Side Dishes: Eateries opening despite economy
The Green Mountain state is chock-full of restaurants, but has it ever seen a “culinary emporium”? That’s how chef-owner Marcus Hamblett  describes his new eatery One Federal, slated to open in early March in the Saint Albans spot where The Old Foundry used to be. Hamblett promises Sunday “jazz brunches,” a full-service bakery, private cooking classes with the chef and a gift shop to sell the eatery’s signature sauces and other restaurant merch. Moreover, the 36-year-old NECI  grad and former chef-instructor says the entire staff will consist of interns and graduates of the culinary school.
For the past five years, Hamblett and his wife Erika have been searching for a restaurant to call their own. They finally found it in the 7000-square-foot North Country property, which has been renovated from the ground up. “It’s just beautiful,” Hamblett gushes, noting that the gardens will soon be filled with edible wildflowers, fragrant herbs and climbing tomatoes.
One Federal will be a steakhouse and seafood joint with “a little bit of Italian fare thrown in,” Hamblett relays. Seasonal veggies will come from the couple’s 5-acre garden, located offsite. And Hamblett hopes to keep prices down: “We’re going to start at about $13 for entrées, working up to $21.” The prime rib — served with any of 15 classic sides, such as salad, rice, “smashed” potatoes or a 1-pound baked spud — will hover at the top of that range. A handful of extra-special options, such as local venison and lamb, will be a bit pricier.
For the cost, Hamblett assures that the portions will be Franklin County-sized: “There are a lot of big boys up here, farmers,” he explains.
When they started dishing up spaghetti and meatballs on January 29, the staff at Lucia’s Italian Restaurant & Bar in Barre kept things hush-hush — they didn’t take out ads or call the press. “We really just turned the lights on,” explains Jon Fath, who co-owns Lucia’s and Richmond’s Toscano Café Bistro  with his wife Lucie. But their patrons couldn’t keep a secret: By Valentine’s Day, the eatery was anything but quiet. “We were completely booked up. We did about 265 dinners,” Fath says.
Given that a handful of eateries in the Barre area have closed over the past year — All Fired Up Tavern and Stonecutters Brewhouse, to name two recent losses — Fath believes locals were “chomping at the bit for something else to open down here.” Although a few of his fans from Richmond have made the trip to try the couple’s new spot, most of the clientele has come from the Granite City.
What’s the draw? Located in the redone Sean & Nora’s spot on North Main Street, the spacious restaurant offers “red sauce Italian at $12.95,” Fath dishes. “Our approach has been to do our thing at a price that seems to fit our area and our times.” So far, hot-ticket items include the manicotti Florentine, shrimp scampi and chicken piccata. “We can’t keep chicken in the house,” Fath says. “It’s huge.”
The owner acknowledges, however, that the restaurant is still in its “honeymoon period.” “Things will level out, and they should,” he says, noting that to keep Barre vibrant, it’s important for locals to keep supporting the area’s other eateries. “Some of those restaurants have been here for 30 years,” Fath marvels.
People are calling it the area’s first “gay bar” since Pearl’s. But the folks at Two Friends Bistro & Lounge in South Burlington — located between Quiznos and Higher Ground  — aren’t promoting it that way . . . at least, not yet.
“We’re mainly a restaurant for lunch and dinner. We haven’t quite figured out what we’re doing for late night,” says Assistant Manager Melissa Campeau. She’s the sister of co-owner Rick Campeau, who also cuts women’s hair at The Men’s Room  in Burlington.
According to Melissa, the kitchen specializes in casual fare such as “French onion soup in bread bowls,” shrimp cocktail and chicken fingers with fries. The bar boasts “Cosmopolitans, margaritas, apple martinis . . . and anything else [patrons] want.”
It was with a heavy heart that Aaron Millon  sat down at his keyboard on February 4 and tapped out an email to 300 friends of his eatery, Montpelier’s Restaurant Phoebe.
For the first time ever, it looked like the restaurateur might not be able to afford his payroll. “[Wife and business partner] Debbie and I have invested quite a bit of money into the restaurant; we just didn’t have anymore,” he explains in a phone conversation.
His mass email read: “I will not let Restaurant Phoebe close unless somebody tells me it must, or I feel the quality of our ingredients must be compromised due to cost. I would rather ask for the financial support from our community.” In short, Millon proposed that patrons interested in keeping Phoebe alive help the eatery join a handful of other “community-supported restaurants.”
While he anticipated that some of his customers would chip in, Millon wasn’t prepared for the “eloquent and heartwarming” response from several hundred people. “We’re still getting emails every day. It’s still making ripples,” he says with wonder. Press coverage of his missive in The Burlington Free Press didn’t hurt.
Not all of the respondents offered cash, but many pledged their “karmic support,” says Millon, and stated their intention to eat at the restaurant more often, despite their own belt-tightening. Others were good for medium-sized donations, and about 15 percent offered to pony up some pretty big bucks.
The Millons are currently working with their legal council to hammer out the terms of their new membership agreements. Aaron hopes theirs will be an example for chef-owned restaurants nationwide. “How many other independent restaurants are in this same situation?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s a tough business, and it’s a tough time for a tough business.”