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A walk down memory lane in Burlington, VT


Fat Guy
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From 1987 through 1991 I attended the University of Vermont, in Burlington. It's where I met my wife, Ellen, on the first day of school. And we still have friends who live and work there. For example, Ellen's best friend from college (and maid of honor at our wedding) is now director of admissions at the university. Her husband, also a schoolmate of ours, practices law in Montpelier. They have two kids close in age to our son, and a big house in Williston, which is basically a suburb of Burlington (to the extent Burlington is enough of an urb to have suburbs).

In the past almost 20 years, the cuisine scene in Burlington has improved dramatically. The impact of the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) has been felt in restaurant kitchens all over the area, locavorism and food coops are now well established, and there are all sorts of artisanal ingredients and ambitious culinary projects underway that didn't exist in the late '80s.

Last weekend, however, the new wave of Burlington food opportunities was not my mission priority. I wanted to visit my three favorite old college haunts: Al's, Nectar's and Bove's.

Al's French Frys [sic.] is a Burlington institution dating back to the 1940s. It's reminiscent of a Southern California car-culture burger stand. In good weather, guys with cars with big engines stand around the parking lot comparing carburetors and eating burgers, fries and soft-serve ice cream. The place is always busy. The fries -- the signature item -- are fried twice in two temperatures of oil, and there's a rumor that one of the frying stages involves a percentage of beef tallow. Whether or not that's true, the fries are excellent. Other items, like burgers and frankfurters, are standard-issue: better than McDonald's and not as good as a real restaurant. Surprisingly, Al's is still a single-establishment operation (though they do have a mobile rig that sometimes shows up at fairgrounds and such). It seems eminently franchisable.

Nectar's is another cornerstone of Burlington, for music as well as food -- it's basically the local equivalent of CBGB, except it's still open. When I was in college, Phish played regularly at Nectar's, and there has been a long history of good live music there. I believe Nectar's became Nectar's (it was a bank previously) in 1975 when a gentleman named Nectar Rorris -- I think he came to Burlington from Hawaii -- renovated the two-level space into a downstairs bar/lounge/music place and an upstairs dance club. I'm pretty sure Nectar sold the place to new owners a little while back. Thankfully, he left behind his recipes. My memories of Nectar's involve taking a tray through a cafeteria line, where Nectar himself would carve either turkey or roast beef for you, making an open-face sandwich. Then he'd scoop an alarmingly large portion of fries on the plate and cover everything with his family-recipe gravy. The cafeteria line is now gone and the space has been spiffed up a bit. You order from a waitress and the food comes out of the kitchen in the back. Thankfully, the hot open-face turkey sandwich with fries and gravy tastes the same now as before, at least to me.

Finally, Bove's. We ate a lot of meals at Bove's in college. The basic procedure at Bove's, which is an Italian restaurant in an Art Deco cafe/diner building dating to 1941, is you order pasta with a choice of sauces. The choices are spaghetti, ziti and ravioli. The sauces are garlic, tomato, vodka, mushroom, basil and red pepper. There are some other things on the menu too, like an antipasto assortment. The meal starts with soft white bread of astoundingly poor quality that is nonetheless impossible to stop eating. The pasta is not overcooked. The sauces are quite good. Bove's has, in fact, been selling its sauces commercially for the past few years and I've even seen them around New York City. To me, by far the best Bove's sauce is the roasted-garlic sauce, available in either a red or white permutation. The white is my preference. It tastes like the sauce from linguine with clam sauce, except there are no clams and there's 20 times as much garlic. It's a garlic lover's dream. You sweat garlic the next day.

Al's and Bove's are totally kid-appropriate. Nectar's kind of isn't.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I went to NECI in Mont. and hope to move back to VT someday. I'm in NH now so not too far away! Burlington, and VT in general, does have a great up and coming food scene, and a lot of the local farmers and producers are top notch.

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Bove's used to be the only "ethnic" restaurant in the Burlington area - in the 60's, I don't think there was even a Chinese restaurant in town. Having shrimp cocktail at the Lincoln Inn on New Year's Eve was a big deal when I was a kid. The current menu doesn't look so good, though. The UVM dairy bar was into premium ice cream a decade before Ben and Jerry. When the IBM folks moved into the area in the mid-60's, they started wanting all these exotic foods like bagels....and things took off from there.

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I live in Winooski and work in a Burlington restaurant. I love Al's, especially for their prices, but have grown to love the cheapness but great bar food at Vermont Pub and Brewery. The toad in the hole is a must have. I have especially grown fond of all the Vietnamese restaurants popping up, most are just great. Plenty of new restaurants, but the some of the great old ones do still remain.

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