Bidding goodbye to Mary’s Restaurant
BRISTOL — Friday, May 21 — the first night of the final three-day weekend at Mary’s Restaurant in Bristol could best be summed up by the half-dozen Delmarva soft-shell crabs crawling haphazardly on a plastic cutting board, disoriented by the bright lights of the kitchen, not knowing whether to scamper towards freedom or towards the eight-inch blade in Chef Doug Mack’s hands. Those crabs, analogous in myriad ways, sacrificed themselves for the betterment of the dining experience. Much the way Mack, 66, and Mary’s co-owner Linda Harmon, 71, have sacrificed themselves over the past 38 years.
Much has been written about the decades-long Holiday Benefit Doug and Linda have put on for the community. Or the monthly “Senior Meal” where guests could get a three-course meal for $5. Or Doug, pioneering the farm-to-table movement, becoming the first president of the Vermont Fresh Network. Or the Habitat for Humanity fundraisers with the help of regulars Rob and Marcia Liotard. Or all the holiday buffets, the Tauck tours, the weddings, catered events, Shakespeare in the Barn, the summer film series, etc. To think — it took a global pandemic for the Harmon-Mack family to have a proper Thanksgiving at home.
The recent sale of Mary’s Restaurant and the Inn at Baldwin Creek caught many folks off guard, and so the weekend was nothing if not bittersweet (such is the celebratory nature of retirement). Hundreds of takeout orders, three full dining rooms, two patios, and Mary’s famous bar were filled with tears, laughter, cards, flowers and gifts. More than 60 gallons of the renowned Cream of Garlic soup were served. As well as 70-plus pounds of Robie Farm steak, 40 Brome Lac ducks, a hundred Statler breasts of chicken, 50 pounds of Faroe Island salmon, and about 80 pounds of arborio rice turned into a creamy portobello-asparagus risotto.
Oh, and none of the crabs made it out alive.
Three moments stood out among the back-to-back-to-back, 12-plus hour shifts.
The first was the ineffable George Jaeger, 95, who grabbed my elbow when I served him his Grey Goose martini on the rocks with extra olives. “I’m going to miss this place,” said George.
It made me think about the phrase. After all, 1868 N 116 Road in Bristol isn’t going anywhere. The 240-year-old farmhouse will still be there. The big red barn will still be there. The magnificent magnolia tree in the center of the property will still bloom in late March. But that’s not what a place is, really. It’s not the tactile materiality Jaeger was talking about. No, he meant the people, the ambiance, the je-ne-sais-quoi.
It made me reflect on this pillar in the community Linda and Doug built. Just two kids from New Jersey who drove around the country in a VW Bus in the ’70s and wound up in Vermont.
The second moment was on Sunday night. Between the first and second rush, Doug snuck out of the kitchen to use the restroom briefly.
At that moment, the lobby was full of folks saying their goodbyes, others waiting for tables, servers navigating through it all with trays of dessert. Above the noise and the bustle, a single voice rang out. “Excuse me, are you the chef?” Doug, not knowing where it came from, scanned the masked faces. “Because I am NEVER eating here again!”
Everyone stopped, time slowed down, the edges blurred. Then the outstretched arms of Katie and Gerry Reilley, longtime regulars who have been to Italy with Doug and Linda, manifested through the crowd. Doug gave Katie a big hug and the restaurant filled with laughter.
The final moment came later Sunday evening after all the guests had gone. Doug and Linda took a much-deserved seat at the table in the lobby, their dogs Quincy and Maggie nestled by their feet. Doug turned to me and said, “Hey Jay, open up some Perrier-Jouet.”
The triumphant pop! echoed in the now-empty restaurant; glasses were filled, and the employees all stopped for a moment to toast to Doug and Linda’s success. The final chapter on Mary’s is yet to be written; Doug and Linda will help their daughter Laura grow lu.lu Ice Cream in Vergennes (soon you’ll be able to purchase quarts of garlic soup there). There’s still a cookbook in the works. There’s still a Tuscan tour or two in 2022.
In the meantime, I hope Doug and Linda find some relaxation. I’ve never met anyone quite like them, able to balance their near-manic work ethics with hearts of gold.
Editor’s note: A. Jay Dubberly has been working for Doug Mack and Linda Harmon since 2014. Follow Baldwin Creek on social media to find out where he and the other wonderful staff of Mary’s end up.
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