Before nose-to-tail eating became a huge restaurant trend, there was Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vt. Chef Eric Warnstedt and wine specialist William McNeil opened the restaurant in 2005 to fulfill their vision of cooking by using the whole animal, printing daily menus, and working with local farmers, cheesemakers, artisans, and ranchers, all in the name of giving diners a snapshot of Vermont’s agricultural scene.
Now, Hen of the Wood has branched out into Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, with the opening of its second location at the Hotel Vermont this past January. “This restaurant is twice as big, open seven days a week, has a full bar, a big open kitchen with all live, solid fuel cooking equipment, like a wood-fired grill and wood-fired oven,” says Chef Warnstedt, a James Beard Award nominee and a graduate of Johnson and Wales culinary school. A small butchery creates a primal and elemental culinary scene for customers.
Although the restaurant is part of the hotel, it’s run separately and has its own entrance. Warnstedt says most of his clientele comes from the city of Burlington and hotel guests are Hen of the Wood’s “gravy.” The partnership with Hotel Vermont came about as Warnstedt and McNeil were looking to expand but had trouble finding the right location. “Nothing clicked,” Warnstedt says. When he was introduced to the owners of the hotel, he discovered both establishments shared the same sensibility in terms of Vermont and sustainability. “The idea is really to be very much embedded in the Vermont ag scene and to work with all these great farmers on these products,” he says. “The way to do that though, for us, is to change the menu constantly because availability isn’t always there.”
While no two daily menus are the same, diners can look forward to dishes such as Maine lobster gratin with parsnips, pickled apple, and crispy ham; duck sausage and local cornmeal polenta served with a sunny-side-up farm egg; day-boat Gloucester cod with organic Maine beans with braised leeks and fennel; and Fresh Tracks Farm rabbit with winter squash, sage, currants, and hazelnuts. “It’s a different animal than simply putting a menu together for six months at a time,” Warnstedt explains. “But we have a crew I’ve worked with for a while. It feels totally loose but we have our routines. If you worked with us for six months, you’d probably know the flow and what we’re going to do with this ingredient or that ingredient. Once we get into a groove it’s not as hard as it sounds.”
The bar is also equipped with a hand-cranked meat slicer and oyster station, allowing bartenders to quickly serve food to guests. The beverage program, overseen by McNeil, features local and regional beers, traditional pre-Prohibition cocktails, and a rotating wine list with about 100 selections, most of which are supplied by small, family-owned wineries.
Warnstedt says Hen of the Wood’s original location is special but small, offering just 40 seats and requiring reservations. The larger space at Hotel Vermont allows the owners to offer the same food and values, but with a slightly different approach. “It sort of became a special-occasion restaurant because you have to plan in advance,” he says of the Waterbury location. “And although that’s wonderful, that’s not necessarily our style or vibe. So with this place being right downtown, attached to the hotel, we’re allowed to be a little bit more loose, a little bit more of the party that we prefer as opposed to being more formal.”