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Tilley's Café charts new courses on lower Church Street

How do you get your bearings with a menu that includes brie and caramelized onion quesadilla, ratatouille risotto, Southwest chicken Caesar salad and spicy tuna sushi? At Tilley's Café, newly opened at the former Coyote's Café site in downtown Burlington, the food is all over the map. Co-owners Newcomb Munt and Suzanne Johnson call it "Uncharted Cuisine."

The idea seems to be that you've stepped off lower Church Street and onto a schooner that might drift just about anywhere - as long as it's got azure waters, warm breezes and fish that jump straight from the ocean and onto your plate. The décor drives home the point with a model yacht, a salt-water aquarium, trompe l'oeil murals depicting an imaginary lower-latitude shoreline and, coming soon, an actual dinghy for kids to play in.

Sure, it's a bit Jimmy Buffet. And localvores might beef about the "ingredients sourcing" - grilled pineapple and mango in salads, guava buerre blanc on mahi mahi, and fresh fish flown in daily all the way from Hawaii. But the result turns out to be damned good.

The service was attentive and professional on a recent weeknight. The waitress, dressed like a deck hand in a navy-blue polo shirt, pointed out the "water menu" - a tough sell, as it turned out; eau de Burlington won out over bottled Fiji and San Pellegrino. More effectively, she recommended two pieces of coconut-pineapple cornbread in the breadbasket that might otherwise have been overlooked. Moist and light and reminiscent of pineapple-upside-down cake, only without the cloying sweetness, the cornbread was the first of several pleasant surprises.

Caesar salad seems pretty standard, but the one that came with the "Paniolo" steak order was nice and funky, with sheets of shaved Parmesan laid on top. Next came an outstanding - and enormous - short-ribs appetizer, with the meat cut into thin cross-section slices and grilled. How often does an appetizer necessitate a doggy bag? 

Both the steak and Ahi tuna entrées arrived rare - exactly as requested. Even the garnishes delivered. The shitake mushrooms and julienned snow peas on the tuna proved to be perfect complements. And the silky wilted spinach under the escolar "Vera Cruz" had a mouth-watering, browned-butter taste. The only missed note was the lime and coconut crème brulée, in which the custard under the delicious crust had been unevenly cooked - too hard on the bottom and too soft on top.

The dinner was quite impressive for a restaurant that hadn't even officially launched - Tilley's "officially" opens this Friday. But the folks at the helm are hardly beginners. Chef Lisa Foster - a St. Johnsbury native and NECI grad - owned a bistro in Ohio and worked for several years in Hawaii, where she picked up the fusion approach evident in many of her dishes. 

Munt, 46, comes with 25 years' experience in the service industry; he opened restaurants for Four Seasons resorts and Tommy Bahama's - the tropical-themed chain whose influence can also be felt at Tilley's. 

Johnson, 44, ran a take-out restaurant in Snowmass, Colorado, and has extensive experience in sales, especially real estate, which she still does full-time. At Tilley's, she handles behind-the-scenes marketing and front-of-the-house customer schmoozing.

The owners also know Burlington. Munt was born and raised here; he's the son of Janet Munt, the former Democratic state senator from Chittenden County. After leaving home at 18 to attend Florida State, he moved to Southern California, where he trained as a stuntman before diving into the restaurant business. He returned to Vermont a year and a half ago, in time for his mom's double knee-replacement surgery. It turned out to be the right move. While home, he received a business call from a woman whose name he didn't recognize. Forty-five minutes later, they'd sorted out the misunderstanding, and discovered a spark. Today the two are not only in business together but engaged to be married.

"He got me, three kids, two dogs, a cat and a pony," Johnson says. Munt's Tommy Bahama's island vibe blends well with her nautical background. She grew up near the ocean, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and on Martha's Vineyard. The "Tilley" in the restaurant's name refers to her golden retriever - whose moniker derives from the tiller that steers a boat. But the restaurant is really a tribute to Johnson's father.

