Middlebrook Restaurant Stays Dark for Summer as Owners Move On

By EmmaJean Holley

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2017 10:00 PM

After three years at the helm of the seasonal, family-run Middlebrook Restaurant, so named for its location on a winding stretch of road in West Fairlee, owner Chris Aquino has decided to move on to other, more justice-oriented pursuits. The restaurant will not reopen for the 2017 season, and the 115-acre property it sits on is up for sale.

Middlebrook Restaurant had been a “late-in-life, fun thing to do” for Aquino, 70, who before becoming a restaurateur had worked as an educator. She now works full-time at the Hartford Community Restorative Justice Center, a nonprofit based in White River Junction.

“It was a hard decision, because we love the community, we love the property, we love our neighbors. It’s one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever lived,” Aquino said. “But life is uncertain. You get pulled in one direction, then in another direction, for any number of reasons.”

For Aquino, one of those reasons was the prospect of running not only the restaurant but all the operations that took place on the property, including an ample vegetable garden, a brood of laying hens and the gourmet Middlebrook Market, located in the historic farmhouse across from the restaurant. They made their own bread and ground their own beef, and offered Italian- and Hungarian-inspired fare, courtesy of Aquino’s son, chef Adam Dosz.

Dosz relocated from Baltimore in 2014 to help his mother open the restaurant, of which he became co-owner. But he was also its unofficial groundskeeper, Aquino said, which was a time-consuming endeavor.

This was not the first iteration of Middlebrook Restaurant; in its previous life, it was owned by John Quimby and Michael O’Donnell, who ran the restaurant seasonally for five years before closing its doors in 2004 and going on to open the Tip Top Cafe in White River Junction.

“We made sort of a decent living at it, but it was really more of a lifestyle choice,” Quimby said, adding that their last two seasons were somewhat overwhelming. O’Donnell, who ran the front of the house, had been inundated with reservation requests all day, every day.

“It’s such a beautiful property,” Quimby said. “I think Chris in particular fell in love with it.”

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Quimby and O’Donnell’s neighbors had handled much of the land maintenance, and Quimby acknowledged that if he and O’Donnell had had to do the upkeep themselves, it would have been “even more difficult.”

Dosz recently moved out to California, which Aquino said was another major factor in her decision to close Middlebrook Restaurant.

“Being there alone — it’s just not a possibility,” Aquino said. “It’s too big a property for me to deal with on my own.”

Though Aquino decided over the winter not to reopen for the 2017 season, she had anticipated this year as a possible fork in the road since she opened Middlebrook Restaurant’s doors in 2014.

“We decided we would give it three years,” she said. “After that amount of time, you can tell a lot about whether this is something you want to continue doing with your life.”

And, after those three years, it turns out it wasn’t. Aquino, for one, has found herself drawn to restorative justice work, which seeks to right the wrongs one party has committed against another.

“It’s very victim-centered,” she said. “It’s about responding to harm done, and to the needs that arise from that harm that was done.”

Like her decision to close Middlebrook Restaurant, Aquino’s career change didn’t come entirely out of the blue; Aquino had volunteered in restorative justice for years. Though she said she will greatly miss serving the Fairlee and West Fairlee communities through her localvore eatery, working in restorative justice is another way for her to channel this passion for community service.

“When a crime is committed, there’s been harm done to somebody, but also to the community at large,” she said. As the Hartford Community Restorative Justice Center’s victim services coordinator, Aquino “looks at what the harm is, the person who has done the harm, what they can do to make amends and what they can do in their own lives so that it doesn’t happen again.”

She said she finds the work “incredibly satisfying — not that (the restaurant) wasn’t,” she added. “But it wasn’t easy. It’s a lot of work. The people who supported the restaurant were wonderful and we’re really grateful for all their support, but life is full of hard decisions that you have to make, and this was one of them.”

Along with these changes, Aquino is moving closer to work, and is looking to pare down her belongings. Though she initially announced that she would hold a yard sale this Saturday to relieve herself of items from the restaurant, as well as personal effects, “I’ve decided to go in another direction with getting rid of that stuff,” she said. “It just turned out to be way more than I thought.”

She is considering holding an auction, though she has not made any concrete plans.

Aquino walks away from the experience with a profound sense of respect for “how much hard work goes into any endeavor like this,” and she hopes that whoever buys the property will use it to serve the community as its former owners have aspired to do.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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