Mixed ‘Burys

Mixed ‘Burys

Whenever I drive through the ’burys—the bucolic cluster of towns including Southbury, Woodbury and Middlebury—I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. Somehow, I always manage to get turned around, even while traveling to places I’ve already been. One of these days, I swear I’ll see Rod Serling standing on the side of Route 67 or 188 trying to hitch a ride.

Visiting these towns is like exploring another world, and I’ve come to love getting lost in them. My most recent find is one of Connecticut’s premier bald eagle observation sites, open by reservation from late December through early March, at Southbury’s Shepaug Recreation Area. The Shepaug Dam’s hydroelectric station, Connecticut’s largest, prevents its section of the Housatonic River from freezing solid, so it’s an attractive spot for eagles to find food in winter. Indeed, Shepaug’s eagles can turn positively Pavlovian once the station sounds its daily noon siren, because they’ve learned that the accompanying power surge will churn the river and cause fish to surface.

It’s less of a guarantee that the eagles themselves will surface during any given viewing session, but if you’re lucky or at least patient, the rewards can be magical. You might see an impressive aerial mating dance or, as I did (using high-powered scopes provided by the site), observe some of America’s most iconic avian celebrities simply hanging out.

For diversion during eagle-free moments, Maggie Watson of Connecticut Audubon was on hand to introduce us to other birds of prey, including Cedar, a wee Eastern screech owl, and Ruby, a broad-winged hawk. The star of the show was Millie, a gorgeous barn owl with a flat, ghostlike face and unnerving wide eyes. Raised and hand-fed by a falconer, she never developed the instinct to hunt, and now, according to Watson, believes she’s human. Given the way she looked at us, I half-expected her to start talking.

Feeling peckish after this experience, I headed to Middlebury’s Vyne Restaurant & Bar, whose expansive location was once home to Middlebury Consignment, a furniture showroom-cum-gift shop with a homey little cafe on the second floor. In 2018, the property began its transformation into the elegant, “New England chic” dining and event space it is now, with marble-topped tables, full dinner service, a showcase bar and an outdoor dining area complete with winding stone waterfall, spiral staircases, statuary and, in warmer weather, greenery.

Vyne has gotten accolades from Connecticut Magazine, The Knot and Wine Spectator, which bequeathed its Award of Excellence last year. (I, at least, can attest that the wine list—including options from nearby Tranquility Vineyard, which shares owners with Vyne—is impressively long.) My goal was to try the weekend brunch, where I mulled entrees like the Short Rib Shakshucka ($25)—three eggs poached in short rib Bolognese with roasted tomatoes and peppers and served with seasoned home fries and filone toast—and the Huevos Rancheros ($23), featuring fried mushroom and black bean empanadas, cheesy home fries and over-easy eggs accompanied by corn and pepper salsa, salsa verde and pickled red onions.

Instead I chose the indulgent and satisfying Pork Belly Benedict ($22), which boasted house-braised meat and perfectly runny poached eggs over English muffins, all dressed with tangy citrus Hollandaise and pickled red onions. The home fries that came with it—spicy rounds of fingerling potatoes cooked with their skins on—were a gourmet departure from the usual sloppy (though tasty) version you find elsewhere. Meanwhile, using the slipshod logic that caffeination made it perfect for brunch, I allowed myself an Espresso Martini ($15), not to mention an intensely flavorful Orange Vanilla Crème Brulée ($11). Through this weekend, Vyne is also offering a special à la carte Valentine’s dinner menu.

Middlebury Consignment may have left the building, but it hasn’t disappeared. Rather, it’s moved a few miles to an even larger space, occupying 52,000 square feet, and has rebranded as Middlebury Furniture and Home Design. The name is a bit of a misnomer for a business subdivided into several diverse “shoppes” selling everything from gourmet sweets to clothing, jewelry and of course home decor, including a seemingly endless array of new and consigned furniture, rugs and lighting fixtures. Brands include Baker Furniture, Fairfield Chair Co., Motioncraft Furniture, Pacific Coast Lighting and Stanton Carpet. The site is also the current home of Take 5 Audio, a fixture in downtown New Haven from 1977 to 2019.

Woodbury’s Main Street is an enticing stretch for those who love small businesses; one of its mainstays for the past 30 years has been acclaimed chef Carole Peck’s farm-to-table Good News Restaurant & Bar. I’m partial to its Asian Ginger Chicken Wonton Rolls ($14) and the Lots of Lobster “Adult” Baked Macaroni (half-portion $26, full $36). (I have yet to try the Lean & Mean Antelope Burger for $23.) Daily specials abound, including Ukrainian cuisine, and you could do a lot worse than stopping here for a slice of Classic Mile High Coconut Cake ($12).

Main Street has long been home to an abundance of antiques shops, earning Woodbury a reputation as Connecticut’s antiques capital. I’m no antiquarian, so will let true aficionados determine whether this claim should stand. But I do love finding—and revisiting—other one-of-a-kind outlets. Woodbury Pewter, a town institution since 1952, specializes in a wide range of hand-crafted pewterware, created with many of the same methods used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Other local artisanal items are also for sale: Waterbury’s Fascia Chocolates, wooden bird carvings by Richard Morgan and pysanky-style Easter eggs.

Next door I found The Queen on Main, which sells the owner’s personal collection of toys, curios, books, pop culture ephemera and instruments dating back to the British Invasion of the 1960s, including a replica of the Ludwig drum set played by Ringo Starr and a “Union Jack” Epiphone guitar. You can also pick up a cherry red 2013 Vespa LX 150 IE motor scooter with less than 1,000 miles on it. Finally, I took a peek at Canfield Corner Pharmacy, a Mansard-roofed family business with a candy counter and antique soda fountain that has been in continuous service since 1867. It’s currently owned and operated by pharmacist Mary Tyrell, who used to hang out at the pharmacy as a child and was doted on by regular customer Marilyn Monroe, then a resident of neighboring Roxbury.

But that, perhaps, is a ’bury for another day.

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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