Global warming or not, Americans love their summer road trips. And where there are road trippers, there's road food. Each spring, savory aromas begin to creep from beneath the shutters of hundreds of little stands along Vermont's highways and byways. The state sports several warm-weather snack shacks on every major thoroughfare, and a few in surprising, out-of-the-way places. Some are popular destinations such as Middlebury's A&W Drive-In on Route 7, where servers on roller skates deliver root-beer floats and falafel wraps right to your car, or Beansie's in Burlington's Battery Park. Others are known mainly to locals.
Last week, Seven Days staffers hit the road to find a few of these more elusive eateries. We saw plenty of repetition nearly every snack bar offers fries, burgers and dogs, and most sell seafood platters. But there's more variety than you'd expect. One stand offers fresh-baked pies; another vends vintage candy. Close to the border, you'll find creative takes on poutine, the fattening French-Canadian dish traditionally made with fries, gravy and fresh cheese curds.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, about 770 Vermont restaurants are registered as "seasonal." Since owners aren't required to submit that information, many more could be out there. So, whether you're a fried-food fancier or get dreamy thinking about creemees, you'd better get truckin'. Here are a few places to start.
Myrna's Snack Bar
38 Route 78, Alburgh
Season: May to September
Hours: 11 a.m. 8 p.m.
It's hard to miss the blinking traffic light on the lawn in front of Myrna's Snack Bar in Alburgh, just a few miles from the Canadian border. Don't wait for the green when all the lights are flashing, you can come on in. Owners Myrna Ashline and her husband Steve are second-time-around Vermonters they used to own a paving company in Swanton, then departed for warmer climes. When they moved back four years ago, after half a decade in Florida, they built the snack bar on their property and went full steam ahead.
Customer Mike Crowley, who's stopped to buy his young son a milkshake, knows just what he wants in a snack bar: "quality of service, speed, food quality, cleanliness and personality." As far as he's concerned, Myrna's has 'em.
But it also has something no other joint in New England can boast about, according to Ashline: an expensive new gadget called a Crunchi Creme machine. The gadget whips pieces of candy into soft-serve that's dolloped in cones. "It's almost like a Flurry, except a Flurry is in a milkshake glass, and this goes right in with your vanilla ice cream," she explains. Flavors include Cookies 'n' Creme, M&Ms and Reese's Pieces.
Can she bake a cherry pie? Not every day, but if you call ahead, Myrna will make you a fresh, all-American confection current pie flavors are blueberry, apple, pumpkin and strawberry rhubarb.
Shaggy's Snack Bar
109 First Street, Swanton
Season: May to September
Hours: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
First things first: that Shaggy? Yep, think Mystery Machine. Owner Joe Desrochers says, "The kids tell me I look just like Shaggy on 'Scooby Doo.'"
There aren't any Scooby Snacks at Shaggy's in Swanton, but there is an unusual Italian emphasis: You can pick up a pepperoni pie, cheese breadsticks or a calzone, in addition to the usual snack-bar fare. The pizza, subs and salads are available year-round, while other offerings, such as fried mushrooms and fish sandwiches, are seasonal.
Desrochers, who worked at the Swanton House of Pizza for 17 years before opening Shaggy's six years ago, has food carts in his blood. His grandfather, Felix Desrochers, owned a hot-food truck called Yellow Cab Lunch in St. Johnsbury in the 1930s. In the '40s and '50s, he sold hot dogs and popcorn from a cart at local football games. When the opportunity arose, Desrochers followed in granddad's footsteps. He bought the business, moved it to its current location and tacked on a pizza kitchen.
During the summer, Desrochers goes through 200 pounds of potatoes each day churning out his homemade fries. His traditional poutine is topped with real Vermont cheese curd, a rarity most places use cheddar or mozzarella. The burgers are made from fresh-ground beef, and the tasty, sweet 'n' tangy coleslaw is from scratch, too. On the sweet side, try a super-thick "Maple Cream Dream" milkshake, laced with Vermont maple syrup. Other creative takes on the shake are "Cherry Cordial," "Shaggy's Sherbert [sic]" and "Fruit Loop," which Desrochers says tastes just like the cereal. Those meddling kids would approve . . .
