arrived a full 20 minutes after we were informed that the popular strawberry version we’d requested was sold out. At least our server was refreshingly frank about the delay: The ice cream was too hard to scoop right out of the freezer, she explained, and she’d put it on the counter to soften.
At lunchtime the next day, people filled the tables, but somehow things moved quite a bit more smoothly. A Mason jar of water arrived at my table almost immediately, with a wedge of lemon on the rim (unlike the previous evening). My shake materialized at the same time, with a surprise offering of Cabot whipped cream from a Holstein-printed can. Yes, please!
I’ll be honest: Some of the prices at The Farmers Diner will surprise you. If you still think the $5 milkshake Uma Thurman sipped in Pulp Fiction was on the pricey side, don’t freak out when your $6 version arrives in a pint-sized Mason jar. The shake is made with Strafford Organic Creamery’s ice cream, and it’s filling. My maple confection, while not quite as thick as I expected, featured the honest flavors of fresh cream and Vermont syrup. Did I crave more when it was gone? Most certainly not.
Similarly, a mug of chunky Southwestern black-bean-and-beef soup was $5, and a “Smoking Boar” sandwich rang up at $11. But that expensive stack of goodness was made with local cheddar, tomatoes and wheat bread, plus a trio of meats — turkey, ham and bacon — from Vermont Smoke and Cure. The New York Times once referred to those selfsame rashers as “possibly the best bacon on the planet.” Leaving aside the distressing paucity of mayonnaise, it was one mean club.
While I consistently enjoyed the diner’s excellent cold cuts and sausages, I noticed an arid quality in more than that triple-decker sandwich. The Reuben ($9) — here called a “Meatropolitan” — had the barest smear of creamy Thousand Island dressing on toast. (The condiment was used so sparingly that I had to deconstruct the sandwich to locate it.) Luckily, the rest was toothsome, including a melty slice of Boggy Meadow Swiss from New Hampshire.
A decadent plate of “Hog Heaven” — a pair of hot dogs wrapped in bacon and deep fried, served in perfectly toasted buns on a layer of coleslaw — also needed a little something to juice it up. The dogs and bacon themselves were crisp without being greasy, but the slaw on the buns didn’t have enough dressing to moisten the mix. The table offered a squeeze-bottle of ketchup — which I viewed as an insult to the fine swine — but no mustard.
Luckily, the “Sappy Squealer” pulled pork ($10), which I got on a housemade English muffin instead of a roll, had just the right portion of sticky maple-barbecue sauce. I piled my side of creamy, chunky coleslaw — accented with a perfect sprinkling of caraway seeds — atop the tender shreds of meat and dug in with fork and knife. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll have no complaints about this pleasant version of the Southern classic. But I wished the slaw had a hint of vinegar or citrus to balance and brighten the meal. The “zesty” pickle on the plate, really more of a standard spear, didn’t do the trick.
The same sweet barbecue sauce was used to good effect in an appetizer of golf-ball-sized hush puppies ($5) made with cornmeal from Butterworks Farm. The dense nuggets were flavorful, with added textural interest from fresh corn kernels mixed into the meal. Serving them in a cast-iron pan was a homey touch.
Another app, gravy fries, was also stellar. The diner’s rendition features a generous heap of golden, freshly cut spuds topped with a beefy dose of homemade gravy. I asked for mine with cheese, too, and got a blanket of gooey melted cheddar and jack. With a sprinkle of salt, it was perfection. Can honest-to-goodness poutine, with squeaky Vermont-made curds, be far behind?
Several other dishes were fine, but failed to reach the heights of those two appetizers. A burger ($8) topped with Green Mountain Blue Cheese seemed closer to medium-well-done than medium, but it tasted pleasant enough. The hash and eggs ($9), made with house-cured corned beef, tasted of green pepper and onion but wasn’t a memorable dish.
At The Farmers Diner, the question “How would you like your eggs?” isn’t just about cooking. All the breakfast fare can be prepared with either “pastured” eggs or the standard ones from (presumably) caged fowl. Hardcore animal ethicists who opt for the former will pay a premium at nearly 50 cents extra per egg, but it’s worth noting that the eggs, whether over easy or scrambled, do taste different. And the chickens surely appreciate the gesture.
The Farmers Diner forces eaters to put their money where their mouths are in a recession: If we’d rather munch on cold cuts from Vermont Smoke and Cure than Sara Lee, we’re gonna have to pay. And if we don’t want our milk to come from cows on a steady diet of corn and antibiotics, our shakes are going to be pricier than the ones at Friendly’s. The question is, with the economy still down, are folks willing to shell out? Given the weekday crowds at the diner, the answer, at least in Middlebury, seems to be yes.
With speedier service and some strategic tweaks to the fare, the Midd Farmers Diner could end up being a joint people choose just as often for its food as for its guiding philosophy. Eating like you’re down on the farm may not be cheap, but it can be damn good.