The Cuisine Scene Along I-89 in NH
Looking for charm near and far
My destination this summer was Orford. The town is not known as an end journey for anything, but therein lies its charm. Nary a Dunkin’ Donuts or gift shop is in sight, and the view of seven Federal-style homes built on a ridge from 1773 to 1859 is outstanding. Pretty white clapboard homes designed in a Bulfinch style look quite stately as they seem to peer over the trees to the Connecticut River. Today the town, chartered in 1761, actually has a smaller population than its heyday in 1859 as an agricultural center. Author Washington Irving visited Orford in 1832 and is quoted as saying, “In all my travels in this country and in Europe, I have seen no village more beautiful than this. It is a charming place — nature has done her utmost here.” Besides lovely architecture and unspoiled natural beauty, it does have two great restaurants. My Nav system was ready.
I was headed to Peyton Place Restaurant, owned and run by Chef Jim and Heidi Peyton out of their 1773 tavern house on Rte. 10 in Orford, just south of the Ridge Houses. Cookbook author/friend Hillary Davis agreed to join me and we set out one summer morning for travel up I-89 for a long day of dining.
Our first stop was the Schoolhouse Café in Warner. Well, actually it was Davisville, a burg not official enough to be given a proper sign. We took the long way, getting off I-89 in Hopkinton and headed up Rte. 103 for a pastoral drive. In the midst of pastoral-ness we found the white clapboard building looking indeed like a schoolhouse, complete with American flag unfurled.
Inside you could see a few artifacts of school life — high windows with blackboards underneath and a nice hardwood floor. They managed to squeeze in a breakfast bar for single diners in the bright, open room. We soon discovered customer favorites include the sausage gravy biscuits with eggs, their homemade hash, homemade cinnamon bread and Kathy’s Famous Doughnuts. The softball-sized doughnuts are the deep-fried cake variety, spiced with just a touch of cinnamon. French toast is taken quite seriously here, too, with versions stuffed and deep fried and made with banana bread or white chocolate pound cake. Find these mostly as specials. Like a good bakery/breakfast spot, the breads are homemade, adding a layer of delight to toast accompaniments and more layers of goodness to French toast. We found the breakfast potatoes and corned beef hash to be OK. The jam served in tiny mason jars looks darling, but it is not homemade, we were informed by our server. Discovering that this restaurant was started three years ago by a former server at Foot Hills just down the road, we slipped out for a breakfast comparison.
Heading north again on Rte. 103 we passed the Yankee Farmer Buffalo Farm and made the turn up the road, stopping for iPhone shots of the Buffalo Crossing sign. Curiously, the farmer’s name is Farmer — Brian and Keira, who have been running the farm for 20 years. Onsite is a big, red barn that houses their marketplace. Find all cuts of frozen buffalo, venison and elk and a small selection of locally sourced groceries. I picked up a package of ground buffalo and ground elk and discovered later that the more rare, the more I enjoyed the flavor. For a meat that is quite lean, that is impressive. Unfortunately, it is the fat in burgers that make them savory and people are looking to buffalo for health reasons.
The Farmers have about 50 buffalo roaming out back and on remote pastures to stock their store, area restaurants and breeding programs. Look for their buffalo burger truck at the Deerfield Fair, September 25 to 28, and the Warner Fall Foliage Festival on Columbus Day weekend.
After hopscotching through the pasture for buffalo viewing, we wiped our feet and traveled on up Rte. 103 to downtown Warner. The charming village town was complete with gracious library, telephone museum and the eye-catching Foot Hills of Warner, where baskets of flowering plants hung from the traditional farmers porch. A welcoming spot, indeed. We found the staff and customers to be very hospitable while several tourists mentioned always stopping here on their journey to Vermont or beyond. It’s that kind of place.
We tried the corned beef hash and found it to our liking. The giant “Big, Hot & Sticky” cinnamon roll is legendary and also irresistible. How can you say no to rich dough laced with cinnamon and topped with gooey frosting. You can one-up this with slices of the same bun served as French toast. I learned the pancakes are what the tourists come in for and the pancake sandwich with two cakes cradling an egg and bacon sounded like the answer to no particular question.
Before Hillary and I left, a visit to the New Hampshire Telephone Museum was in order. It opened in 2005 with Dick Violette’s collection of telephone memorabilia. Ancient switchboards and a few not-so ancient, I-remember-that items, including black rotary phones, princess phones and even flip phones, are nicely displayed. The museum is still looking for their first smartphone donation. It’s worth a visit.
Wandering up along I-89, we had trouble finding the Farmer’s Table Café in Grantham. I always advise getting lost for a bit because these are the roads less traveled but worthy of travel. After coming to a dead end and a phone call, we circled back and found the sandwich board sign for the turn down the hill. It’s not quite the typical roadside café. At the heart is a wood-fired brick oven for pizza and we enjoyed a white version with garlic. They claim to source local, making their salads a good choice too. It was a quick stop and we headed back to I-89 to get to Hanover for my favorite food diversion.
There is no reason to forego indulging at Morano Gelato in Hanover. It’s just that good. Hillary was impressed with the smoothness and flavor punch of the chocolate — and she knows her gelato. We ate lightly though, and headed north to Orford to our ultimate destination for the day.
For expediency we took I-91, although Rte. 10 is more varied and interesting, especially for food. We bypassed Stella’s Italian Kitchen and the Tavern at the Lyme Inn and dismissed Ariana’s, the other Orford restaurant, for no particular reason. For total charm, we were happy to have finally arrived at Peyton Place Restaurant. The sun was setting in the Vermont hills across the border as we stepped over the threshold, back in time.
This old tavern house has been revitalized by Jim and Heidi Peyton. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of work to make it look like it has never changed in 200 years. The Peytons have taken on building renovations and providing hospitality as a challenge — it’s their life, their work, their mission.
Mismatched china, antique tablecloths and napkins add homey charm to the main dining room and the tavern room where we chose to sit. Each table is graced with a trio of real candles, dripping steadily down the sides of previously enjoyed wine bottles. Tucked by the open hearth is the original bar from Colonial days, where libations are still stored and served. Above, the old beams are exposed, below, the floor planks are wide and, yes, the hospitality has been preserved for weary travelers.
Chef Jim heads the kitchen and conceives the menu. Heidi relates the story of their lobster salad. “Jim just woke up saying, ‘I am making a warm lobster salad.’” Now it’s a staple on the menu. Jim must have some wild dreams because the menu has diverse inspirations, from delicate broths for Vietnamese bouillabaisse to a spicy quesadilla with duck sausage to a lamb burger with grapefruit agave sauce. The menu is as changeable as the oversize blackboard permits. There is always a pasta or two listed, as Jim rolls it just before service begins. Heidi or other servers tote the board to each table and offer up the menu as a dramatic reading. We were enthralled by Heidi’s enthusiasm and her knowledge of food and wine as she guided us through dinner choices.
Maybe everything was made from scratch in Colonial times because there was no Sysco, but here, food is crafted by hand for pure love, passion and invention. Jim and Heidi Peyton are having it their way. And you’re invited.