Jazzie's Snack Bar and Diner
17 Swanton Road, St. Albans 524-5954
Season: April to late September
Hours: 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Jazzie's is the newest snack bar on the block it opened this April and, like many, its name tells a story. Jazzie is the name of owner Kim Nichols' beloved beagle. "We always share a hot dog together," she explains.
Figures. While Kim and Tony Nichols serve up plenty of dogs of the corn, cheese and chili varieties they also serve to dogs. For $1.50, a human can purchase a "Doggie Creemee," a cup of vanilla ice cream topped with doggie biscuits, for her pooch.
Kim worked as a cake decorator for 16 years, until tennis elbow, carpel tunnel and tendonitis in both arms made the job too strenuous. Running a business allows her to put her culinary talents to work without the pain. Tony has a food background, too he's a manager at Koffee Kup Bakery on Riverside Avenue in Burlington.
The duo enjoys making food from scratch, as their menu avers. "Eric's Michigan Dog" is named for Kim's brother, who invented its traditional-style, tomato-based sauce. They also offer a tomato-free, spiced hamburger topping on their "Jazzie's Dog" Kim's creation, not the pup's. She boasts that, while many people have tried to guess the secret seasonings in the concoction, nobody has been successful.
There's more homemade human chow, including Ranch and creamy honey mustard dressings, mild, buttermilk-dressed slaw and sharp-cheddar poutine made with hand-cut fries and homemade gravy. You can finish your meal with one of 38 creemee varieties apricot, pistachio and strawberry cheesecake, for starters.
Kim's Snack Bar
Junction of 314 & Route 2, Grand Isle
No phone listing
Season: May to September
Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Kim's Snack Bar looks as if a cyclone had plucked it from the midway of the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds and deposited it smack-dab in the middle of the pristine Champlain Islands. In fact, the cheerful red, white and bumblebee-yellow building with light bulbs bordering its sign has occupied its space since 1980, and has borne its current name since 1987.
Given the location, it's not surprising that "Canadians on motorcycles" make up a large part of the clientele. Although cars rumble by on occasion, sitting at a red picnic table under an umbrella while a lake breeze rustles the trees is a supremely relaxing experience.
What to try: the perfect hand-cut fries. Owner Brian Lizewski blanches the spud strips before frying them, the key to crisp, golden-brown 'taters. One decadent house specialty is called the "Junkyard Dog," because it includes "everything but the kitchen sink," explains Lizewski. This scavenger's treasure is a bacon-and-cheese-lined bun topped with a McKenzie hot dog, a pile of homemade chili (no beans here) and 'kraut.
Lizewski, whose employers at the Vermont Furniture Galleries let him take the summers off, acquired Kim's as many seasonal snack chefs do through the family. The biz was previously owned by his mother-in-law's cousin. Though not everybody on the staff is related, they reportedly treat each other like kin. "I've worked here for four years," explains Willa Cahan, who runs the cash register. "I quit a job as a receptionist making $10.50 an hour so I could work here."
Though Lizewski makes his own fries and uses Vermont hot dogs, the fare at Kim's is some of the most reasonably priced around. A plain dog is only $1.38, while the loaded "Junkyard" comes in at $2.39. Try finding those prices on the midway.
Broadacres Snack Bar
133 Broad Acres (on Rte. 127/Lakeshore Drive), Colchester
Season: May to September
Hours: MonThu noon 9:30 p.m., FriSun 11 a.m. 9:30 p.m.
When enjoying road food, you sometimes have to take the good with the bad. Cloying deep-fryer stench, dirty tables and bee-filled trash cans can spoil an otherwise enjoyable gut-stuffing occasion. So thank the snack-bar gods for Broadacres, which is immaculate, with an ample supply of condiments, clean tables and a spacious covered patio. Within easy walking distance of the Malletts Bay boat ramp and set back from Route 127, diners can enjoy a meal or creemee sundae without feeling like they're snacking in the breakdown lane of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Neither gourmet nor fancy-shmancy, Broadacres' menu offers a tasty, reasonably priced assortment of snack-bar fare burgers, chili dogs, Philly cheese steaks, fried fish baskets, waffle fries and three flavors of chicken wings. Try the homemade chili, which features hefty chunks of meat, tomatoes, red peppers, onions and plump kidney beans. Manager John Garrant, who whips it up himself, admits he keeps the heat in check "for the older bingo players. I don't want them throwing their dabbers at me."
