Few Vermont eateries attain the fame of Plainfield's River Run, which Mississippi-born chef Jimmy Kennedy opened with his then wife, Maya, in 1991. Over the next 18 years, the barbecue joint — which brought fare such as catfish, hush puppies and fried dill pickles to central Vermont — racked up the accolades.
In USA Today, it was singled out as one of the nation's "top ten catfish restaurants," and the Smithsonian lauded the "memorable, homemade food that is fast disappearing from our own family fare." In Food & Wine, regular customer David Mamet called River Run "the best place on earth."
That may be why River Run regular Bryan Pfeiffer was a little distraught when he and his Thursday breakfast buddies found newspaper covering the windows. "There's something about a table set with coffee, eggs and home fries that creates fertile ground for cantankerous morning conversation," he says. "I wanted to grow old eating breakfast at River Run."
He'll have to find a new place to get old. Last year, when Ignacio Ruiz bought the River Run, he had a two-prong plan: Kennedy would keep making his signature dishes in the a.m., while Ruiz would prepare the cuisine of his native country, Spain, in the evening.
For seven months, that's what they did. Kennedy made pancakes and cheesy grits, freeing him up for other pursuits such as competitive fishing and keeping long-time customers like Pfeiffer happy. Ruiz introduced dishes such as paella, garlic shrimp, meatballs in wine sauce and seafood stew in the p.m.
"My intention was not to get rid of breakfast," says Ruiz, "But I think it's a formula that's not working any more." Why? The early morning hours were costing the restaurant more than they brought in. "Where we stand right now, dinner has kept River Run alive economically," he states. Ruiz also believes that the restaurant's split personality was confusing to customers.
He claims even old-timers have learned to like his Iberian cuisine. "There are definitely Plainfield townies who have been coming since it opened [in 1991] and are very receptive," Ruiz suggests. Although Spanish food might seem exotic to some, he says it's "very homey; it's the food I grew up eating."
Last weekend, on a whim, he decided to eliminate breakfast, change the eatery's name to Tasca, and serve Spanish fare at lunch and dinner seven days a week, plus Sunday brunch. "It was a total impulse, a very Spanish impulse," he says with a chuckle.
He says he spoke briefly with Kennedy, with whom he has a "very good relationship." "He seems to be on board," Ruiz suggests. "It's a little bittersweet for him because it's his baby, but ultimately, I think he just wants it to succeed." Kennedy couldn't be reached for comment because he was out of town, fishing. The spot will reopen mid-week, after a handful of renovations, as Tasca.
Pfeiffer, a former journalist who is now a professional birder, says he's unfamiliar with "tapas" and isn't much of a dinner person. He says he wishes Ruiz well, and that he's happy to have the cozy Maple Valley Café nearby so he can keep having eggs and home fries with his friends. "I'm big on breakfast," he notes. "I think that's why this hits me more than other folks. It's the culture of breakfast, the angle of food and community, that we're losing."
Anthony Spector, who raises grass-fed beef as owner of Spruce Mountain Farm, has a cheerier take on the transition. "The Spanish menu is delicious," he says. Like many central Vermonters, he'd never tasted Ruiz's style of food until recently: "It's not what I expected, I expected it to be like Tex-Mex, but it's not. There's really interesting seafood. After years of greasy Southern barbecue, it's nice to have fresh fish."
Spector recalls Mamet saying that River Run was where "poets and farmers eat together," but contends that can happen at a tapas place, too. He admits that after nearly two decades, the restaurant famed for its catfish and conversation had become part of the "fabric of the community," but says that eventually, Tasca will evoke reactions just as warm. His final summation: "I like the changes very much."
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