The Farmers Diner
Quechee Gorge Village, Route 4, Quechee, Vt., (802) 295-4600
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily; Fri.-Sat. until 8:30 p.m. during the summer
In 2002 Tod Murphy started the Farmers Diner as a modest breakfast-all-day establishment with a big mission: to feature local farmers' products in food that those same farmers could actually afford to eat. The 50-seat restaurant in Barre, Vt, quickly gained national attention for its "short order revolution," in which 70 percent of the ingredients used in the diner's bacon and eggs and burgers and fries came from nearby farms. Buzz about potential Farmers Diner franchises flourished.
Like many other fans of local food, I made a pilgrimage to the Farmers Diner a couple of years ago and was disappointed to find it boarded up. Despite its success as a cause celebre the restaurant was ultimately too small to support the higher cost of its ingredients, and closed.
Happily, the Farmers Diner found larger digs and reopened last year in Quechee, Vt. The new restaurant is situated in the Quechee Gorge Village, a tourist attraction drawing crowds to the Cabot cheese outlet and a country crafts mall. This location sacrifices Barre's small town charm for a theme-park setting, but you can still capture the retro diner feeling at the counter in the tiny 1947 Worcestor dining car, or you can stretch out in the lofty renovated barn space that's attached.
One of the most important tenets of the homegrown philosophy—aside from the many social and economic benefits—is that it tastes better. And that proves true here, in most instances.
The menu offers standard diner fare that's unlike what you'll find in any diner. Instead of frozen French fries from a bag, fresh-cut fries arrive skins and all, loaded with Vermont-made Cabot cheese and maple-brined artisanal bacon. Hushpuppies made with Butterworks Farm's organic cornmeal are served crisp and hot in a cast-iron skillet. If you take a bite of a dense nugget naked of maple BBQ sauce, you can actually savor the nutty flavor of the fresh-milled corn.
Breakfast is served until 4 p.m. every day, and this section of the menu sports the highest concentration of red ink, which denotes local ingredients. Area farmers and producers supply the raw materials for eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, home fries, pancakes, French toast, yogurt and granola. And if local isn't enough for you, an extra 95 cents will buy you an upgrade to pastured eggs with deep orange yolks.
Hamburger may sometimes come from as far away as New Hampshire but the ample beef patties are proficiently grilled to the desired temperature. Unfortunately, my bacon cheeseburger lacked salt and was inexplicably crowned with a leaf of bitter escarole instead of lettuce. Cole slaw revealed another idiosyncrasy of the kitchen by substituting smoky cumin for the usual sweet and sour seasoning.
As a showcase for Vermont's most important food product, the milkshake stands out. While not as thick as I like, the rich flavor of the milk and Guernsey ice cream really tasted as if it came out of a cow.
So far, the Farmers Diner's increased capacity in Quechee hasn't affected the management's commitment to spending 65 cents of every food dollar within the community. However, there are still some kinks to work out in the front of the house to keep up with the larger volume of customers, as I discovered when a Sunday afternoon throng at the door balked at a 30-minute wait while at least half the tables sat vacant. I hope they do work them out, because I don't think that's the sort of "short order revolution" Murphy was going for.