MONTPELIER — It hasn’t functioned for many years, but the huge neon sign atop a 2-story brick building in the heart of downtown Montpelier says “RESTAURANT” and Tom Greene will tell you it won’t be wrong — or broken — for much longer.
“The plan is to really bring it back,” Greene said of a restaurant that hasn’t been dormant for too terribly long and is suddenly poised for only its fourth incarnation in more than 140 years courtesy of the former college president and acclaimed novelist.
Greene, who founded the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier 13 years ago, said Thursday he had been toying with the idea of starting a restaurant in the Capital City long before he stepped down last year as president of the college he started.
At the time, the New England Culinary Institute was still operating its student-run restaurant — NECI on Main — which closed its scaled back operations just before the pandemic hit in early 2020 and shuttered its cooking school 10 months later.
“It had been a long ‘goodbye,’” said Greene, who has a 10-year lease and grand plans for what he views as a “foundational restaurant” in Montpelier.
“It’s been a long time since it’s been vibrant,” he said. “The opportunity to bring it back is pretty exciting.”
The restaurant’s name — Hugo’s — like Greene’s search for a location, predates the pandemic, but COVID-19 prompted him to “take a step back.” When he renewed the search earlier this year it quickly focused on a building that wasn’t available when he first started looking.
“I kept coming back to this space and how important it is,” he said of a building that according to his wife’s research, has housed three restaurants since it was built in 1880.
It was Miller’s Inn from 1880 until the late 1940s, when the Lobster Pot opened on Main Street. That’s where it remained for more than 45 years before making the move to the Barre-Montpelier Road in neighboring Berlin in 1994. NECI was next up. What started as the Main Street Bar & Grill morphed into NECI On Main before closing 21 months ago.
“It looks like they left in the middle of the night,” said Greene. “You could film ‘The Quiet Place 3’ in there. The tables are set. There (are) wine bottles behind the bar. There’s still every spoon, fork and knife in there. It’s kind of eerie.”
Greene predicted that vibe will soon change — if it hasn’t already — thanks to work that started Thursday and will continue into early next year.
Hugo’s — a restaurant named after Greene’s 100-pound red Labrador retriever – is coming soon and he said the main floor is badly in need of a “facelift.”
“Right now it looks a little bit like a 1990s hotel lobby,” he said.
Fresh flooring, new tin ceilings, and more exposed brick are all part of Greene’s vision for what he described as an “accessible, affordable, locally-sourced, new American bistro that will be run by “deeply experienced” people.
Greene isn’t one of them.
Sure the vision is his, the name is his dog’s, and he’ll oversee the finances, but Greene has no plans to stop doing what he loves.
“I’m still going to be a novelist and keep doing what I’m doing writing books,” he said, noting the day-to-day operation of a restaurant that, with luck, could be open for business in February will be in capable hands.
Greene said Keith Walker, who spent five years as sous chef at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury has returned to Vermont from Boston to clean out the kitchen he’ll be responsible for running as executive chef at Hugo’s.
While Walker will be in control of the kitchen, running the restaurant will be up to general manager Jana Markow, who has served in that capacity at two other Montpelier restaurants. Greene said Markow worked most recently at Julio’s and before that at Sarducci’s.
Neither of those restaurant’s are close to the size of the establishment Greene is readying to launch — likely in phases — early next year.
“This will be Montpelier’s biggest restaurant,” he said, noting he plans to make full use of the roughly 15,000 square feet and three floors — brick-lined basement included — he is leasing from owner Pat Malone.
According to Greene, “Hugo’s Bar & Grill” will occupy the ground floor and basement and likely open first. He said “Upstairs At Hugo’s” shouldn’t be far behind and the second-floor space will feature a piano bar with cocktails and a late-night menu.
The restaurant will be able to seat 200 diners, who Greene said can expect good food at reasonable prices.
“It’s going to be unfussy and really high quality. No pretension, just really well-cooked food by very talented chefs using local Vermont produce and meats and fish that’s coming in several times a week from Boston.”
Greene said the comprehensive menu will range from sandwiches and burgers to higher-end entrees, describing it as “a cross between the Farmhouse (Tap & Grill) in Burlington and Hen of the Wood in Burlington.”
There will be a “raw bar” with fresh oysters every day and Greene expects mid-priced entrees will be in the $20- $30 range and appetizers for between $5 and $13.
Greene believes Hugo’s will add to Montpelier’s already diverse collection of restaurants and make the Capital City a true destination for diners.
“It’s something that could transform the food scene in central Vermont and be supportive of the other restaurants that are here,” he said.
Greene acknowledged his foray into the food scene might seem less than logical to some, but noted he’s beaten longer odds.
“I’m probably the only college president becoming a restaurateur, but, part of me figures I started a college in a recession … so why not start a restaurant in a pandemic,” he said.
As for that roof-top neon sign?
Greene said it isn’t going anywhere.
“We’re going to make it work again for the first time in 20 years,” he said of the near-70-year-old sign that was installed when the Lobster Pot was Montpelier’s newest restaurant.
It’s about to be Hugo’s.