No matter the day, no matter the time, the Wayside Restaurant & Bakery always looks busy. As cars swing in and out of the parking lot, drivers on the busy Barre-Montpelier Road slow down to wave to friends heading to and from the local haunt.
In short, it's a central Vermont insitution.
The Wayside opened in 1918, well before gimmicky marketing to families became standard, and it still resists those cynical modern touches. The decor is quietly dignified country farmhouse; if the burgundy and floral-patterned walls could talk, they would snap, "Don't sass me."
The extensive menu is filled with the kind of meals you might not have eaten as a kid, but your parents surely did: liver and onions, meatloaf, open-faced sandwiches smothered in gravy, and — hold on to your stomachs — pickled honeycomb beef tripe.
The Wayside's Thursday-night $6.95 salt-pork plate earned it a spot on Grub Street' recent list of "50 State Dinners (Plus One): Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer." That insider tip made me lean toward the Traveler's Special orange chops, thinking maybe pork was their thing. But instead I went with the chicken pie special, roasted light and dark chicken in a creamy gravy topped with a buttermilk biscuit.
My daughter opted for the hot turkey sandwich, and my son had Charlie Brown's Italiano off the oddly "Peanuts"-themed children's menu. Translation: He ordered spaghetti with sauce. But my son doesn't do red — no tomato sauce, no ketchup — so he asked for his spaghetti with butter and Parmesan cheese, instead. Our waitress happily obliged.
Wayside entrées come with one or two side dishes, such as fries, applesauce or cheddar Goldfish crackers. Thinking ahead to dessert, I opted for the side salad with a tasty, housemade maple balsamic vinaigrette.
We snacked on hot rolls with butter and crisp garlic toasts until our meals arrived. Though it wasn't a long wait, the meals were lukewarm rather than piping hot. An unappetizing skin had formed on the gravy pooling in my daughter's mashed potatoes. A quick stir saved us from a spiral into disaster.
Dessert did not disappoint. The local rhubarb pie, a special that day, was perfectly tart and delicious. The appropriately sized kids sundae delivered the right proportion of hot fudge to vanilla ice cream, and my daughter was only able to make a small dent in the big wedge of chocolate cake placed in front of her.
Overall, our dinners were filling and pleasant. It wasn't an exceptional meal, but eating at the Wayside is like a visit to grandma's — familiar, charming and a little eccentric.