It’s 3 p.m. and Bob Buley, 76, is at the Wayside Restaurant’s counter for the second time since breakfast. He’s not the only one. The rectangular serving area has space for 20 regulars to argue politics, gossip or share a cup of coffee with friends. Long ago, the most devoted of the clientele at the 92-year-old restaurant became known as “Counter Intellegence” — and, yes, the misspelling is intentional.
The Wayside’s down-home charms are no local secret — the restaurant has been celebrated by Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood.com, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Congressional Record, to name a few. Governor Douglas attended its 90th anniversary gala. This month, Robert Burns fans may be tempted to swing by as half-Scottish co-owner Brian Zecchinelli celebrates the poet’s life and work with pictures, verse and a $6.95 Highland beef dinner on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Served with traditional “neeps and tatties” and showered in local whisky sauce, the dish can make a boozy meal, along with Scottish whisky cake and a nip of the Famous Grouse. (Alcohol is laughably affordable at the Wayside.)
But while tourists may drop in to check out the theme meal and savor the novelty of guzzling $3.95 Manhattans and martinis at the full bar, Counter Intellegence has staying power. Zecchinelli has even had T-shirts made for the crew to identify themselves — though no one is sporting one when we visit. The shirts feature caricatures of a passel of diners and the motto “Great Food, Fellowship and Fun.”
How does one earn the honor of wearing the tee? “You buy it,” deadpans Guy Hutchinson, 75. When Zecchinelli jokingly threatens to reprint the shirts with “Intelligence” spelled correctly, Hutchinson recoils.
Another F word could just as easily be added to the shirt: family. Since the restaurant’s inception as a snack bar in 1918 — when Effie Ballou prepared soups and doughnuts in her home and warmed them up for customers — the owner of the Wayside has always lived in the house just up the hill. Joseph and Amy Fish bought the restaurant from Ballou; their son and daughter-in-law inherited the package in 1954. In 1966, Eugene Galfetti became the patriarch of the longest Wayside dynasty. Since 1994, Galfetti’s daughter Karen and her husband, Zecchinelli, have run the Wayside, living in the house where Karen grew up.
One member of Counter Intellegence, Joan Barsalou, says a neighborly atmosphere has always prevailed at the Wayside. Her connection with the eatery goes back to 1968, when, still reeling from a divorce, she took a waitressing job there. Making only 79 cents an hour plus tips in those days, Barsalou couldn’t afford childcare. So Mrs. Galfetti, Karen’s mother, watched Barsalou’s three children while she earned her wages.
Barsalou, who now works at the Canadian Club in Barre, says her relationship with Eugene Galfetti was often contentious but always affectionate. When he accused her of having a profane “diner mouth,” she recalls, Barsalou got all the waitresses to take a vow of silence in retaliation.
Another time, Barsalou caught Galfetti complaining, “Damn waitresses, they’re worth a dime a dozen.” She slammed a dime on the kitchen counter, told him to buy 12 waitresses and walked out. Shortly after she got home, Barsalou received a call from Galfetti, begging her to return.
“I got fired from here a couple of times, but I always got rehired,” she says with a laugh. Seems her brassiness wasn’t unusual: Hutchinson says one of his favorite parts of dining at the Wayside is that “You can pick on the waitresses, and they can pick back.”
At 67, Barsalou remembers the time before I-89 reached Montpelier. In those days, any driver traveling between Canada and New Hampshire passed the Wayside on the Barre-Montpelier Road. “This used to be a real truck stop,” Barsalou says. “I liked it better when they were all truckers.”
Hutchinson says he’s been enjoying the Wayside’s pea soup and corn chowder with his wife since they married in 1955. But when it comes to the flocks of travelers, he begs to differ with Barsalou: “Thank God they don’t come anymore. Busloads of Canadians used to interfere with regular customers.”
When Buley first patronized the Wayside, back in his high school days in the late 1940s and early ’50s, “It was a bus stop,” recalls the Montpelier native. “If we were in Barre for a game or something, we would stop here.”
Buley still works part time as a finance officer for the National Guard, but he makes room in his schedule to join his friends four or five times a week at the counter. He says part of the Wayside’s appeal is that “it’s almost like a sports bar.” A heated Yankees/Sox rivalry simmers in microcosm right at the counter.
After years of stumping, Buley finally persuaded Zecchinelli to host a Yankees rally with 15-cent hot dogs as a counterpart to an annual Red Sox event. “It was very difficult,” says Zecchinelli. “Two hundred fewer people showed up [than for the Sox rally], but we made 6 percent more in sales.”
