I hate the phrase “down-home.” I know it’s supposed to make you feel all warm and cozy, designed to suggest an unpretentious, throw another log in the pot-bellied woodstove, ya’ll-come-back-now-ya-hear setting, but when describing a restaurant, it’s not the first word I hope to hear. The very reason I go out to eat is because I want something different than what I prepare in my own home. However, at the Wayside Restaurant, down-home eventually won me over.
The restaurant is situated on the Berlin-Montpelier town line, and that division is proudly proclaimed by the staff, who will tell you that they have a bathroom in each town. Now imagine the least ostentatious setting possible, complete with dark carpeting, vinyl booths, rose-colored floral wallpaper and old-timers as far as the eye can see. There is nothing fashionable about the place, absolutely nothing, and from the faded country decor to the Wrigley gum sold from the glass case at the register, you know that the Wayside is genuine, a place that locals describe as “the real deal.”
And the menu is just as authentic as the decor. The average price of dinner entrees comes in at about $7, and choices range from chicken pie to fish and chips, liver and onions to burgers and fries, from a pot roast special to honeycomb tripe (the regional specialty that the Wayside menu declares is “BACK!!!” in a ringing endorsement for cow stomach). If you’re not familiar with tripe and don’t want to spend the $6.95 on a gamble, go to your local supermarket and check out a shrink-wrapped specimen. You’ll know immediately if you’re in or out.
And if the main courses aren’t enough to win you over, behold the vast selection of side dishes — a list that includes Goldfish crackers as an option! There’s a vegetable of the day, potatoes in every form, coleslaw, sometimes even boiled beets. And if that isn’t enough, your meal will be accompanied by a basket of amazing homemade, butter-drenched dinner rolls and a choice of either soup or juice. I once opted for cranberry juice with my fish and chips, and it arrived in a small glass, on a saucer, with a side of crackers. I found this detail completely weird and wonderful. For dessert? Pies, pies, pies. The Wayside offers a dizzying selection, from maple cream to fresh berry concoctions (I recommend the raspberry pie: tart, sweet and perfect). Now I don’t know this for a fact, but I have a strong feeling that the Wayside’s flaky, delicate pie crusts are made with straight lard. Afterall, it’s the old-timey way of doing it.
Okay, these dinners aren’t going to change your life. You aren’t going to think of them for weeks after they’ve digested and remember how each bite was a gift from the heavens. But they are fresh and completely homemade and probably pretty close to the meals that your New Englander granny used to cook up in her own kitchen. In fact, your old granny probably knows about the Wayside; she might have even visited the joint 80 years ago when it was just a hot dog stand positioned to attract commuters on the Barre-Montpelier trolley. It’s been around since 1918, an important year, as any self-respecting Red Sox fan knows. In fact, when the Sox won the World Series in ‘04, the Wayside rolled back certain menu items to 1918 prices for one day. I enjoyed a 5-cent hot dog and a nickel ice cream cone, washed it all down with a 3-cent soda. Good times.
If you still need further proof that the Wayside is the real deal, let me introduce you to a conversation between diner and server that I was once lucky enough to witness: Grizzled old man plops down at a counter stool, tells the 65-year-old waitress that he’ll have his usual. Her response? “Alright, franks and beans and a large milk, comin’ up, hon.” Are you kidding me? It’s this kind of exchange that has brought me back to the Wayside dozens of times for breakfast, in the hope that someday, I can just order “the usual” and have my eggs and toast served up to me, no written ticket required. The Wayside calls this meal the “Cackleberry Special,” and Monday through Friday, it only costs 99 cents. And breakfast is served every day until 4, so hangovers and third-shift workers, fear not! You can still roll out of bed at three and cruise in for the “Canadian Combo,” a bruncher’s delight that consists of pancakes, eggs, home fries and about 17 different kinds of breakfast meat.
Breakfast at the Wayside is really just a repertoire of greasy spoon standards, but finally, they only charge greasy spoon prices. And they will cook your fried eggs to perfection every time. Just don’t expect the coffee to be that good — it won’t be — but where do you think you are, Starbucks? No $5 caramel half-soy machiattos here. This place opens up at the crack of dawn and serves tripe.