Words // Chea Waters Evans
Color Photos // Craig Thomas
B&W Photo // Oopey Mason
Artwork // Sadie Williams
Big sister Burlington may have hogged the spotlight for years, but lately little sis’ Winooski, just north of Vermont’s biggest city, has taken the main stage. Comparisons to Brooklyn, N.Y. abound, but in true Vermont style, this small city has a big personality and cool vibe all its own. With innovative restaurants, quirky shops, eclectic nightlife, and a diverse population, there’s something in the air up there, and any visit to northern Vermont would be incomplete without checking it out.
The main downtown hub in Winooski circles a roundabout, and with every curve comes another place to enjoy a relaxing brunch, new kind of cocktail, or sophisticated dining experience. Old-school favorites co-exist with funky new spots, resulting in a vibrant area that has a place for everyone. Charming red brick buildings and clapboard houses lend a laid-back feel to the urban center, while an open green in the center of the circle provides a place to relax with a take-out sandwich or sit and enjoy a book and a cup of coffee.
Locals have been heading to Sneakers Bistro for breakfast, lunch, and brunch for decades to enjoy their signature dishes like Kahlua French toast or classic eggs benedict. Another family favorite that’s been around for a long time is Papa Frank’s, a traditional Italian restaurant complete with red-checkered tablecloths, rich portions of baked ziti and other class favorites, and $2 drink specials on Microbrew Mondays. A recent re-addition to the downtown area, located in the historic Winooski Mill building, is Waterworks Food + Drink. The restaurant was a favorite for many years, but closed for over a decade as the Mill went through renovations. Now it’s back with new owners, the same stunning views of the Winooski River, chic and welcoming ambience, and New American cuisine like Vermont lamb and onion soup, and kale panzanella salad.
Meals at Misery Loves Company on Main Street are not soon to be forgotten. On the ever-changing menu grilled cheese co-exists peacefully with pig’s tail; whole fried loup de mer sits side by side with a pickle plate that will make you rethink all you thought about pickles, and everything is delectable. With a full bar, $5 Heady Toppers for lunch, and an appetizer called bread, butter, and fat, it’s possible that one might show up for lunch and stick around until dinner. MLC Bakeshop down the street has coffee, sandwiches, and a wide variety of baked goods.
If dinner’s already been had and it’s time for drinks and darts or some rocking out, another turn around the corner will get you there. McKee’s Pub, a downtown institution on its second generation of family ownership, boasts a nice big bar with a seat for everyone. They offer dinner, a brunch that’s a favorite with locals, and it’s the place to be for any major sporting event that’s more fun to watch with a crowd. Just as fun, but with a completely different vibe, is nearby Oak45. With floor-to-ceiling windows and a minimalist, modern vibe, the bar features what they call a “serious wine list—not to be taken too seriously.” They also have a hefty martini menu, other signature cocktails, and a definite hipster feel.
Vermont’s independent spirit and youthful city population, due in part to local universities, lends itself to a vibrant independent music scene, at the epicenter of which is the Monkey House. Confirmed as a stopping point on the rise of many an indie band, this cool, crowded spot is low-ceilinged, a little dark, and the perfect place to catch some new music, play a round of pool or Jenga, or just sit and enjoy one of the many draft microbrews or a cocktail like the maple julep. Live bands, quirky comedians, or local DJs are featured nightly, along with other special programs. The Monkey House has quickly become an institution for music lovers in the area; the venue has truly created a scene of its own in downtown Winooski and placed the town on the proverbial musical map.
Billed as “three days of music and art and other happenings,” the fifth annual Waking Windows Festival will take place in downtown Winooski from May 1-3. Local music promoters Paddy Reagan and Nick Movadones started this downtown gathering to showcase not only music but the downtown area itself. Over the years the festival has grown to attract thousands of fans; last year’s festival featured 108 bands. Restaurants participate enthusiastically with drink specials and outdoor seating, and the city partially closes the roads for a true festival feel. Music and culture lovers can enjoy local artists’ works, independent musicians from Vermont as well as around the country, and fun extras like a kids’ area and an outdoor stage.
Winooski has had a metamorphosis over the years, from its roots as a mill town to its days as a solid, working-class suburb of Burlington, and yet again as an up-and-coming downtown that remains connected to its Vermont roots. With a diverse population, an infusion of young people, a wide selection of entertainment, and growing retail sector, it‘s making a name for itself as more than just the little city to the north. One day soon, perhaps, people will call Brooklyn “the Winooski of New York.”