Wunderbar Biergarten brings global menu to Bellows Falls
By Susan Allen
BELLOWS FALLS, Vt.
“Wunderbar” is German for “wonderful.”
Remy Walker and Alain Martinez added new meaning to the word, creating the Wunderbar Biergarten in the heart of downtown Bellows Falls that also is funky, fun, eclectic and full of “Lebenslust,” German for “zest for life.”
“We both love music, we both love to dance,” said Martinez. They also like to dine out later into the evening, hear live music, and enjoy unique meals and cocktails with global flavors. Moving from Miami to Vermont on the recommendation of a friend living in Grafton, “We had a hard time finding a place we like spending time.”
So, they built that place.
Working with that friend/silent partner Gabriele Soyka to buy the brick building that formerly housed the Vermont Pretzel and Cookie Co. and J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store on Rockingham Street, near the Bellows Falls Opera House, they spent two years renovating the space to fit their unique vision. On one large exterior wall, they commissioned a friend to paint a mural — the face of a Bavarian-looking man sporting a long white beard and an Alpine hat — that had the town talking.
Last year, Wunderbar opened its doors to the public, and today it’s not uncommon to find every seat in the restaurant and bar taken. Some are families seated at the large communal Biergarten table, often chatting with the owners as they peruse the menu. Couples and friends sit in cozy corner sectionals or at two- and four-top tables, stopping by for cocktails and dinner before heading to the Opera House for a movie or play.
The house cat curled up in a chair by the front door, always gets a pat.
So, what makes the Wunderbar unique? Pretty much everything, from the eclectic look to the global menu, from the late-night hours to the dancing and live entertainment.
“The uniqueness reflects our uniqueness,” said Martinez, who will happily spend an hour pointing out the quirky pieces of decor that blend to give the Wunderbar a feeling of whimsy and intimacy.
Diners sit among a sea of green plants, bringing the outdoor Biergarten motif indoors. Martinez and Martin hand-laid porcelain tiles for a mock-wood floor and used “found” wooden banisters and chair spindles to decorate the front of the bar. Framed pictures and artwork cover the walls, along with an old Bellows Falls Independent Order of Odd Fellows sign — a tribute to the club that once met upstairs.
One of the highlights of Wunderbar’s interior is a mural extending across two walls that Walker and Martinez drew using Sharpies, reflecting a map of Bellows Falls from 1886 and illustrating virtually every building, street and point of landscaping from that era.
The restaurant and bar boasts a kitchen that stays open until 9:30 p.m. for the late diners. Regular Saturday night dances run until 1:30 a.m. In the past year, they have held a Latin Dance Party, Drag Cabarets, the Wundergroove Halloween Party, a Speakeasy Spectacular, poetry and author readings, even an afternoon embroidery workshop. Not to mention plenty of live music.
The age of the party crowd? Across the spectrum, with dancers in their young 20s through their 60s.
“Who doesn’t like to dance?” Martinez said with a smile.
Children are welcome (although not at the bar). Walker said one little 7-year-old regular tries to persuade them to turn on the disco music and mirror ball during the quieter dinner hour. When Walker says no; she’ll hunt down Martinez, and bingo! Sparkling mirror ball lights bounce off the walls and ceiling.
“Our expectation was, it might take a while to catch on,” Martinez said of the scene. “But from the beginning, the late-night appeal of what we are doing has never been a challenge.”
Nightlife is only part of Wunderbar’s appeal. The other is the global mix of food and drink.
“Remy has always been keen to mixologize cocktails. He’s a chemist in that way,” said Martinez. “I’ve always been more food-centric.”
Martinez’s Cuban and Moroccan heritage is reflected in the restaurant menu, along with flavors from across the world, most served tapas-style to be shared among friends. In addition to standards like spinach artichoke dip, tacos and pork chops, those seeking more adventure can opt for choripan, arepa otono and bao buns with pork belly or duck. The menu entices with sauces and ingredients like chimichurri, burrata, sake and kimchi.
“We bring those world favors, but pair them with local ingredients,” Walker said. The honey nut squash, for example, comes from Saxtons River and is mixed with black rice, Brussels sprouts, cranberries and curry. Prices for food range from $6 for choripan to $18 for the duck confit, with crispy duck fat potatoes and house kraut.
Vermonters, it would seem, are ready to experiment.
“They look at a menu item that is essentially a South American snack food and they ask ‘What is that?’ The servers explain it, and it’s refreshing to see how adventurous people are with the food and the drinks,” said Martinez, who greets visitors at the door, and often moves among the tables checking on drinks and food.
You’re more likely to find Walker behind the bar working his magic on drinks with alluring names like Pressure Drop (Stoli vodka, meletti, dry vermouth and pear brandy), Almond Butter (El Jimador Reposado, Amaretto, apricot, lime, orgeat and maple), and Oh So Fancy (Rittenhouse Rye, Banhez Mezcal and Luxardo). Drink prices range from $10 for a Jack Rose with grenadine to $13 for Oh So Fancy. Craft beer and wine also are available.
The house favorite, hands down, is the Gee+Tee 2.0 — a generous shot of Vermont-made Barr Hill Gin, St. Germain tonic, floating juniper berries, rosemary and a fragrant cucumber shrub that makes an ideal stirrer. Walker regularly changes the drinks menu, but when he pulled the Gee+Tee off the menu, “people were literally in tears,” Martinez said. So, the Gee+Tee is a mainstay.
What’s next for this unique couple and the Wunderbar? Walker said they are considering ideas for the roughly 4,000 square feet of upstairs space in the building, perhaps creating mixed-use options for artist studios and offices.
“After that, who knows,” he said.
The future is, as they say, a Wild Card. Which, in Wunderbar lingo, translates to Singani, sloe gin, Fernet Branca, absinthe, lemon, vanilla extract and club soda. Very unique.
If you go …
22 Rockingham St., Bellows Falls, Vt.
Wunderbarvt.com or facebook.com/wunderbarvt22
Call or check out the Wunderbar Facebook page for hours and upcoming events.
Susan Allen lives in Grafton. She was a reporter for the Associated Press and worked for former Govs. Howard Dean and Peter Shumlin.