Hip, Hippie, Hippest

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 26, 2002

If a nightspot in Burlington, Vt., is supposed to be the sort of down-home place where people show up in plaid shirts and jeans, nobody bothered to tell Anna Rosenblum. With its sleek, minimalist decor, a waitstaff decked out in black and live jazz nearly every night, the club she opened last summer could have been plucked out of New York's TriBeCa. In a matter of months, the Waiting Room has become the "in" scene in town. On a recent Saturday night, the martinis, music and animated chatter flowed well into Sunday morning.

On second blush, a lounge serving raspberry vodka gimlets and playing the music of Lenny Kravitz seems to fit right into Burlington, an enclave of hippies with gray ponytails, abstract painters, students with pierced tongues and assorted other characters. Vermont's most populous (almost 39,000) city is a sprawl of Colonial, Victorian and modern brick buildings. The campuses of the University of Vermont and Champlain College, with their elegant 18th- and 19th-century structures a few blocks from downtown, add to the city's youthful atmosphere.

Burlington has become something of a haven for souls escaping the major cities of the East Coast, who drift as far north as they can before hitting the regal blue waters of Lake Champlain. The result is a curious mix of urban bohemia and grass-roots folksiness. On a three-day visit earlier this month, I stumbled across the kinds of artists, shopkeepers and raconteurs you would expect to meet in D.C.'s Adams Morgan or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.

One of them was Andrea Rogers, executive director of the Flynn Center, the city's performing arts theater, who told me of past performances by artists like Jay Leno, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Lily Tomlin. "Afterward, they often voice surprise that the audiences are right there with them, appreciating even some of the far-out stuff," she said. "I guess people don't expect to find that kind of cultural open-mindedness in Vermont."

Strolling around town, I stopped at art galleries, boutiques and cafes where I would gladly have whiled away an afternoon or even a whole day. Church Street is a four-block pedestrian walkway that is the lifeline of the city. With a 19th-century Unitarian church towering over one end, it is lined with shops ranging from Borders bookstore to body-piercing salons to the inevitable Starbucks and a juice bar serving smoothies made with ginseng and echinacea. A kind of village center, it's where everybody in town seems to show up at least once a day, pausing for coffee or lunch in one of the many restaurants or sidewalk cafes. If the aroma of sage and citrus from the Yankee Candle Company doesn't seduce you inside, the smell of fresh bread down the block at the Red Onion Cafe will.

Never one to pass a clothing store, I strolled into Michael Kehoe, the city's most established men's clothing shop, where the racks of $600 suits imported from Milan and calfskin jackets from France quickly disabused me of any thought that Vermont fashion is only about anoraks and brogans. "We've got all types in this town," explained co-owner Tom Pierce, "guys who only wear denim and others who have a penchant for white linen suits. We try to be of service to them all."

Around the corner on St. Paul Street, I dropped into Jazza Tings, a boutique specializing in handmade lamps from Morocco, masks from Mali, mudcloth from Ghana and other African artifacts. Owner Thembie Gamache, a woman with deep brown skin and long braids, talked about how a native of Swaziland forges a life in a small New England town whose black population is minuscule. "It's a challenge," she said, "but the godsend is that most people here are pretty open to learning about different cultures."

In this city that is home to the nationally renowned New England Culinary Institute and where many of its graduates find places as chefs, dining out can be sublime. Amid keen competition, one restaurant that stands out is Smokejack's, a small, intimate restaurant with soft candlelight and a lively buzz. My dinner there was the kind you dream about: honey-chili glazed shrimp with sauteed hominy, followed by a succulent chicken breast on a bed of pancakes made with wild rice and topped by two selections from the stunning list of cheeses, including one from Portugal made with sheep's milk and a cheddar made at Vermont's Shelburne Farms.

On Saturday, after a walk through the Farmers Market (held every Saturday morning in summer), I was off to the Doll-Anstadt Gallery. It displayed a wide range of works: bold abstracts in oil by Peter Arvidson of Boston, colorful images by Burlington painter Kate Davis and hand-painted chairs by Ruby Anstadt, co-owner of the gallery.

"When you circulate in the art world here, you meet every possible type," said Anstadt, who moved here seven years ago from Philadelphia. "It's like being in Greenwich Village."

The difference is that when you wheel a few minutes out of town, instead of hitting New Jersey you are surrounded by one of the most serene natural spots in New England. You can catch glimpses of Lake Champlain, with the soft gray Adirondacks towering behind it, from many points in the city. It's a soothing presence. Locals walk or bike along Champlain's shores; in summer, they swim in the lake or ferry across to New York.

Enticed by the lake, I rented a Schwinn and biked along its shores, on a path that wound past clusters of trees, playgrounds and docks. Eventually I stopped at North Beach, a quarter-mile stretch of sand with a sweep of towering evergreens behind it and the calm waters of the lake stretching ahead. The closest sunning spot to the center of town, it's always crowded in summer, with families splashing in the water or boating. On this brisk May morning, however, there were only a few hardy souls. I paused in the solitude of the setting, then headed toward the Winooski River and back -- about a three-hour trip.

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