REVIEW: Café Anna at the Vermont College of Fine Arts: Open to One and All

by Nat Frothingham

MONTPELIER — Café Anna, located in a first-floor northwest corner room — and what a room — of historic College Hall on the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier has recently re-opened as a spectacular café that’s open full time to students, faculty, staff, College Hill neighbors and friends, teens, visitors to Montpelier — anyone.

Before the café re-opened in the fall of 2016, the space was managed by a succession of caterers and only during college academic residencies. But last fall the College decided to go with a full-time manager in the person of Jana Markow and take the operation in house.

But now let’s talk about College Hall and that amazing northwest corner room.

There’s so much that’s remarkable about College Hall, a signature, historic building that was constructed over four years from start to finish between 1868 and 1872, on a site that became known as Seminary Hill. Long before College Hall was built in the mid 19th century the site now occupied by the college was once a community fairgrounds and race track and during the turbulent years of the Civil War what is now the college campus was the location of a federal hospital for wounded Union soldiers.

Back to that northwest corner room. There’s not another room in Montpelier that’s anything like that corner room with its tall, round-arch windows, high ceilings, spare appointments and amazing light.

From Café Anna one can sit with a friend and have a bite to eat — breakfast, lunch or supper — with homemade soup, sandwiches, salads, baked goods, a range of drinks and look through the big windows at College Hall green — a sweep of green in the summer or a sweep of snow in winter.

One day last week when I visited Café Anna for lunch, I had a delicious ginger-artichoke-carrot soup. Another day, I had broccoli-cheddar quiche. On the blackboard I noticed a spinach feta salad and tomato-cheddar soup. After a light lunch, I indulged in a cupcake-shaped brownie from Aja Zoecklein at Sweet Mangata bakery in Northfield.

“The food, the menu, the presentation, the vendors I’m choosing, are all based on a preference for local food and the highest quality, locally-sourced ingredients,” said manager Jana Markow.

Speaking about the current day’s menu, she said, “All four sandwiches feature homemade sauces — hummus, pesto, chimichurri (a sauce from South America) and cranberry chutney. All four are made from scratch and use locally sourced bread.”

“The soup and baked goods are bought from local food makers. I make a salad every day with a house-made dressing. We feature Carrier Coffee out of Northfield which is a big hit.”

The café also offers a range of juices and drinks including coffee, iced coffee, espresso, cappuccino, latte, tea, hot chocolate and recently added spirits, beer and wine.

As recently as last summer, Markow was working at Sarducci’s Restaurant in downtown Montpelier as day manager. And she was really liking Sarducci’s.

Then out of the blue, Erica Hare, the college’s vice president of administration said to her, “Would you have any interest in running Café Anna?”

“I said, ‘I would like to take it on full-time, if you’ll have me.’”

The next thing Markow did was make a proposal to college and, in due course, the college hired her as manager.

This is where Markow’s story becomes interesting. It turns out she grew up in Montpelier on Liberty Street and attended local schools here.

But then she married and she and her husband moved away, living and working in places as far-flung as Oregon, Wyoming and Maine.

In Maine, she ran a local food buying club. The food was delivered to her house from a dozen farms. “I would distribute it to my customers from my kitchen.” So local food and local food sourcing for Markow — was a strong value.

“We were in rural Maine,” said Markow. “And my husband was looking for a job all over New England.”

Then with excitement, she said, “He got a job in Montpelier, the first job he was offered.”

“I was looking for a small town which was good to raise kids in, with a little bit of arts and culture.” At the same time she was still remembering where she grew up, and though she found towns that were similar, they weren’t Montpelier.”

Suddenly she and her husband were back. “I had to almost pinch myself,” she said. “We left together, we came back together. The children had some of the same teachers I had.”

For more information about opening and closing hours at Café Anna, please phone the College at 818-8600 extension 8699.