As the Planet Turns
For nearly three decades, an iconic eatery has changed with Burlington
It was 1982, and Clem Nilan, Jack Hurley and Ken Russack — then owners of Sneakers Bistro — were trying to come up with a name for their new Queen City restaurant. The Center Street eatery would be close to the newly built Nickelodeon movie theater and the offices of the Burlington Free Press in a building that once housed a printing press. The trio wanted a name that gave a sense of its location and history.
One morning, Nilan and two friends were brainstorming at Sneakers when a patron piped up, “You’re calling it The Daily Planet?”
“It was a total fluke,” says Nilan, who claims that name had never come up in their conversations. But with visions of Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel fresh in people’s minds, it just felt right to find a restaurant called The Daily Planet within yelling distance of a newspaper office and a multiplex.
Within a few years, The Planet would be considered one of the best restaurants in Burlington, and possibly in the whole state. But the owners’ original intentions were humble. “We wanted a place our friends could come, and not just on special occasions,” says Nilan. “We weren’t trying to be high falutin’ in any way.”
Nonetheless, with the California flair of original chef Mimi Frey and an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients more than two decades before that became trendy, the restaurant quickly turned into a downtown hot spot.
Menus from the early days demonstrate a host of seemingly incompatible influences. One was healthy hippie fare. Planet salads came with sprouts and cottage cheese, tofu and tempeh were menu regulars, and dishes had names such as Earth Pasta and Salad Cluster. Nilan recalls: “It was the first restaurant in Burlington where there was brown rice.”
But customers who didn’t dig kale could find plenty of cuisine that was more haute — especially for Vermont in those days. At dinner, French bread came with watercress spread. The Planet offered a pâté and cheese plate, and pieces of filet mignon — called Celestial Medallions — were served with a choice of garlic butter, mushroom brandy sauce or red wine reduction. Duck breast and fresh fish made regular appearances.
Global flavors were important, too. One lunch menu from 1983 included Polish pierogi, Mediterranean Chicken Salad, Japanese Noodle Salad, burritos and Hunan Wok Vegetables. At the time, “there weren’t Chinese restaurants on every corner. There weren’t Thai restaurants everywhere,” explains Kate Hays, who was co-head chef at the Planet from 1986 to 1992, along with Sandy Morris. Offering such unusual dishes allowed displaced city folks to get a taste of home, and Vermonters to sample ingredients they’d never seen.
Hays came to her Planet gig from Boston, where northern Italian and Mediterranean food were all the rage. She wanted to work there in part because the restaurant “looked like the coolest thing ever,” she recalls. Although it was her first time as head chef, she didn’t feel out of her depth. “I came to Vermont, and it was five years behind [in trends],” Hays remembers. “All I needed to do was pull out stuff that was already tired in Boston ... to be ahead of the game.”
Former employee Ed Beckwith, who worked at the Planet for 21 years in numerous positions, says Hays’ strategy was a success: “We were probably the best restaurant in Vermont when she was chef.” He recalls a San Francisco couple who came to the Planet with low expectations. “We’re restaurant people, and this is a revelation,” he remembers them saying. “We’re amazed that this is as good as anything we’ve ever had.”
As exciting as the food was for the time, Hays says a big part of the Planet experience for her was the tight-knit relationships of owners and staff. “We were family. It was a 24/7 thing,” she says. “There were bumpy times in the beginning, but when we got in the groove, we were together.”
In January 1992, the original owners sold the restaurant to Copey Houghton. After that, Hays says, the vibe “changed drastically.” Like many restaurant staffers in the go-go era of the ’80s and early ’90s, the Planet crew had always partied hard. Beckwith recalls arriving at the restaurant in the morning to find people passed out in the bar.
But, says Hays, “I think it became wilder when the family aspect was gone.” She left partway through that year and, along with Sandy Morris, started a catering company called Global Bites. (Hays is now the sole owner of Dish catering.)
Unlike Hurley, Russack and Nilan, Houghton was an out-of-towner when he took over at the Planet. “I [moved] up from Martha’s Vineyard. I was running three restaurants down there, and I was looking for a restaurant up here,” he explains. Hurley, who happened to be Houghton’s Burlington real estate agent, offered the Planet pending his partners’ approval, though it wasn’t officially on the market.
“What’s most intriguing to me is how unique The Daily Planet is,” says Houghton. “That’s the part I’ve fallen in love with over the years. I’ve had to mold myself to fit it.”
Hays’ sister and fellow Planet employee, Anne Taylor, stuck around through the change of ownership, working both the front and back of the house “on and off for 15 years,” she says. “I’ve hostessed; I’ve bartended; I’ve been the head chef. I was the person Copey would call in a pinch.”
And, with many core staffers from the old days gone, there were probably more “pinches” than Houghton might have liked. For years, chefs and front-of-the-house managers came and went, leaving customers complaining about inconsistent service and food quality.
Maura O’Sullivan worked at the Planet during some of those turbulent years. (She went on to be executive chef of Smokejacks and is now a chef at Penny Cluse.) “Not in a bad way — but, in retrospect, I think the place was going through a little bit of an identity crisis,” she says. “It had been very vegetarian focused, and a shift was happening.”
The restaurant’s changing identity may have caused a few power struggles. “I worked with a lot of great people for some very short time periods,” O’Sullivan remembers. “There aren’t that many [head chef] jobs in this town. People come in and want it to be their dream, and it’s the owner’s dream. If that doesn’t work for you, you might move on.”
Hays attributes some of the turnover to the work styles of the younger generation. “People are more transient than they used to be. They do what they can in one place and move on to try something else,” she says.
Today, with highly pedigreed new chef Michael Clauss on board (see “Superchef”), members of the old Planet family are once again jazzed up about the restaurant’s future.
Since Clauss arrived, O’Sullivan says, she’s stopped in at The Planet with friends, but she couldn’t persuade them to order anything but burgers. She sampled the lamb sweetbreads. “They were good. Fairly ambitious for a li’l hippie restaurant in Burlington,” she says. “I’ve gotta go back in.”
O’Sullivan has another reason to go back: She wants to share with Clauss the origin of her namesake dish, Maura’s Salad. Aside from the burger, it’s the only item from the old days that’s still available.
“The salad was made with leftovers from a New Year’s menu,” O’Sullivan says of the popular combo of greens, grapes, garlic, cheese and toasted pecans. With a laugh, she notes: “It was never something that came to me in a dream. It came to me in a bus tub.” O’Sullivan is “very pleased” that Clauss is making it with Boucher blue rather than “some whatever cheese.”
Nilan hasn’t checked out the new Planet yet. “I’m going to wait a while before I go in to let them get in the groove,” he says. “I’ve been following it very closely, and I find the menu intriguing.”
Hays, who has heard “mixed reviews” of the new menu, is also holding off on revisiting her old domain for a while. “I want to give [Clauss] plenty of time to settle in,” she says. “[The Daily Planet] is aching for somebody to make something of it. It’s aching for something new. If it could be a place you can go and have it be comfy and good, I’d be in seventh heaven.”