By Jane and Micheal Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
Of course Vermont is the number one breakfast state. Early-to-rise farmhouse hours, a high whole-grain consciousness, and the legendary maple syrup harvest add up to superior stacks of flapjacks. Consider also the custom of turning yesterday’s boiled-dinner leftovers into savory corned beef hash, and the North Country’s abundance of short-order diners as well as laid-back country inns. For eaters on dawn patrol, the prospects are boundless.
If a doughnut and a cup of coffee are all you need, there’s no better place to start the day than a counter stool at Mrs. Murphy’s Donuts, in Manchester. You can get Boston creams, jelly-filled, iced, and jimmie-sprinkled, but we’ll take plain sinkers every time. They are the polar opposite of the frivolous fat puffs sold by Krispy Kreme in other parts of the country (but not in Vermont, at least not yet). These have a wicked crunchy skin and cake insides with the structural integrity to sop a while in coffee. At Mrs. Murphy’s counter you’ll see a virtual do-si-doughnut line of dunkers dipping and indulging.
The storefront café is a local favorite; it occurred to us one breakfast hour that most customers weren’t telling Cheryl the waitress what they wanted—she just brought them the usual. One guy in a striped suit and brogues left his sedan idling outside, stepped to the takeout counter, grabbed a bag, and flapped it open for Cheryl to load with six sour cream doughnuts. As she rang him up, he nodded his thanks to her and she nodded her thanks to him. Then he left and drove away. Not a word passed between them.
Sonny’s Blue Benn Diner of Bennington doesn’t only serve breakfast, but it does serve breakfast all day. This seemingly eight-tenths-scale hash hut, crammed with signs listing specials arcane and modern, from creamed chipped beef on toast to soya sausage, is presided over by a team of waitresses who gracefully negotiate the confines of the creaky old monitor-roof diner carrying plates piled high with steaming corn bread French toast and stacks of crunchberry pancakes with turkey hash on the side. Don’t tell anyone, but we love to greet the sun with Blue Benn Indian pudding, a primordial cornmeal and molasses samp that is—technically speaking—a dessert but makes a salubrious morning cereal when served warm with a dollop of cream in place of the usual scoop of ice cream.
While scarcely a restaurant—no hot meals are served in the morning—Baba À Louis, in Chester, is one of Vermont’s most noteworthy breakfast stops. Since he opened his bakery over 20 years ago, John McLure has won a reputation for masterful yeast breads. If you are serious about bread, you can drop in any day after 7 A.M., find a seat at one of the tables opposite the bakery shelves, and enjoy a cup of coffee while tearing off pieces from a warm baguette, anadama loaf, or sourdough rye. The pastries are breathtaking, especially the sticky buns. Ribboned with a walnutty brown-sugar glaze, McLure’s buttery cylinders are so fragile and fine that they verge on croissant-hood.
Just about everyone who heads north to Mount Snow knows Dot’s, town lunchroom of Wilmington since the 1930s. Dot’s serves three meals a day, seven days a week, starting at 5:30, and while we adore the Yankee chili (beefy, bean-thick, and judiciously spiced) and French toast made from cracked-wheat bread, it’s the berryberry pancakes we nominate as a national treasure. We do concede that any berry-dotted pancake deserves some credit for merely existing, but the fruit in so many is dull—either because it was tasteless to begin with or because the life got cooked out of it. Dot’s berry-berries, packed with blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, are a Handel’s Messiah of flavor: rapturously fruity, forcefully tart, singing out for a full measure of the crystalline syrup made in Jacksonville by proprietor John Reagan’s in-laws.
We visited the postcard-perfect town of Dorset one evening for supper at The Dorset Inn. There we swooned over the most delicious calf’s liver we’d ever tasted—tender as foie gras, saturated with the sweetness of onions and the savor of bacon, and served with sides of creamy succotash. “People come just for her liver,” explained Nuni the everlasting waitress (“her” and “she” being the only terms Nuni uses to refer to chef Sissy Hicks). Chef Hicks later told us about the pilgrims who have heard of her cooking and demand to sample the one meal she considers her best work. She makes them calf’s liver. “Not everyone is a fan of it,” she chuckled. “But I’d have to say it’s my signature dish.”
Although a sign outside the inn, which is the state’s oldest, reads “Lunch and Dinner,” we overheard Nuni chatting with guests about how “she” planned to make corned beef hash the next morning. After sunup, we were there. (Nuni informed us that “Breakfast” is not on the sign simply because there wasn’t room for the sign painter to list three meals.)
Breakfast in The Dorset Inn’s garden room is our vision of morning in heaven. Irregular-shaped buttermilk pancakes come studded with brilliant blueberries, crunchy raised waffles have the old-style small-tread surface that holds countless droplets of swirled melting butter and maple syrup, and the corned beef hash is a patty with a crisp outside that surrounds a glistening center of ragged, brick-red beef shreds, nuggets of carrot, and caramel-brown ribbons of onion. When we raved to chef Hicks about the wonders of her table, she explained, with North Country cool, “I try to make what people want when they come to a Vermont country inn.”
Baby A Louis (permanently closed)
Route 11 West
The Dorset Inn