If you were coming home to the quiet Northeast Kingdom town of Craftsbury after a few years away, you could drive past the rambling, stately farmhouse at 1037 South Craftsbury Road — a notable local home and former bed and breakfast — and not notice how the old place has changed.
Especially during mid-day.
Outside, the building looks much like it has for decades. But a more careful study of the 19th-century farmhouse starts to reveal that the former home of the Sedore family and Whetstone Bed & Breakfast has morphed into something very new.
You’ll get a better idea of the changes to the building if you drive by after 4 p.m. That’s when the newest occupant, Blackbird Bistro, opens, and as afternoon fades into night no fewer than three parking lots will be packed to overflowing, revealing that Craftsbury’s only full-service restaurant is the new go-to place in this tiny Kingdom town.
Blackbird Bistro opened Nov. 29, 2019 — Black Friday — and since then the small, homey restaurant with a dash of panache has blown up, as both locals and out-of-towners from near and far trek there to enjoy comfort food and a bar menu offering craft cocktails and craft beer.
The bistro is the brain child of Lee Kinsey and Jessie Upson. Upson, whose maiden name is Sedore, owns her childhood home with two of her three sisters, Katie Meyer and Lindsay Beer. The trio also own and operate Whetstone Wellness, which offers wellness classes, yoga, massage and body treatments, an office for a home-birth midwife and a long list of other services, in one half of the family home that dates to 1826.
Since opening Whetstone Wellness in 2018, the sisters had also operated a six-bedroom Airbnb in the other side of the house, where their grandparents once ran Whetstone Bed & Breakfast.
But keeping such a large Airbnb filled to capacity proved challenging, so the sisters started thinking about what else they could do.
A native of Albany, Kinsey’s family has deep roots in Craftsbury and she returned there in the mid-2000s after working and living in Australia and New Zealand. After working as a carpenter and at several local restaurants she started her own mobile business, Blackbird Bar Catering, in 2012.
“When I came back to the U.S., the big food movement was underway here in Vermont, and my generation was returning to live here,” Kinsey said. Her mobile bar business, which focused on customized bar packages with specialty cocktails and microbrews, took off in a big way and by 2018 she was looking for a permanent, physical home for Blackbird, preferably in Craftsbury.
“Somewhere in our fifth or sixth year of business, I realized how I just couldn’t stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a place in Craftsbury,” Kinsey said, but she wasn’t sure if she’d ever find a spot to realize her dream.
Then Kinsey took a job for Upson and her sisters, tearing out old cabinets and doing some repair work. Upson and Kinsey are old friends and eventually the conversation turned to the future of the building. That’s when Kinsey brought up an interesting idea.
“They were trying to come up with a new direction, and were excited to try something new,” Kinsey said.
Upson added: “She asked if we’d ever thought of putting a restaurant in.”
“Nope,” she remembered saying with a laugh, “but if it’s going to be your restaurant than I would.”
By evening they were walking through the space with their spouses, planning things out.
“We jumped on it pretty quickly, and started applying for an Act 250 permit in December,” 2018, Upson said.
As that process got underway Kinsey started overhauling the wing of the building that would become Blackbird Bistro, “applying my own personality to the place,” she said.
“And here we are, just over a year later,” Kinsey said on the Sunday afternoon just before Presidents’ Day, less than an hour before the bistro would fill to overflowing.
Off and running
Blackbird Bistro is open Wednesday through Sunday, and with no set closing time Kinsey and her staff typically have a crowd into the wee hours of the night. Crowd doesn’t begin to describe how busy the restaurant truly is if you arrive just after opening.
“It’s been gangbusters since we opened,” Kinsey said. “I think that’s an indication of how badly the area needed this.”
If you want your pick of a table in the 50-seat restaurant you’d better be there by 4:05 p.m., because by 5 its standing room only, not that anyone seems to mind waiting as long as they’ve got one of Kinsey’s specialty cocktails or a beer in hand.
“The feedback has been incredible, and the community has been super excited,” Kinsey said.
Locals make up a sizeable portion of the bistro’s patrons, along with visitors to the nearby Craftsbury Outdoor Center, but Kinsey said folks are driving from Stowe and Montpelier to try them out.
“We picked a direction that hasn’t really been overdone, a cocktail-forward menu,” Kinsey said. The food leans toward American comfort food, with a twist.
The menu features a selection of appetizers and salads to the bistro’s toasties — special grilled cheese sandwiches — and burgers — beef, chicken and pork — and Kinsey has jumped on the locally sourced food movement as well.
But Kinsey started Blackbird as a bar, and the mixed drinks take center stage. “I’ve been really enamored by the world of mixology over the last decade or so,” she said, and all the locally grown ingredients and Vermont-made spirits make for an endless possibility of drink combinations and variations.
“We learned a lot from the mobile bar, and we’ve nailed down hundreds of recipes,” Kinsey said. She expects to cycle her repertoire of cocktails through the menu over the course of the year, while always on the lookout for new ones.
All the drink ingredients are prepped in house, Kinsey said, and it’s been fun to see locals who work as loggers and farmers put down the beer and try a mixed drink.
Blackbird Bistro is a community supported restaurant, meaning people sign up for memberships that offer special deals and benefits. Memberships start at $125, and 160 people signed on before the business got up and running.
“It’s been very humbling; their excitement kept us going at a very difficult time,” Kinsey said.
A few months in, Kinsey said they’re ready to start those special deals for the members. “Now we’re passing out the love to the people who helped, which is exciting.”
The Sedore’s ancestral home is on the state registry of historic buildings and housed six generations of the family. All construction followed state guidelines for historical preservation while also “maintaining the feel of,” the family home as much as possible, Upson said.
“We managed to restore it and keep most of the integrity of the original footprint,” Kinsey said. The bar and booth area used to be two bedrooms — Meryl Streep slept in one of those rooms overnight while in town — and you can see the original footprints of the rooms in the large beam overhead and on the preserved hardwood floors.
One of the gangster booths in the bar was a bathroom and the restaurant’s main dining room was formerly the living room in the Whetstone bed and breakfast. Part of the dining room and the old kitchen became the bistro’s commercial kitchen.
When you walk into Blackbird Bistro you can see and feel the history of the 1826 farmhouse, transformed into a comfortable modern restaurant.
“We tried not to change too much, but wanted to breath new life into it,” Kinsey said.
Three of the Sedore sisters — Upson, Beer and their fourth sister Megan Amell — work at Blackbird and Kinsey snagged many of the old staff who used to work with her and Upson at Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick.
For the local, there are lots of familiar faces.
“We got the A Team here. The front of the house, the back of the house, we’ve just worked very well together. They’re killing it,” Kinsey said.
Plans are in the works to renovate an old enclosed porch and expand indoor seating, and dining on an outside patio is planned for summer. Kinsey also wants to break out her mobile bar when Blackbird hosts live music over the course of the warmer months.
“People just love that mobile bar, it’s a cute little accent piece for us,” Kinsey said.
Special events, dance parties and weddings are on the horizon.
“I’m excited about how it’s all going to work together,” Upson said. “Our community is so supportive of its people, its businesses. Craftsbury is a pretty special place.”
“I very much appreciate the staff here, the community, the investors and all the wonderful feedback,” Kinsey said. “I’m pretty proud we could pull this off.”