There are plenty of cult favorites among the countless restaurants and bars across the Northeast, such as the Beachcomber in Wellfleet for its strong drinks, tasty seafood and glorious views of the Atlantic Ocean and perhaps Sally’s Apizza in New Haven for its sublime tomato pie, old-school vibe and location.
These and other beloved destination spots often have such a rabid following that people make trips from the Boston area just to visit them, perhaps seeing some other sites along the way. That’s also true for a burger and beer restaurant in Vermont that is so far off the beaten path that it feels like more of a quest than a lunch/dinner stop, yet is also only a bit over two hours from Boston.
Sound interesting? It should, as Worthy Burger in South Royalton is the type of place that will literally make you feel giddy the minute you arrive and will make you want to come back again and again.
In fact, even the ride up to Worthy Burger is enjoyable. I-89 is one of those rare interstate highways that is beautiful from its start, near Concord, New Hampshire, all the way to the end, by the Quebec border. You’ll take it after getting off I-93 from Boston for another hour, just past the Vermont border.
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Route 132 passes through the center of town, then, after a right on Route 14 and a five-mile drive, you’ll arrive just across the White River from South Royalton, a tidy little town that feels like it hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years, with its head-in parking, attractive old brick buildings and tree-shaded village green.
At the end of the commercial district, go left on Railroad Street, right on Safford Street – which takes you under an ancient railroad bridge -- and then an immediate right onto Rainbow Street, a narrow lane with woods on both sides. At this point you might be saying, “This can’t be right,” but in less than 30 seconds the fun begins as a sign for Worthy Burger appears on the right side of the road.
Pulling into the parking lot that abuts the railroad tracks, you’ll soon realize why this is such a revered place to those in the know and the locals who are lucky enough to have it nearby.
To the left of the tracks is a rustic freight house that houses the restaurant, and the renovations made to the building fit in well with the vibe of the town itself -- the feel of a rural outpost far, far away from anyplace else. A sign on the exterior facing the railroad tracks says “The Worthy Burger” (though most people drop the “the” when talking about it) along with “Craft Beer” and “Local Burgers” while the front entrance is lit up at night by what appears to be a very old streetlight and, off to the left, a huge lighted “burger” sign.
Stepping into Worthy Burger brings you into another world, a bit like an old watering hole in a frontier town out west — and having been to a number of those spots, it certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a one-stoplight town in Montana or Idaho. The interior of the restaurant is dominated by a counter where people order their food and drink (and when stools are set up, for bellying up to the “bar” and chatting with the workers), while wood-fired grills and beer taps are behind the counter. A handful of tables are set up by the counter area, while an enclosed porch is off to the left and, when the weather cooperates, a spacious patio allows for enjoying the crisp Vermont air and views of the town just across the tracks along with the hills beyond.
Worthy Burger has a sibling restaurant in nearby Woodstock called Worthy Kitchen, which is a test kitchen of sorts for farm-to-table dishes including outstanding takes on macaroni and cheese, bolognese, chicken sandwiches, roasted veggies and more. But Worthy Burger has a tighter focus, which makes ordering here a bit easier, since there are fewer choices. (A second location of Worthy Burger can be found in Waitsfield, by the way.) It isn’t quite all about burgers and beer at Worthy Burger, as offerings include chicken and fish sandwiches, veggie burgers, salads and chocolate cake, depending on the season and the specials. Still, for many, if not most, burgers and beer are pretty much the name of the game here, and as hinted at earlier, some are willing to drive two hours — or more — just for those burgers and beers.
Any red meat lover can tell you that all burgers are not the same, and the ones at Worthy Burger are easily among the best in New England. The ones served here are made using locally sourced grass-fed wagyu beef, and because they are cooked over a wood fire, the taste and smell get an added smokiness. Local ingredients extend to the burger toppings as well, including classic Vermont cheddar cheese along with Vermont bacon, lettuce, onions, maple cider mustard and a “secret sauce.”
The hand-cut fries at Worthy Burger are so tasty that you can easily ruin your appetite eating them before even getting to your burger, with the added boost in flavor coming from the Wagyu beef tallow (basically, rendered beef fat) they’re cooked in, rather than vegetable oil. The folks at the restaurant claim that beef tallow is healthier than vegetable oil, which is great to hear because once you eat fries cooked this way, you may never want to go back to fries cooked in oil again.
Vermont is known for its local breweries, and while everyone talks about the great New England IPAs found across the state, you’ll also find some excellent beers locally that aren’t so hoppy or citrusy. Worthy Burger is a terrific place to explore them, as a number of top breweries are located not too far away. The beer list is always changing, but for those who do love IPAs, the legendary Heady Topper (from Alchemist in Stowe) is often available here, as is its lesser-known but equally-great sibling, Focal Banger. Upper Pass (South Royalton), Lawson’s (Waitsfield) and River Roost (Hartford) are all nearby breweries with beers available at Worthy Burger, and patrons can enjoy everything from porters to sours to stouts to pilsners in addition to IPAs.
If you’re not content to drive a long way simply to eat at a restaurant, you may be wondering if you can plan a road trip that includes Worthy Burger. The good news is that Central Vermont has no shortage of fun things to do, some of which can be found in or close to South Royalton.
Right in the center of town is a place that lovers of food and drink should definitely stop at, the South Royalton Food Coop. This market sells some of the best cheese, bread, meats, beer and more that Vermont has to offer, and if you hit it right, you may just be able to buy a four-pack of Heady Topper or Focal Banger there. Speaking of beer, right next to the market is the First Branch Coffee Shop, which happens to be home to a tasting room for the aforementioned Upper Pass Beer Company, making it one-stop shopping for both beer and coffee. For beer with a view, Bent Hill Brewing Company sits high up in tiny Braintree, about a half hour northwest, and offers jaw-dropping scenes from its taproom and outdoor seating area; their Wee Bird kolsch is a personal favorite that isn’t always available, but if it is, get it either at the brewery or the food coop, which sometimes has it in stock.
If you’re a hiker, the Long Trail is about 45 minutes west of South Royalton and runs from Massachusetts to the Canadian border. (Word to the wise: you won’t be able to do the whole trail in one day.) Woodstock and Quechee are a half hour south of town and have a number of “bang for your buck” hikes and walks that have great views for relatively little effort.
There’s a big difference between the terms “best restaurants” and “favorite restaurants.” The former tends to feel more objective while the latter gets people’s hearts more into it. Among food and beer geeks, restaurant owners, chefs and media folks in the Greater Boston area, you will often hear “Worthy Burger” and “favorite” in the same sentence. And that’s what helps make for cult favorites within the dining scene — places that may not have better food or a more impressive drinks list than anyone else in the region, but ones that make people want to go back as soon as they leave. That certainly describes Worthy Burger to many, making it a perfect stop while traveling up I-89 on your way to somewhere else, or to make it the destination itself.
Worthy Burger, 56 Rainbow Street, South Royalton, VT, 05068. worthyvermont.com/worthy-burger