Is there a nighthawk in Vermont who hasn't gone hungry because almost every restaurant in the state stops serving dinner at 9 p.m.? Even in Burlington, late-night eating options are limited. The one reliable wee-hour restaurant -- Denny's -- is in South Burlington, and you need wheels to get there.
At long last, the Queen City appears to be working up an after-hours appetite. A number of downtown restaurants now serve dinner until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Global Markets keeps the grill hot until 4. And last weekend, Henry's Diner made local culinary history by expanding its hours of operation from 10 to 23, suggesting Burlington may be becoming a real city after all.
"There's a demand for late-night dining," says bartender Aaron Pisano of Leunig's Bistro on Church Street. "A huge demand."
I begin my investigation there, where the large, white, freestanding clock in the middle of the restaurant reads 11 p.m. The kitchen has just closed, but the bar is crowded with thirtysomething patrons sipping drinks and picking at desserts. We pull up the only vacant seats at the bar, and consider the sweet selections. My companion -- who doesn't eat gluten -- explains her predicament. Pisano names two flourless dessert options off the top of his head.
He also tells us that Leunig's is one of several downtown restaurants that closes the kitchen before the bar, avoiding the drunken late-night food crowd. "The trouble isn't even the people coming from the bars," Pisano offers. "It's kids who aren't even of legal age coming down from their dorm rooms."
A block away, around the intersection of Main and Church Streets, a multitude of carts and walk-up food counters cater to bar patrons looking to sober up or anyone else in search of cheap, late-night chow. The busiest is Kountry Kart, with its sandwiches and chips. Right next door is Ahli Baba's Kabob Shop. Mr. Mike's, Big Daddy's and Manhattan Pizza all serve slices into the single-digit hours. Nectar's lets you take a load off -- and feast on artery-clogging gravy fries -- until 2 a.m.
But there are more civilized options.
At 11:45 we finish our drinks at Leunig's, and head to the Green Room on St. Paul Street, where we've arranged to meet some friends. From a chilly spring night in Burlington, we step through an emerald glow into another time and place: a 1980s nightclub in Manhattan? Shiny black furniture. A hand-stamping bouncer. Dim lighting. A DJ spinning retro and hip-hop, while a decked-out crowd that's fairly young -- but not college -- yells back and forth over the music.
We arrive at the same time as the rest of our group, and by some miracle, find a table and order drinks. The main menu items are no longer available, but they are still serving appetizers, all reasonably priced at $7. We're not talking nachos here. The crab risotto with Mediterranean salad is delicious, and filling. We also sample two crostini plates -- one with smoked salmon and artichoke topping; the other, with olive tapenade. The Cajun trout with sliced avocado goes down easy. I'd stay for another round -- of drinks and appetizers -- but there are more late-night eateries on my plate.
As much as the Green Room is dark, loud and crowded, Global Markets is brightly lit, and there are just a few people sitting at tables when we reach the far end of North Winooski Avenue. It's not an easy stagger from downtown, but owner Waell Murray makes it worth the schlep: he greets us himself -- standard procedure at all times of day and night.
"We are open till insane hours. And I work all of them," Murray says. "We have guys call in around 12, from a bar, asking, 'Can you feed 15?' By the time they walk in here, everything is ready. I'm happy to feed a party of 10, 15 people -- even at 4 in the morning. If I have to stay an extra hour, it's okay."
Global Markets offers Middle Eastern and Vietnamese cuisine and, according to Ben, a regular enjoying his nightly dinner, the world's best Philly cheese steak, for $5.50. "This is definitely my favorite restaurant," Ben says. "I'd sooner eat shoe leather than eat at the carts -- and I make shoes." Global Markets is open until 3:45 a.m. every day except Sunday, when they close at 10 p.m. Murray doesn't work on Mondays.
"The whole late-night idea was the idea of a Yellow Cab driver," says Murray. "He said when he picks people up from the theater at night, there's no one open." Murray decided to try late-night hours during Ramadan, the Islamic holiday when Muslims fast during the day, but eat at night. "By the time it was over," Murray says, "I realized that even without Ramadan, it was the Americans who wanted me to be open nights . . . I don't use that expression, 'Sorry we're closed.' Never did. Never will."
Murray converses with every customer -- he talks me out of the Philly cheese steak and into a Bosnian ground beef sandwich called a cevapcice. "The playwright Josh Bridgman came in a few weeks ago," Murray says. "He heard I serve goat head. So I went into my freezer to get a goat head, and I boiled it in sauce to thaw it out. When it was finally ready, he yelled out, 'This is the best head I've ever had!'"
I would love to chat with Murray and his regulars all night, but downtown calls. Last calls, actually. We arrive back at Church and Main around 1:45 a.m. and wade through a crowd of people at the crosswalk to get one last drink at Manhattan Pizza. Like most downtown bars, Manhattan operates in a different time zone than the rest of Burlington. There's a 25-minute discrepancy between my watch and the bartender's clock, which reads 2:10 a.m. Past last call.
Back out on the street, walking past the rows of carts and walk-ups, we are joined by hundreds of other people who have been expelled from the bars. People are drunk-dialing on cell phones, they're yelling for their wobbly friends to keep up, and -- of course -- they have the munchies. We re-cross Main Street in the direction of Bank Street, but I am distracted by Kevin Shea, the hot-dog guy. It's not so much Shea himself that catches my eye, but his hat: a 16-inch foam hot dog-through-the-head number à la Steve Martin.
"Watch that thing!" says his cashier, ducking. "You keep hitting me with your wiener!"
We continue up Church Street to Henry's Diner, where a new era in late-night dining is about to begin. Established in 1925, Henry's has just expanded its weekend hours to stay open all night on Friday and Saturday. Directly inside the front door, welcoming the first late-night crowd, is a Burlington police officer.
"Trouble, Officer?" I ask.
"No trouble," he says. "It's just that when people get drunk they do stupid things. We're just here tonight to let people know that, well, we're here."
The scene inside Henry's is quieter than the one outside the bars. The radio plays soothing oldies, while post-bar noshers are scattered among the booths and tables, including two large groups of eight or nine people. "It's been quieter than we expected," our server reports, "but I think it'll get busier when the word gets around." Just after we order breakfast, one booth breaks out in song -- a cell phone serenade to a friend who just got off from work. They're not terrible singers, but their words are slurred beyond recognition. Everyone, including the cop, laughs at the late-night entertainment.
Our food arrives, and it's typical diner fare: a stack of pancakes for me and a sizable spinach and cheddar omelette for my friend. "The menu is the same as our day menu," our server says, "without the dinners. And everything is bumped up about a buck." Drowning my pancakes in real maple syrup -- for which you pay an extra $1.25 -- I feel confident that late-shift workers and all-night partiers need not go hungry in downtown Burlington. They just need to know where to look.