By Josh Noel
There was a McDonald’s downtown in Vermont’s largest city for years, but then Vermont’s largest city decided it didn’t want McDonald’s anymore.
So the McDonald’s closed.
A McDonald’s closing. Who ever heard of such a thing?
In Vermont’s largest city, these things happen.
Not only did the McDonald’s on Bank Street disappear, it was replaced by The Farm House Tap & Grill, a casually comfortable spot that has the town abuzz with its commitment to sourcing its meat, vegetables and cheese from more than two dozen nearby farms.
And there, in one building, you have Burlington, where a McDonald’s doesn’t last, farm-to-table dining and taps pouring local craft beer soar.
Burlington likes it that way.
“There was definitely a feeling of ‘We won,’” said Beth Montuori Rowles, 46, who moved to Burlington in her mid-20s.
“Look, I worked at McDonald’s when I was in high school. It was a great first job. But we’ve learned a lot since then about how to strengthen a community by buying food grown locally and supporting local business and how it’s important to your personal health to know what you are eating and where it came from.”
Welcome to Vermont’s largest city — albeit one of 43,000 — which has brought us Phish and Ben and Jerry’s.
Sitting just 45 miles south of the Canadian border, Burlington exists in a friendly and progressive bubble that quickly can feel utopian to a visitor charmed by nothing more than a fresh, memorable meal, clean air and such gentleness that the honk of a car horn seems out of place.
Such commitment to quality living regularly wins Vermont and Burlington all sorts of high rankings when it comes to superlatives — healthiest, happiest, safest, even “most peaceful.” While walking past the town’s charmingly weathered homes of two- and three-digit addresses, it quickly becomes no surprise to see the front door of one of those houses, on Maple Street, near downtown, painted with a rainbow. It just fits.
“We say people here are earthier, but city people, they might just look at us like we’re backward,” said Brian Dalmer, who, with his wife, Olga, owns the city’s only hostel.
“There are a lot of millionaires here, but you’d never know it. They drive pickup trucks like everyone else.”
Burlington doesn’t put on appearances. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t put anything on.
City law doesn’t prohibit public nudity, except in parks.
“I saw two of them standing in front of a bar once — two girls,” Dalmer said.
Two completely naked women standing in front of a bar?
“No,” he said. “They had hats on.”
I saw no public nudity during three days in Burlington, but it wouldn’t have been that surprising, especially when compared with, say, Cleveland. Until recent years, the University of Vermont not only sanctioned an end-of-school naked bike ride for students, it helped finance it.
No surprise, then, that a town embracing nakedness also would gravitate to life’s other good things, such as farmers markets, live music and, while I was in town, a “Downton Abbey” dinner for fans of the PBS show to “travel back in time to the early 20th century and learn the proper way to serve and eat a formal meal.”
The commitment to good living has led to a remarkably strong food scene that’s often fresh and tasty without being needlessly complex.
Perched along Lake Champlain, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the nation, Burlington is open for year-round recreation, which is evident in both the ample four-wheel drive vehicles and the equally ample stickers upon them that tout skiing, fishing, biking, climbing or whatever else gets a Burlingtonian moving.
Walking along Lake Champlain’s shore on a chilly but bright and sunny winter afternoon, I met a precocious 9-year-old fisherman who was experimenting with a new pole, and, in a 10-minute soliloquy on the merits of fishing, lamented that he wasn’t catching much.
“I’m not very good with it because it’s my first time,” he said.
“Yes, but imagine how good you’ll be if you keep using it for the next year,” I told him.
“Yeah, you’re right!” he said.
And then it struck me: That’s a pretty idyllic concern to have as a 9-year-old on a Thursday afternoon.
Back I went up toward town, passing an array of storefronts that are just what you’d expect: vintage clothes, outdoor gear, more vintage clothes, more outdoor gear, the crystals-and-incense store, two record stores (that actually sell vinyl), a head shop and, proving that the city has long been the way it is, Old Gold, a costume and vintage-clothes shop celebrating its 40th year.
The city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration — held a few weeks after the proper date, when the Vermont weather is kinder — was approaching, so the mannequins were outfitted in extra sparkles and feathers.
On Church Street, the brick pedestrian walkway cutting through downtown, the offerings are more evenly split between local funkiness and the more vanilla — and not just the inevitable Ben and Jerry’s. (The original Ben and Jerry’s, at the corner of St. Paul and College streets, is now a parking lot.)
There, amid the pedestrians, sit several national chains the town doesn’t always embrace. With one obvious exception.
Speaking of which, should you really need that McDonald’s fix while visiting Burlington, you can find it on your way back to the airport — in the town of South Burlington.
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