Bingo players? Indeed. While you're there, take a gander at Broadacres Bingo, just up the hill behind the snack bar. It's worth a look, if only as kitschy Americana. Built in a newly renovated roller rink, this bingo hall has a capacity of about 300, and a Vegas-style, ancient-Egyptian theme, complete with feline sphinxes, golden King Tut tombs, Nefertiti busts and murals of pyramids, palm trees and faux hieroglyphics. Players are guaranteed a $150 minimum win per game, plus pull tabs that pay as much as $5000; all proceeds go to three local charities. Open six nights a week (closed Mondays), it offers a $2.99 Sunday buffet for players. And don't forget to grab a homemade black-raspberry creemee on your way out.
Auer Family Boathouse, a.k.a. "Charlie's"
3181 North Avenue, Burlington
Season: May to October
There's no other way to put it: The Auer Family Boathouse is unlike any other snack bar in Vermont. Less an eating establishment than a full-immersion cultural experience, Charlie's, as the locals call it, is a time capsule from the days when 13-year-old boys happily spent summer days drowning night crawlers with bamboo fishing poles. Incidentally, you can find both the poles and the crawlers at Charlie's as well as rent old rowboats, canoes and kayaks for your own angling needs.
Sure, you can drive to Charlie's there's a tiny boat launch, a couple of RV hookups and parking for $2 per day. But a far more desirable and scenic route is via the Burlington Bike Path. The boathouse is easy to find. It's about 5 miles north of downtown Burlington, just before the bike path crosses the Winooski River to Colchester on a steel suspension bridge.
For years, Charlie let the bicycle advocacy group Local Motion operate a seasonal bike ferry from his property to Colchester. The bridge changed all that. Today, the boathouse is still a regular rest stop for cyclists, skaters, hikers and boaters looking for a cold soda, a burger or just some R&R in a wooden porch swing. Rumor has it that when the suspension bridge first opened, on August 1, 2004, someone asked Charlie, 76, if he missed the ferry. He reportedly retorted, "Nah! It was much better when the railroad was here."
On a sweltering weekday afternoon, Charlie can be found backing boat trailers into the lake while his two beagles, "Ben" and "Bridget," bay longingly at the newcomers. A couple of grizzled old fishermen in gimme caps lounge at a picnic table, apparently lacking anything special to do, as an old yellow seaplane buzzes like a dragonfly and ascends lazily from the glassy lake. The mood is set by a 1930s-style swing number playing from a nearby loudspeaker.
Charlie's folks built the rustic old boathouse in 1928. These days, says one regular who moors his sailboat here during the summer, "It's the place that time forgot." The establishment still has some of the old booths, as well as a jukebox, upright piano and organ from the days when it used to host evening dances. Regulars say Charlie's sister Catherine, who's 80, is quite the organist and plays each week at the local Catholic church.
An old glass display case offers a mix of Eisenhower-era candy Clark Bars, Tootsie Rolls, Charleston Chews and licorice sticks. The snack bar per se is nothing fancy more bait stand than banquet hall. Charlie, who's bent over like a question mark, will still whip you up a burger with whatever you want on it, though you may have to shout several times before he hears the list of condiments. As one of the old-timers puts it, "I like coming down here, rather than them fancy boat docks. You get treated like a human being, and they're good people to talk to."
237 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington
Season: End of March to mid-November
Call for hours.
The name of this Old North End hot spot rolls off the tongue, assuming you pronounce it "Cutie's" but what happened to the Dairy Queen? The place had been a DQ since 1945 and was run by the same family since 1959. Why the recent change? QTEE's owner Kathryn Goguen explains: The DQ corporation was moving away from a made-to-order ethic. She wanted to stick to it. According to Goguen, the cryptic name is an acronym for "Quality treats, exceptional eats."
