Words // Chea Waters Evans
Photos // Craig Thomas
Vermonters are famous for their streak of individualism, easygoing good vibes, and a desire for authenticity. Our beloved capital city, with its magnificent golden dome and kids playing on the lawn of the State House, reflects that culture. There’s a stubborn pride in the fact that it is the only state capital without a McDonald’s; there’s no need for one around here, because whether it’s slow or fast, Montpelier has dining and entertainment options to please any palate or mood.
The main drag of downtown Montpelier consists of State Street and Main Street. Brick buildings with black shutters, colorful clapboard, and wide, clean sidewalks make for pleasant sights and easy walking. With boutiques and shops running up and down State and Main, there’s a lot to do, and when you’re tired and shopped out, the only thing that’s going to do you right is a cocktail and a bite.
Located near the State House, J. Morgans Steakhouse in the Capitol Plaza Hotel isn’t your average steak joint. Forget dark wood panels, whispered backroom deals, and tired old fare; the menu here is as modern and fun as its décor. The outside patio is an ideal place to try one (or a few) selections from their “endless list of signature martinis,” and to share one of their many salads, appetizers, or enticing entrees, which include everything from pasta to fish to lamb to of course, steak.
A short walk up State Street will bring you to the cozy and often crowded Wilaiwan’s Kitchen, where fresh, authentic Thai food gets rave reviews. They’re only open for lunch, and offer just three menu selections that change weekly. Recent offerings include Massaman curry, stir-fried crispy pork, and Thai chicken soup with lemongrass and ginger. To cool off after some spicy food, head next door to Chill, a gelato shop offering homemade flavors like Irish cream, passion fruit, and tiramisu.
Positive Pie calls itself a “cool, contemporary, comfortable, casual—yet always stylish—urban refuge from the ordinary.” The vibe is evident before you even walk in the door; funky music drifts out to the sidewalk along with the smell of bacon, and the long bar beckons through the big front windows. The space is a fun combination of rustic and modern, and the food fits the atmosphere perfectly. Specialty pizzas include The Carcass (so much meat!) and Nick the Greek; they also serve a variety of pastas, appetizers, and sandwiches. Outside seating and a ton of drink options will keep you lingering long after your meal is over. And once you’ve had time to digest, you can get up and dance to one of their regularly featured bands or musicians. Everything from blues to funk to a brass band to hot local DJs keeps the party going long into the night.
At the intersection where State Street runs right into Main is Coffee Corner, a place where members of Vermont’s Congress rub elbows with locals and anyone else who needs a hearty breakfast any time of day, or a solid plate of grilled cheese and fries. On the same corner is the not-to-be-missed La Brioche Bakery and Café, operated by the New England Culinary Institute. Bakery and pastry students hone their craft on-site by baking artisan bread, delectable tarts, cookies, cakes, rolls, cupcakes, and pies—and they also serve lunch.
If food isn’t on your mind but you’re feeling thirsty, Charlie O’s World Famous is the place to start—and if you don’t feel like getting up, it’s a great place to finish, too. The paint-chipped exterior and sign advertising “Good drinks and bad company” sums it up pretty succinctly, although the company is actually a friendly mix of folks. It’s the best kind of dive bar: a politician perches on a high-backed leather stool right next to a college student, who’s sitting next to a woman who looks like she hasn’t left the bar since the 70s, and everyone’s cool with it. Charlie O’s always has inexpensive drinks, pool tables, and often live, local music on weekends.
Off the beaten path, Sarducci’s is worth the few blocks’ walk from the center of town. It’s situated on the Winooski River, and with the windows wide open in the summertime and the water rushing past below, there isn’t a better seat in town. They serve Mediterranean Italian, including a perfect antipasto selection and delicious traditional offerings like pasta Bolognese, veal Marsala, chicken piccata, and more. Their full bar and extensive wine list top off the experience.
Other state capitals are bigger, have more glitz and glamour, and many have a separate political culture that leaves the regular citizens on the sidelines. But in true Vermont fashion, Montpelier has its own rhythm and culture: one that includes politicians, policemen, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, and just plain folks. Everyone enjoys good food, good drinks, and good conversation, and Montpelier is the right place to find it all.