Head to Al’s French Frys in Burlington, Vermont, for the tastiest home-style spuds in New England.
The teenager taking orders behind a raised kiosk is hip-deep in customers and moving so quickly he’s stopped segmenting words. It’s lunchtime at Al’s French Frys and customers are stacking up and snaking around the barriers that corral them into two neat lines.
The boy, sporting a wisp of stubble, is wasting no time. “Allrightisthatall?” he asks a customer after punching in her order. She nods. “Thankyouhaveagoodday.”
The woman moves past him. Her kids are already standing on their tiptoes at the pick-up counter, watching Jimmy McHugh flip burgers and hot dogs on the flattop in neat rows, as he has done at this location for 32 years. Nearby, Kim Bissonette, a manager (and the owners’ sister-in-law), is funneling golden fries into cardboard containers, stuffing them so that they spray up and out like a glorious Vegas fountain of crispy potatoes.
The burgers are thin patties on nicely grilled buns, and the dogs have an appealing char. But Kim is in the prime spot because, as its name implies, Al’s really is all about the “frys,” which are sliced and prepped on site using russet potatoes from Prince Edward Island. They cook up with the crisp shell, fluffy interior, and rich flavor that come from being twice-cooked in a blend of vegetable oil and beef fat—just the way McDonald’s used to do before it started simply adding beef flavor to canola oil.
As for the misspelled name, that’s the work of Genevieve Rusterholz, who, with her husband, Al, opened the original eatery in 1948 in a trailer parked at Malletts Bay on Lake Champlain. Video footage of Genevieve, which aired in a 1996 Vermont Public Television documentary called Vermont Memories, shows her in a green pantsuit, Jackie O hair, and enormous Iris Apfel glasses. “F-r-y-s, of course, is not grammatically correct,” she said, “but I thought it would be appealing and different. And I never was a conformist.”
The pair moved to a permanent stand in Essex Junction, and later to the spot on Williston Road in South Burlington where the restaurant still stands. Back then, it was surrounded by farmland. Today, its neighbors are a Citgo station and a McDonald’s, which seems like the restaurant equivalent of parking a Ford Fiesta next to a ’64 Mustang, but such are the vagaries of commerce.
By 1982, the original roadside stand had been rebuilt into a much larger restaurant decorated in 1950s diner style, with lots of chrome and red-vinyl booths. Al and Genevieve had divorced, giving her sole control of the restaurant, but she was ready to retire. Along came two young Burlington brothers, Bill and Lee Bissonette, barely into their mid-twenties. Neither had ever worked in a restaurant. But their naïveté was an asset, according to Bill. “We didn’t make any huge changes,” he says. “There were other people who had offered Gen more money for the place, but she chose to sell it to us because we didn’t have aspirations to change a thing.” Gen remained an adviser to the brothers until her death, at age 96, in 2001.
Years later, her vision is still alive. Bill and Lee added wraps and salads—“healthy options”—plus an ice-cream window on one side and a playground out back. But the fries are still made by hand, the prices are still unbelievably low (a burger costs $1.93; a pint of fries is $2.58), and the service is still polite, even when it’s rushed.
“Ours was home-style fare,” Genevieve said in that 1996 documentary interview. “We had no gimmicks. We put out good food, we had courteous service, and we had decent prices. Nothing flashy. Just down-to-earth.”
Al’s French Frys, 1251 Williston Road, South Burlington, VT. 802-862-9203; alsfrenchfrys.com