Walpole's New Farmer-Owned Diner
It doesn't get much more local than this. The Hungry Diner is an extension of Walpole Valley Farms.
Caitlin Caserta and her son Sam at Walpole Valley Farms, which supplies The Hungry Diner.
Local sourcing is all the rage for restaurants of every stripe, from fancy to fun-loving. But — there is always a but — are they continually working with local farms, is the relationship more than words on a blackboard and is the impact significant on the menu? These were all questions farmers Chris and Caitlin Caserta asked themselves.
The Casertas operate Walpole Valley Farms in the lovely rolling and lush hills just south of the classic New England town of Walpole. Chris’ sister, Jackie, runs the nearby Inn at Valley Farms, an operation I wrote about when her now-teenage daughter was just learning to walk. The grandparents, who own all the land, are nestled in a picturesque farmhouse nearby. The whole family operation — with gorgeous barns, working farmland and a viable business — is almost too beautiful for words, but there is a good story to try and tell.
For the last 12 or so years, Chris and Caitlin have been using the land for grazing beef cattle, hogs and chickens for eggs and meat. The onsite farmstore is open on weekends, offering select steak cuts, sausage, bacon, pork chops, fresh eggs and even grandmother Bonnie’s jams and jellies.
The couple wanted to offer food in some form on the farm — maybe a full-time farmstand with burgers and hotdogs. When a former ice cream stand location became available, plans changed, and a new round of research was undertaken.
The Casertas are both strong disciples of Joel Salatin, the subject of Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who envisioned an eatery that was based in sustainable food sources with reduced impact on the Earth’s resources. As Salatin has said, “This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.” With this mantra in their heads, the couple traveled to many eateries of the ilk they envisioned for their own operation — even as far as San Francisco.
Research completed, the Walpole natives opened The Hungry Diner last year. It’s a full-service, fast-casual restaurant where you order at the window and the food is delivered to your table. It was important to them that their food was approachable, and not offered up just as fancy tidbits with only a loose link to their farm.
This place is not your average diner — and is probably the first farmer-owned, full-service eatery in the state. Everything sparkles with the sheen of tidiness. You can see their careful research everywhere, from the nice beer glasses to the white subway tiles to the warmth of the hand-crafted tables and chairs. Local company Bensonwood designed and built the wood ceiling, built-in seating and tables using reclaimed wood. The local theme is enforced by keeping money local too.
For the menu, it seems the big thing they learned was people love burgers and beer — a trend now hitting the state hard. Chris is a craft beer aficionado, and 16 local or iconic beers are on tap, while burgers from their own beef and pigs are central to the menu. Be sure to try Three Little Pigs, a pasture-raised pork burger with slow-roasted bacon and Bonnie’s bacon jam.
From left: Caitlyn Fish, Ellen Stringham and Caitlin Caserta at The Hungry Diner
The focus is on their own pasture-raised meats and poultry, but local sourcing outside of theirs is evident as well. The artisanal buns for the burgers are from nearby award-winning Orchard Hill Breadworks, local milk is used to make their own soft serve ice cream and milkshakes, and local cave-cultured cheese is the mainstay for their very popular mac ’n’ cheese dishes. But there’s one caveat — cost, a lesson that the dining public is starting to grasp.
As Caitlin says, “The public needs to be educated on the real cost of food.” Prices here are not out of line for the value of the meal. She adds, “If folks are expecting Applebee prices, they are at first stunned.” But they soon get the big picture — quality food, healthy ingredients, saving the picturesque farms that dot the countryside — it all comes at a cost. What is better for the environment is also, fortunately, better for the diner and a worthy investment on both counts.
Sam Caserta holds a Red Ranger chicken in the mobile coop.
Pasture-raising beef and chicken is hard work. The grazing fields are changed daily so the cattle can forage on fresh clover and other tasty greens. The day I visited, the herding was disrupted, and it was quite the sight to see them racing to what they thought were greener pastures. The Red Ranger chickens the Casertas chose to raise are a slower-growing variety than the typical white Cornish Cross. They are, however, tastier, claims Caitlin.
Keeping the faith throughout the operation, Caitlin says they also try to minimize the environmental impact of the restaurant by using compostable take-out containers, along with other disposables that are used to enrich their own soils, while food waste is fed to their pigs. Diners inside also enjoy their meals on ceramic dishes and not paper plates, another win-win.
As a family-run operation, it was important to the Casertas that The Hungry Diner also be a community meeting place and kid-friendly. The yard out front offers a swing set and plenty of picnic tables to play board games that are available inside. And, of course, there is a corn hole set.
Walpole has always been an exceptional town in many ways. Just driving through it for a cup of Burdick’s hot chocolate is a joy. Now it is even better.
Other Food Found at Farms
Local farms are learning they can cut out the middleman by cooking their own products onsite and offering meals to the public on special days. Here’s a list of seasonal offerings.
Brookford Farm Burger Nights
250 W Rd., Canterbury
Held on the last Friday of the month through August. Have a grass-fed burger with all the fixings on the farm where it was grown. Enjoy live music and explore the barns and fields. Bring your own chair. $25
Mayfair Farm Dinners
31 Clymers Dr., Harrisville
Dinners already sold out for the July and August events, but keep an eye out for future dinners.
Moulton Farm Brunch and Dinners
18 Quarry Rd., Meredith
Brunch buffet every Sunday in July and August for $16.99, and there are two farm-to-table dinners held twice a month through September for $48.
Pizza Night at Orchard Hill Breadworks
121 Old Settlers Rd., Alstead
They provide dough, sauce, cheese and access to the picking garden, and you bring your favorite toppings, chair and silverware. $9
Wicked Chicken Rotisserie Night at Vernon Family Farm
301 Piscassic Rd., Newfields
Held on Friday nights where you can pick up or dine onsite from 5 to 6 p.m.
July 13, 20, 27, August 17, 31 and September 14, 21, 28
Vernon’s own chickens are cooked on their very large rotisserie. Confirm through firstname.lastname@example.org or via Facebook message.
D Acres Breakfast
218 Streeter Woods Rd., Dorchester
Held every first Sunday of the month. Enjoy a farm feast breakfast with food from the farm. It’s all organic and sustainable — and part of their mission. The center aims to combine the benefits of agricultural tradition and modern technology within the framework of an educational farmstead. D Acres offers hiking trails, periodic workshops and housing for overnight guests.