A revolving menu Mouth-watering destinations beckon vacationers who have no intention of leaving their taste buds at home

Vermont: Pancakes, with the state's own maple syrup, soothe the soul and fortify the body.

November 23, 1997|By Eric Asimov | Eric Asimov,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Vermont's gentle beauty reveals itself modestly as you thread your way by car over the rolling hills and streams, past white churches, village greens and town gazebos. Unlike the magnificence of a Pacific seascape, or the reverence inspired by the Rockies, this landscape offers tranquillity.

And so it is with food. Vermont has no shortage of pretentious inns and restaurants, generally clustered around ski resorts and promising epicurean delights at New York prices. Their allegiance is not to durable, purposeful Vermont but to a tourist trade that wants to travel without leaving home. No, the soul of Vermont is better tasted in a dish as unpretentious as the landscape: pancakes.

Pancake houses appear from one end of Vermont to the other, as much a part of the vista as dirt roads and pickup trucks. Why pancakes? Obviously, nothing else goes quite so well with maple syrup, the state's lifeblood. But there are more elemental reasons. Long before marathoners used the term "carbo-loading," Vermonters knew that a filling pancake breakfast was just the thing to fuel a day battling the snow of winter and mud of spring. Pancakes meant energy.

That remains true, though many people simply enjoy pancakes for no greater reason than their taste. These pancakes are grainy, irregular and occasionally lumpy, with a real batter tang rather than an airy or greasy taste. Here are four restaurants where you can find this true taste of Vermont.

The Wayside

The last thing you'd expect to find in bucolic Vermont is a suburban strip littered with fast-food joints and auto parts stores, but U.S. Route 302 just southeast of Montpelier, the capital, rivals any other strip in the country. Given that, the last thing you'd expect to find there is a restaurant as distinctively regional as the Wayside Restaurant and Bakery.

This homey, friendly place fits the marketer's concept of a roadside family restaurant, with matronly waitresses, silly place mats, crayons and children's menus. But the menu always offers Vermont specials, like salt pork and milk gravy or chicken pie. And, of course, pancakes with real maple syrup.

The Wayside's pancakes are simply superb, light and buttermilk fresh, wonderful on their own or with blueberries stirred into the batter.

Pancakes are available from 6: 30 a.m. to 4 p.m., an important consideration to those who also want to sample desserts but are constitutionally unable to before noon. These are wonderful local specialties like maple cream pie, tasting richly of maple sugar; blackberry shortcake, thick with blackberries and whipped cream, and homemade doughnuts.

And as I was told, "If a person has a hankering for pie with breakfast, we won't stop them."

River Run

There's nothing plain about Plainfield, a picture-perfect Vermont town about 10 miles east of Montpelier that looks as if it had been grafted onto Berkeley, circa 1971. The biggest building in town is white clapboard, naturally enough. It's a futon shop. Down the road is a martial arts studio. Community bulletin boards are full of ads for contradancing, reggae and massage therapy. At one end of town is Goddard College, where the pierced, tattooed and hair-dyed students gravitate toward River Run, a 6-year-old restaurant that combines hippie friendliness with an aura of experimentalism.

The owners, Jimmy and Maya Kennedy, moved there from New York City, where Kennedy had been a partner in Acme Bar and Grill and Nadine's. By night, River Run is ever changing, with takeout barbecue one season and the next, sit-down dinners.

Luckily, the mornings don't change much. The students arrive, joining the equally colorful locals at the tables and chairs that could have come from any New England used-furniture barn. They come for eggs, omelets, excellent coffee and, most of all, the terrific pancakes, thick and puffy but dense and crisp around the edges.

They are especially good with blueberries baked into the cakes, and walnuts give them the perfect little crunch. I also liked them with fresh sliced apples or pears on top.

French toast, with raisin or wheat bread, is another can't-miss option.

Sonny's Cup n' Saucer

The contrast between River Run and the gritty blue-collar Cup n' Saucer in Wilmington, midway between Bennington and Brattleboro in the south, represents the panoramic appeal of pancakes in Vermont. Here, the community bulletin board is populated by plumbers, haulers and day-care workers rather than the New Age merchants of Plainfield.

The reception inside is dour -- choose your own seats at the S-shaped counter that snakes through the room.

But this is Vermont, where gruffness gives way to amiability, and the waitress seems charmed that we've somehow found our way into her domain. The Cup n' Saucer usually offers five or six pancake selections, including unusual additions like melon, which sounded less than appetizing, and raspberry, a delicious combination.

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