Of course, at $2.50 on the menu, the restaurant’s hot dog is still an unparalleled bargain. The members of Counter Intellegence agree that price is a factor in keeping them coming back to the Wayside day after day. “All the restaurants in Montpelier raised their prices when NECI came,” says retired resident Hutchinson.
Zecchinelli says keeping prices low is a priority for him, but it’s not always easy — some of his restaurant’s most popular dishes involve local meats and produce. In the winter, the Wayside serves a heaping plate of fresh local perch with a choice of two sides and a house-baked roll for $8.95. Zecchinelli says that, although his fishermen are just hobbyists looking to defray their gas expenses, he pays them $4 plus a $1 gift certificate for each pound caught. “It’s more expensive than scallops or prime rib sometimes,” he says.
Another menu staple is honeycomb beef tripe. This old-time Vermont delicacy, made from the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach, doesn’t come cheap. But its fans are passionate: Zecchinelli says, “Of all the specials, my mother will still order the tripe every time. At $8.95, we’re losing money, but it brings more people in. If one person comes from Morrisville, then tells three friends, people are gonna come.”
Clearly we need to try this one and find out what the buzz is about. Tripe is a little scary. The petals of the reticulum look like a newly discovered creature from the depths of the ocean — or outer space. Luckily, the Wayside’s chef, Jeff Virge, coats the stomach in batter, hiding its potentially off-putting exterior. Before it’s battered, Virge marinates the organ in vinegar. The result is the meat equivalent of a salt-and-vinegar chip, with the surprising but pleasant texture of a marshmallow.
The meaty little perch, served six to a plate, come with creamy house-made tartar sauce, but Zecchinelli recommends using the several slices of lemon provided. Good idea. Though the fish are battered and fried, it’s their light taste that tingles with freshness. They’re fun to eat, too. Detaching each piece of the flaky white meat from the animal’s spine is the pescatory equivalent of peeling orange sections.
Hutchinson has stopped in for a cup of coffee this time, not a meal. But he recommends another Wayside classic: “Back in the ’50’s, it was the salt pork and gravy. Thursday night, you couldn’t fit into this place.”
The dish is still a special every Thursday. Virge, a 30-year veteran of the Wayside’s kitchen, calls himself “chef-instructor and Wayside encyclopedia.” And he relishes preparing the farmhouse-necessity-turned-tasty-treat.
“It’s salty and fatty, just the way people like it. A nutritionist’s nightmare,” Virge says of the salt pork, grabbing a deep-fried rasher for himself. But what is it, exactly? Fatback, the layer of lard attached to the pig’s skin.
“Your next layer will have some bacon,” Virge explains. “If there’s a piece of meat in there, you’ve got problems.” During the salt cure, any muscle will turn to jerky, says Virge. He is careful to finely slice the wad of pure fat before he breads it in a flour concoction reminiscent of the coating on fried chicken.
The result is a seethingly sensuous bite of fat and flavor. When the salt pork is dipped in milk gravy, it gets even richer, with a soothing creaminess. Though lines of people waiting for the dish no longer snake through the parking lot as they did in Hutchinson’s day, Zecchinelli says it’s still popular, and the Wayside does a mean takeout business in salt pork. “People come and get it to go for their grandma who’s shut in, or bring it to the nursing home. One guy gets four orders to go every Thursday.”
Those customers often pick up a pie, too. From the dozen or so pie choices to the doughnuts to the “Soon to be Famous” chocolate cake, almost all the baked goods at the Wayside — with the exceptions of hot dog buns and English muffins — are made fresh in the restaurant’s enormous kitchen.
Zecchinelli cares about keeping locals happy with such old-time staples — which also include baked mostaccioli (“a Barre thing,” he says) and meatloaf from Virge’s mother’s recipe. But the Wayside staff does make an effort to keep the menu current. Each Wednesday night in season, the Frost Heaves basketball team makes an appearance at the restaurant, and so does a more contemporary special. On January 5, it was butterflied shrimp dipped in coconut and served with orange-rum whipped cream. Green chile cheese poppers were the appetizer du jour.
Zecchinelli is proud that new generations are discovering the Wayside and considers his restaurant exceptionally kid friendly. His own young son, Nick, will host a benefit dinner for Silver Towers summer camp in February.
But enduring traditions like the salt pork and the gabbing of Counter Intellegence make the Wayside a Vermont treasure. Perhaps someone who’s been a part of the phenomenon for decades can best sum it up. “We had an awful lot of fun,” says Barsalou, as she carefully tips her waitress and leaves for work. “We still do.”
Wayside Restaurant and Bakery, 1873 Route 302, Berlin, 223-6611