People, Places and Plates
By: Liz Guzynski
You know how some buildings, even when they’re empty, seem as if their history is still alive, shimmering through the veil of the now? That’s how many people in Williamsville, Vermont, a bucolic community situated along Rock River, saw their old general store, sitting empty since 2007, after 185 years of continuous operation. “The building just seemed like it wanted to be used,” says Glenn Richardson, who in conjunction with his son Dylan and wife Lauri, operate Williamsville Eatery, a farm-to-table restaurant that has occupied the space since July 2014.
All together the Richardson family presents an appealing yet formidable trio. Glenn radiates a disciplined energy that pops and zings against Lauri’s glowing golden good looks and infectious smile, while Dylan meets them in the middle, all but concealing his passionate intensity under a gentle slouch and laid-back demeanor.
So united a front do they present—their support for each other and the tight community of workers and diners that they’ve nurtured at Williamsville Eatery is genuine and constant—that after a while you stop looking for cracks in the facade and drink up the magic. Which is all they really wanted in the first place.
And serendipity, if not outright magic, describes the arc of progress for their restaurant, now celebrating its third birthday. Just a few years ago, Dylan was living and working at a pizza joint in Boston after vagabonding around the world for seven months, eating “every kind of street food that the guidebooks told you not to eat” and imagining a life as a professional photographer. Then he received an “almost offhand” offer to lease the old general store for “some kind of business” from the building’s owner, Robert Goldenhill.
Although Dylan had sometimes chafed at small-town life while growing up in the area, his roots were sunk deep in Vermont. “Sometimes you have to leave a place to appreciate it,” he admits with a rueful grin. Meanwhile, his parents were running a graphic design shop in Williamsville and growing weary of the constant technological churn. Glenn had explored the notion of “throwing it all in” and becoming a baker, so in 2007 he enrolled in the rigorous bread program at the International Culinary Center (formerly the FCI) in Soho. Lauri, with her broad background in environmental studies, art, and education, had never strayed far from practices of sustainable food and cooking and was instantly supportive of the restaurant concept.
In short order, an intriguing notion began to take on the contours of an actual business plan. But make no mistake: it was a “monumental undertaking,” Glenn notes, involving not only three generations of family—Lauri’s parents were and are integral to the project—but the unwavering support of the townspeople and local authorities who all wanted the restaurant to succeed.
Examine the details of the building and you’ll discover a virtual palimpsest of its history. The wide planks on the front wall are speckled with long-gone paints and the occasional phone number of yore. Lauri coated them with a clear satin finish and used the flecks of color to inspire other welcoming wall colors. She updates the space weekly with gleanings from her garden and forest rambles. Her mosaics provide vibrant color punches on the front steps and through the space, even as they meld with original white subway tiles in the open kitchen. Dylan has contributed a sinuous piece of an old tree stump he found while hiking; it now frames a mirror by the entrance.
Other local artists have also left their mark. The first thing you touch upon arriving is a graceful ironwork handle on the front door, wrought by Fred Homer. The footrest under the bar is a reclaimed pole from the old Sunoco station across the street, reimagined by Rich Gillia. Most touching of all may be a scrap of notebook paper that had been stuck to the door. Now preserved under glass, it’s written in thick pencil: “When will you open again?’’ and signed, “(the sisters) M. Sullivan and L. Williams.”
But what saves the Richardsons’ endeavor from culinary preciosity is the grit and integrity with which they approach the food. “This is not a transferable business model,” is Dylan’s unblinking position. Irreproducible pieces of themselves embedded in every aspect of their work give Williamsville Eatery its unique character. As Lauri comments, wanting people to leave feeling nourished involves feeding their intangible selves as well as their stomachs. Dylan reflects on how pizza, which he calls both “personal and poignant,” grew to become a substitute for his first artistic love, photography. Whereas the act of taking a photograph seeks to solidify an object or event, he says, food is by definition, a fleeting expression. Even the most perfect plate of food is not designed to last. For him, cooking is “a craft that fulfills an artistic energy.”
Glenn, a.k.a. the “backstock king” and bartender, keeps the wheels rolling on invisible tracks by attending to a thousand details with the same meticulous focus he learned as a graphic designer. No list is too long not to be checked twice, no surface too inconspicuous not to deserve a polish. If you enjoyed that glass of wine, he can instantly think of another interesting little gem that just came in. And as if that wasn’t enough, “You’ll see Glenn, after a long night of service, pull out a ladder and start wiping down the beams,” says Lauri.
Ever willing to share credit, Dylan maintains that he’s learned a lot from his constant companions in the kitchen, Nate Whit and Wilson Kondracki. The staff is rounded out by the intrepid Sarah Robinson, who’s been with the Eatery almost from day one, and is a key player on the floor, behind the bar, and doing anything else that needs her attention.
While Dylan shies away from naming specific “exotic” dishes that have influenced his cooking, he notes how we have lost contact with our own regional foods that are worth using and reimagining. One of the stand-out examples in their spring and summer menu is a tangy knotweed chutney that Dylan and Lauri adapted from an old rhubarb recipe. Transforming an invasive weed into a tasty side dish scores a trifecta of local, sustainable, and laid-back hip that other chefs dream about. “We just do what we do at home, cook like we’ve always cooked,” is Dylan’s laconic assessment of their kitchen philosophy. “I guess I want to educate people without being preachy. I want to maintain high standards without being pretentious.” His parents gaze fondly, nodding in agreement.
Making “local” and “sustainable” into something more than feel-good sloganeering sometimes requires creativity. For example, when the restaurant buys a whole cow from Adams Farm in Wilmington, Vermont, Lauri explains, “we buy the whole cow.” And that entails convincing customers to order unfamiliar dishes, like beef heart. “I tell them that if they didn’t know what it was, they would think they were eating the best bite of steak they’d ever had.” Her pitch usually works.
At the same time, the unforgiving realities of restaurant economics are never far from their minds. Vermont’s strenuous approach to seasonality makes getting fresh greens in the winter a challenge. They order lettuces and such from California because “people want their salad,” even in the dead of winter, but the crew is actively planning for the day when an expanded kitchen garden and year-round hoop house supplement their local suppliers’ goods. They were recently permitted to expand their patio for beverages, and dream about installing more outdoor seating.
The Eatery’s current success hasn’t come in an uninterrupted woosh. Their original oven failed in the first year, shutting the restaurant down for several weeks and provoking collective soul-searching about the restaurant’s direction. That’s when Dylan had to reach deep into his personal history. He combined pizza-making experience extending into his teen years with his adult passion for all kinds of adventurous food. Since then, they have acquired a Forno Bravo wood-fired pizza oven that runs at close to 900 °F degrees; they have also invented the two-phase menu that shapes the Eatery’s four-day week. On Thursday and Sunday, pizza dominates the menu, while the scope widens on Friday and Saturday to encompass bistro-style entrées.
All that creativity, invention, and love of the particular and the unique is palpable in the very air of the restaurant. When the bar is humming and the tables are brimming, there’s no clear-cut customer demographic that dominates the scene. One of the suppliers might be sampling a beer at the bar while a group of locals celebrate a birthday, not even pausing when vacationing out-of-staters join the buzz. Lauri gets extra bright-eyed recalling the number of little gifts people have brought her during the years. Glenn is most proud of what he calls “the community’s sense of ownership” in their establishment. “Without that support,” he says, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
Williamsville Eatery, 26 Main Street,
Williamsville, VT 05362