SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — The formula is so simple, you have to wonder why there aren’t thousands of places like it.
Worthy Burger, in an out-of-the-way spot in Vermont’s Upper Valley, serves a 6-ounce grass-fed patty cooked over a hardwood fire until pink and juicy, then tucked into a delicious little bun. If you want, heap it with condiments. And don’t forget the fries. They’re cooked twice in beef tallow. No one does this. Local, sustainable, farm-fresh is taken to the hilt here. Beef grazes on land nearby, buns are made at Norwich-based King Arthur Flour, craft beers are brewed by neighbors, and wood comes from the region. The Worthy Burger costs $6; most checks are under $20.
Opened in 2012 in an 1850s railroad freight house, the industrial-looking Worthy Burger is not easy to find, and when you do, the area is slightly down-at-the-heels. The menu doesn’t offer a lot more than four burgers, fries, occasional specials, a Vermont cheese plate, a couple desserts, and craft brews.
The three owners were worried at first. “We’re on the wrong side of the tracks,” says co-owner David Brodrick, 54, “hidden away, town between exits, we’re all kind of like, Is anyone going to come?” So they designed a place the three could run themselves. Apparently it didn’t matter that whatever exit you take off Interstate 89, you still have to drive a couple miles. Word got out. On weekends, 300 people come, wait to belly up to the counter, order, and then pick up. There’s always a line for one of the 47 indoor and 30 outdoor seats; good-natured staff serve beer while you wait.
John Miller, assistant dean of admissions at Vermont Law School, which is located here, takes prospective and admitted students to the restaurant. The school specializes in environmental law and runs the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems. “Worthy Burger sits well within the mission of the law school,” he says, [with its] “focus on local, sustainable food.” In this close-knit community, Miller adds, Worthy staff know their regulars, and it’s “this really trendy, interesting place where you have good food and good beer.”
Besides beef and turducky (turkey-duck confit) burgers, the menu has an exceptional “fish ’wich,” grilled selections from Massachusetts-based Wood Mountain Fish. That might be tuna, salmon, flounder, cod, or haddock, all given the wood-fire treatment so the fish is slightly smoky, and especially good with spicy mayo and homemade pickles from the condiment bar.
A year after opening the South Royalton location, co-owners Brodrick, Jason Merrill, 39, and Kurt Lessard, 44, realized they needed a bigger kitchen. They found a spot for a commissary on East Woodstock Road, which leads into the picturesque town. “The [commissary] kitchen was so expensive,” says Brodrick, “we needed to open another restaurant.”
They launched Worthy Kitchen in 2013 and call it a “farm diner.” The place is twice the size of the burger spot, with traditional entrees such as fried chicken cooked in lard. Doughnuts are also cooked in lard. (These restaurateurs love animal fats.) Fillings for popular tacos and burritos vary, but the chicken is always on the menu.
Brodrick, Merrill, and Lessard all live in Barnard, near Woodstock, where many of Worthy’s purveyors farm. Young farmers were having a hard time getting their meat and produce into restaurants, says Brodrick; the Worthy trio now keep them busy.
Some cooks say that pastured beef, while more flavorful than feed-lot beef, can be dry. The owners tried beef blends, which many chefs do (some butchers have a secret blend for every restaurant they supply). Black Watch Farm in Weathersfield sends beef to Worthy, and grinds “the whole cow,” says Brodrick. That means there are cuts like tenderloin in the mix, which you typically don’t find.
Each owner brings different expertise to the group. Brodrick owned bars and restaurants in New York; he still has Blind Tiger on Bleecker Street, which specializes in craft brews. Merrill was a chef at Jackson House Inn in Woodstock, Quechee Club in Quechee, and Hanover Inn in Hanover, N.H. Lessard, who does the finances, was a boy when his parents owned the Barnard General Store in Barnard for 20 years. The restaurateurs toyed with the idea of taking over the store, which had fallen on hard times. (It has since been bought and reopened by the Barnard Community Trust, a group formed to save the place.)
At one end of the old freight house is Freight House Brewing, which expects to open soon. A Worthy catering arm goes to parties with a mobile wood-fired grill, and the company also does high-end catering.
Once a week, the partners meet for a daylong business session. Where to open a third location invariably comes up. They nixed New York, they’re not sure about Boston because it’s so expensive, and they have tossed around smaller cities like Portsmouth, N.H.
What they don’t need to worry about is whether it’s a choice part of town. Build it, grill those burgers, and they will come.
WORTHY BURGER 56 Rainbow St., South Royalton, Vt., 802-763-2575. Kitchen open Mon-Wed 4-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Cash only.
WORTHY KITCHEN 442 East Woodstock Road, Woodstock, Vt., 802-457-7281. Kitchen open Mon-Fri 4-10 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m., lunch and dinner 2-9 p.m. Restaurant stays open at least one hour after the kitchen closes, sometimes longer, depending on the crowd.Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.