Since Goguen cast off DQ, the trademarked "Blizzards" have become "Arctic Swirls," while the open-flame-broiled burgers are still cooked to order, just the way you like 'em. Hotheads will enjoy the "Third Alarm" burger, a flavorful, two-patty affair topped with jalapeño bacon, pepper jack cheese and a smear of chipotle mayo. If you need to tame the heat, you can chill out with a "Polar Slush" drink in refreshing flavors such as watermelon and lemon-lime, or with an extra-malty chocolate shake.
Salads and sandwiches abound at great prices, as do McKenzie hot dogs on Koffee Kup buns. The kosher crowd can splurge on a $6.75 "Super Dog," a half-pound of Hebrew National with your choice of toppings and a dill pickle. Goyim can get theirs with cheese.
With its extensive menu and indoor-only, A/C-enhanced seating, this is snack-bar dining with a few extra creature comforts.
Mountain View Snack Bar
3107 Route 15, Morrisville
Season: May to October
Hours: Mon-Sun 11 a.m. 9 p.m.
In most parts of the country, they're known as "soft-serve," but here in Vermont, a.k.a. Holstein Heaven, we rightly call 'em "creemees." If you're driving through the Green Mountains or on your way to the Northeast Kingdom, there's no better place to satisfy a cold creemee craving than the Mountain View Snack Bar.
Located just 2 miles east of the intersection of Routes 100 and 15, right outside downtown Morrisville, the Mountain View Snack Bar boasts more than 63 different creemee flavors, a dozen varieties of hard ice cream, and 30 flavors of iceberg slush. And, lest you think you're getting a boring rehash of the same old regulars, these sub-freezing sweets seem to be lifted straight from the top shelf at your local bar Kahlua, rum, crème de menthe, Irish Cream and piña colada, to name a few. Plus a few tastes targeted at the kiddies, including peanut butter, German chocolate, bubble gum and, of course, maple nut.
Mountain View proprietors Alicia and Ted Colletti relocated to the Green Mountain State about three years ago from Long Island, where they used to operate several neighborhood delis. Their prior restaurant experience shows in both the variety and quality of their menu items. In addition to an impressive assortment of standard snack-bar items, the Collettis serve up some flavorful offerings for the finicky, health-conscious and/or vegetarian eaters in your bunch, including garden, salmon and bison burgers, quesadillas, Caesar salad, black-bean salad and pasta salad, all prepared fresh daily. This snacker recommends the chicken gyro, the barbecue pulled-pork sandwich, a side order of hand-cut French fries and a fresh-brewed iced tea, served sweetened or not.
Mountain View earns bonus points for its ample parking, indoor dining room and clean, well-stocked restroom a rarity among facility-starved roadside eateries. One recent morning, Alicia Colletti is bustling around with her infant son, Lexington, on her back proof positive that you can take the New Yorker out of New York, but she'll never lose her hustle.
Uncle Sam's Dairy Bar
3195 Ethan Allen Highway (Route 7), Charlotte
Season: June to October
Hours: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Unlike its more pastoral counterparts, Uncle Sam's a white cinderblock structure on a busy, dusty stretch of Route 7 has a heartland vibe. Tractor-trailer trucks whiz by every few seconds, and much of the menu is pre-packaged, then lovingly fried to order by members of the Spear family. Matriarch Helena Spear has owned the business for 31 years. Her daughter-in-law, Karen, and several grandchildren help out.
One saucy grandchild created the hand-written cardboard sign that cautions folks to take responsibility for their own ice cream mishaps. "Gravity," it proclaims, "is what causes your creemee to fall off your cone and onto the ground. However, this force is usually instigated by tipping your cone at such an angle in which gravity has no other choice but to accept it's [sic] duty and perform it's [sic] task . . ." In other words, stop gawping at the road and hold your frickin' cone straight.
According to Karen, half of the cone-carrying visitors are regulars, like Ross Brooker of Shelburne, who has been coming to Uncle Sam's for 30 years because of the "friendly environs," and the fact that it's family-run. The other half are tourists, many from outside the U.S., who hit the stand on the way from downtown Burlington or the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory to points of interest in Middlebury or Vergennes.
What do they come for? The people are pure Vermont Helena has lived in Charlotte all her life. But watching the trucks while eating fluffy golden fries, deep-fried chicken strips and "Superhero" ice cream a fruity combo of lemon, blue raspberry, cherry and bubblegum feels like the epitome of American summer.