By Neil P. Allen
BRANDON— Last month, The River Pub & Grill opened its doors at 18 Center St. in Brandon.
The new restaurant is described as “a casual environment with pub-style food, drinks, and cocktails in an open concept dining room with covered patio dining,” according to the website.
It is owned by Donald Billings, who also owns Roots the Restaurant and The Bakery in Rutland, and the Mountain Merchant and Cru in Killington.
The 19th-century wood structure was nearly gutted and redesigned and was on hold through much of the pandemic.
Billings said he feels he knows what Brandon wants to eat — old-school pub food, mixed in with some new culinary offerings.
“People in Brandon like nachos,” he said. “But I’m not gonna do your standard nachos. They’ll be with pulled chicken. And they won’t be covered with cheese. It’ll be a Vermont con queso.
“I hate chicken wings,” Billings said. “I love them, but I don’t like them because they’re a mess, and there’s no meat on them.”
For his chicken wings, Billings said he’s using chicken legs and thighs. He puts them in a brine, then marinates, then bakes them, then fries them up.
There will be a small steady menu of regular offerings, and weekly specials that will be more creative and appeal to a variety of guests, including tourists.
“We have to appeal to everybody,” Billings said. “The goal is to appeal not just to everybody in Brandon, but to people who are traveling through Brandon. We’ll have the blue-collar, hardworking individual, plus the creative, off-the-wall stuff on weekends when the tourists come through.”
The space can hold 90 people in non-pandemic conditions. Billings said he can serve 60 people inside with no social distancing, or 50 inside with social distancing. Billings said he’s counting on both familiarity and surprise when guests walk in the door.
“We’re giving people the option to walk into a location that they’re semi-familiar with,” he said. “They think they know what they’ve walked into. Everything is different but it’s a building that’s kind of iconic in downtown Brandon, so the goal is to bring new energy to a familiar space.”
“The goal is to have an environment that is fun energetic and uplifting,” he continued. “We want our guests to leave saying, ‘That was awesome.’ If you give them the whole experience, they’ll come back.”
At first, The River will only be open for dinner, Thursday to Monday, from 4 to 9 p.m. Then he’ll expand hours and be open from noon to 9 p.m., five days a week.
“By midsummer, hopefully we’ll hit our stride,” he said. “It depends on staffing and everything else.”