Opening a new restaurant is always hard, but opening a restaurant with around 140 seats in downtown Burlington that specializes in quick-cooking burgers and dozens of unusual craft beers is probably harder than average. Add slamming business every single day of the week, from opening till closing, and you’ve just described The Farmhouse Tap & Grill. Its owners took a former McDonald’s just off Church Street and converted it into a hip, copper-accented bastion of localvorism.
The building’s history is enough to give fast-food haters a frisson of glee on a first visit. An unfamiliar out-of-towner would be unlikely to guess that McNuggets were once dispensed here. The dining room is spacious — albeit loud — and the fixtures have a modern yet warm look.
The back of the menu is exciting, too. It offers a partial list of farms that supply the eatery’s raw materials, ranging from high-quality meat purveyors such as Jericho Settlers’ Farm and Stony Pond Farm to a slew of cheesemakers and veggie growers.
Their products appear on the front of the menu cooked up in simple, homey dishes — mac ’n’ cheese, meatloaf, corn cakes — with touches that elevate the fare above the average. Think homemade hamburger buns, mozzarella and dilly beans; fresh tarragon and garlic aioli for the burgers and fries; and sandwich toppings such as grilled apples, house-pickled jalapeños and garlicky local mushrooms.
The excellence of the ingredients shows in every dish. An ultra-fresh salad was topped with garlicky croutons and the first peas I’ve seen this season, although the chunks of somewhat bitter turnip were too large for my taste. Smoked summer sausage tasted great with the proffered whole-grain mustard and swigs of Belgian beer. A savory beef-and-pork meatloaf came with rich mushroom gravy and perfectly seasoned buttermilk mashed potatoes. Fries were golden and extra crispy.
Desserts didn’t disappoint, either: They included a wonderful rhubarb-custard pie and a well-made shortcake showcasing the season’s first local strawberries.
In some ways, however, the Farmhouse’s newness showed. On one visit, the drink ticket printer malfunctioned, and it took nearly 30 minutes to get an initial round of beers. A pleasantly mustardy steak tartare came atop slightly soggy potato “crisps.” And, while it appears to be trendy to blacken the edges of grilled bread — they do it at Bluebird Tavern, too — I find that the flavor of char, though not unpleasant, can interfere with the taste of more delicate foods.
Then there’s the much-discussed issue of burger doneness. Some diners have complained about receiving overdone burgers at the Farmhouse. For my part, on two occasions I ordered medium-rare burgers that turned out closer to true rare — leading my chef-husband to point out that cooking ground-meat patties is a bit tricky. Unlike steaks and poultry, where firmness is a direct indicator of doneness, compact burgers can feel dense while they’re still bloody on the inside. And, because they cook so quickly, it’s harder to grab them at the right moment. In a few more weeks, the kitchen should have it all figured out.
The meatloaf and the chicken and biscuits were both cooked just right. But I wish the menu had indicated the latter’s nontraditional presentation: Instead of the biscuit-topped stew I was expecting, I received a chicken leg on top of (delicious) biscuits, with a tangy, creamy sauce and a few crisp-tender vegetables on the side.
The Farmhouse staff has clearly been well trained. On one visit, our brisk, confident server cheerfully answered questions even though the dining room was packed. I was impressed when she remembered to check the origin of the coffee beans — they come from Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea — after taking a handful of new orders and delivering food to several other tables.
Given the Farmhouse’s extensive use of local ingredients, prices are surprisingly reasonable. Beef and venison burgers, with flavorful “house” toppings included, run $12. That’s what Smokejacks was charging when it closed nearly two years ago. Compared with many restaurants, $9 for a three-selection cheese plate is a deal, and the most expensive entrées, meatloaf and chicken and biscuits, are just $17.
But don’t expect a bargain on the brews, which are some of the finest the United States and Europe have to offer. The most expensive bottle on the menu, imported from Belgium, goes for $42. A few 750-milliliter offerings from Allagash in Maine, which makes incredible barrel-aged beers, ring up closer to $30.
But among the 24 draft beers and numerous bottles, plenty are delightful and affordable, from German sour beers to hoppy IPAs. Not into booze? Locally made Rookie’s Root Beer is also on draft, and you may get your pint straight from Rookie’s co-owner Jenny Rooke, a Farmhouse staffer.
Farmhouse is the spot downtown for quality burgers made with care and offered with novel toppings and condiments. With five regular options — beef, venison, soy, turkey and portabella — that’s true whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater. The rest of the menu isn’t huge, but expect to see it expand. Certain types of charcuterie, for example, take months to cure and will appear as they are ready. In the interim, nightly specials help keep things fresh.
With a start this busy and solid, I expect The Farmhouse Tap & Grill to grow swiftly into one of downtown Burlington’s beloved restaurants. I hope Chef Phillip Clayton, formerly sous chef at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, gets even more creative with the dinner entrées. And when the place starts serving lunch this month, I expect to be a regular patron.
There are more sedate places to experience farm-to-table dining. But with its size, price point and location, this restaurant likely will make new converts to the concept.