Frank Snyder, who died last June, was instrumental in the development of Stratton Mountain in the early 1960s, and had a passion for sailing. He was commodore of the New York Yacht Club and a competitor in 27 Bermuda races, according to his daughter. "He sailed halfway around the world with my mother," she says. "It's in my blood." Her dad's favorite boat, Chasseur, turns up in the mural at Tilley's.

The painting was produced by Lillian Kennedy, a long-time friend of Munt's mother, and the woman responsible for the Roman scene at Sweetwaters. After getting her start in Burlington, she created landscape murals for Tavern on the Green and the Bronx Zoo, among other Big Apple venues. Now a resident of Boulder, Kennedy happened to be visiting Janet Munt when she heard about the nascent restaurant and offered to paint the walls. Her sun-and-water scenery says "vacation" - which is exactly what Munt wants customers to feel when they step inside.

Munt and Johnson's optimistic vision extends to the world outside, as well. After the fire last weekend at Five Spice Café and Big Daddy's down the block, people suggested that the owners of Tilley's - which didn't suffer any damage - would benefit from the decreased competition. Johnson bristles at the suggestion. "We're very sad," she says. "It's always better to have more restaurants than fewer. It's sad to see such a big stronghold gone, at least temporarily."

If Munt gets his wish, whatever eateries reopen in the damaged spaces will be part of a revitalized block. While the strolling, shopping and dining scene has made the Church Street Marketplace flourish, he points out, businesses beyond the pedestrian mall have struggled. Part of the problem is that lower Church Street's eating and drinking establishments have tended to draw more for their drinks than for their eats. The lower-block crowd has been disproportionately college-aged, which can discourage young families and older clientele. The situation is most acute at 2 a.m., when about 4000 partiers pour out of the bars and converge at the corner of Church and Main. Munt calls the crowd "a logistical nightmare for the police."

He hopes to take the block in a new direction. To help cut down the 2 a.m. chaos, Tilley's closes at 1. To entice customers who might balk at braving the downtown scene, the restaurant is offering free valet parking - a Burlington first, Munt believes. Says Johnson, "I'm coming from being a single mom with three kids. I can appreciate how hard it is for people to come out for dinner." In addition to the kid-friendly dinghy, Munt and Johnson say they'll provide stories at the tables, penned by her brother and illustrated by her sister, about Tilley the dog's sailing adventures.

But Tilley's isn't just trying to be family-friendly. To capture folks from the Flynn post-performance, the café will feature late-night fare from 11 to 1 - "a special we've run during the day that's left over, soups, sushi," Munt suggests. The aim is to "give people a viable alternative to pizza, hot dogs and gravy fries," he continues, then adds, "Not that there's anything wrong with gravy fries. I grew up on them as well."

Streetscape is an overarching concern. "I'd like to see the city and surrounding communities get on the bandwagon to revitalize the area outside the Marketplace," Munt says. He argues that the outlying blocks could be brought back to their "natural beauty" with better sidewalks, new lighting fixtures and planters. To pay for these improvements, he suggests the city designate the area around the Flynn as a theater district, so it would qualify for federal revitalization grants.

When he talks this way, Munt sounds more like a politician than a food purveyor. His inner policymaker comes through even more when he mentions that servers at Tilley's are paid $5 an hour - $1.35 more than the going rate for waitstaff. "My mom and several other people are trying to get the service-industry a liveable wage," he explains, noting that a bill now before the legislature would phase out the difference between the state's minimum wage for tipped and untipped workers. "We're letting people know it's OK to work in the service industry," he says. "There are professionals working in the industry in this town."

He's one of them - a fact that becomes clear by the end of a nearly perfectly orchestrated evening at Tilley's. The restaurant's slogan may be "Uncharted Cuisine," but very little here has been left to chance. That's a good thing for the customer. There's nothing more relaxing than knowing you're in good hands, even if your "vacation" only lasts as long as it takes to enjoy a pink grapefruit and avocado salad.

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