Penny Cluse Cafe (Burlington, VT)

(Update: In December 2022, Penny Cluse closed permanently due to the retirement of its owners)

We started day 2 of this year’s Burlington visit with a trip to Penny Cluse Cafe for breakfast. Looking over my notes, I was shocked that I haven’t written up Penny Cluse yet; I’ve been coming here pretty routinely since sometime in 2006, and have flickr photos of a half dozen breakfasts we’ve had here. So it’s not because of a lack of experience, or a lack of photos. I don’t know, sometimes these places just find a way to fall through the cracks. But this time I’ll address it.

Penny Cluse (named after the owner’s late beloved dog Penny, if you were wondering about the name) is on the relatively short list of places that seem to be go-to spots for the Burlington crowd. The regular places seem to be Sneakers (which I have reviewed), Magnolia Bistro (which I have yet to try), and Penny Cluse. Located at the corner of Cherry St and Winooski Ave, it’s just around the corner from Church Street, so getting in here for breakfast on a Saturday can be a bit of a wait. An hour, in our case, until I managed to sweet-talk the hostess into letting us squeeze in at the counter (we did, after all, have another beer festival to get to!). The counter is actually a pretty good place to sit, since if you are in the right two seats, you can look down the steps into the kitchen and watch them make your food. It’s also a great place to people-watch, since Penny Cluse manages to get a really good cross-section of customers: tourists, students from UVM, some of the scruffy folk that always seem to hang around Church street, professionals, and families.

As far as the menu goes, Penny Cluse is what I’d call an “American Eclectic” place. The mainstays are pancakes (with several interesting varieties, including gingerbread), egg dishes (particularly omelets, with a good selection of vegetable add-ins), and Mexican breakfasts (huevos rancheros). And a good sprinkling of specials. There’s quite a bit here to satisfy most people, even the light eaters (they’ve got some nice porridges, for example). Looking things over, this time Carol and I both settled on the huevos rancheros (which, looking over my flickr feed, I got the previous two visits… I should mix it up a bit!) and splitting a side of biscuits and gravy.

I’ll start with the latter, since they brought it out first, almost like an appetizer. People that know me know that biscuits and gravy is indeed one of my favorite dishes. And it’s also one I almost never order in New England, because, to be completely honest, (slipping back into the mild twang I picked up living in Tennessee…) in general y’all can’t make biscuits worth a damn. Seriously, I’m going to start a “Rich’s Remedial Biscuit School” and start handing out cards at local restaurants, because I’ve had a lot of stale, lumpy, dense, and chalky biscuits up here. And that’s sad, because they aren’t all that hard to do correctly, just almost nobody bothers.

But the key word there is almost, since Penny Cluse is the rare, rare exception to my “New England biscuits suck” rule, in that they manage to make biscuits that are light, flaky, flavorful, and have a nice crunch. They actually could serve these south of the Mason-Dixon line without getting run out of town on a rail. And then they pair the biscuits with a gravy that’s rich, flavorful, and smooth, everything I look for in a good biscuit gravy. The fact that they pull this off while making it a meatless gravy (it’s an herb gravy, not a sausage gravy) is quite impressive, and as a result, I order this dish every time I come back.

The huevos rancheros were quite good as well. A nice little pile of tortillas, two perfectly fried up eggs, some good black beans, and a rich homemade salsa, these were quite delicious for an item served this far north. The black beans in particular were a nicely simmered dish with the beans just starting to fall apart. As I mentioned before, I’ve apparently ordered this several times before. And will probably order it again.

Overall, in a town with several good breakfast joints, there’s a reason that Penny Cluse manages to consistently have long lines on weekends, since they are consistently one of the best places downtown for breakfast. I’ll definitely be back.

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