Ware to Dine

Mike Ware's long tenure as owner of The Common Man restaurant in Warren puts him in a decidedly uncommon class

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

"Like dining in Europe without leaving Vermont," is how Mike Ware describes his restaurant, The Common Man, on German Flats Road in Warren. Tucked into a fold of the mountains, what seems like a contemporary building sheathed in gray barnboard hides a genuine 19th century Vermont barn. Inside, under ancient-looking beams, diners enjoy European cuisine in an atmosphere that combines New England with a distinctly Old World rustic charm.

Thirty years ago, Mike Ware bought the restaurant that he renamed The Common Man. He cites consistency as the secret to the Warren establishment's longevity. "We're not here to go with the trends," he asserts.

Ware, whose association with the restaurant goes back 40 years, was born in Barnes, a leafy suburb of London, England. "I originally wanted to be a farmer," he remembers. "When I left school I went into the army and did my National Service in Germany. When I got out, I didn't know what to do. Some school buddies of mine had gone out to Rhodesia and India and were doing well, so I started looking for work overseas. I ended up working in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone." Two and a half years later, Ware "got tired of that. I thought I'd go to Australia via America," he says, "and I stopped off in New York."

From diamond miner to restaurateur seems like no small leap, but Ware believes he inherited the necessary qualities from his father. "He was an entrepreneur," Ware remembers. "He had his own club in London, although he lost everything in 1929, in the great Depression. And I've always had an artistic bent, been a ham actor."

"At one Warren parade, I was a New York mounted policeman, and Mike was, I think, a British soldier," recalls Vincent Sardi. The eminent restaurateur behind Sardi's in New York City has been an associate of Ware's for four decades. "We had a swordfight outside the Warren store."

A friend, Joan Rae, controller of New England Construction in Waitsfield, has known Ware since 1971. She says, "He's very professional, very hard-working, hard-playing. He's interested in many aspects of life. Everything he does, he does to the fullest." It was chance that launched him on his new career. "In New York, I heard about an Italian restaurant that was opening in Vermont and was looking for staff," he recalls. "I thought, 'Vermont? Where's that?' but I was curious, so I came north and started as a waiter here.

"In those days, the early '60s, Warren was known as 'Mascara Mountain,'" he continues. "It was very exclusive, very jet-set. This place, which was called Orsini's then, had just been opened by Armando Orsini, who owned a very successful restaurant in New York. I started as a waiter that winter. The next summer I went back to New York, lived in the Village, had lots of odd waiting and bartending jobs. Next winter I came back to Orsini's as assistant manager. The winter after that I became manager."

Soon afterward, Orsini, following the international craze for pasta, changed his Warren operation to "a pasta-only operation," says Ware. "It was called Orsini's La Pasta. Three years after that, I leased it from Orsini, and finally bought it from him in 1970, with the aid of another Brit, John Meyer."

The restaurant came with 10 acres of land. Ware and Meyer formed a corporation, Brinver -- "Short for 'Britain in Vermont,'" explains Ware -- and built the Drumleys condo complex on the land. "I bought John out in 1972," Ware recalls, "and on 17th December 1972, we re-opened the restaurant as The Common Man."

"At that time the restaurant business in this area was very minor," according to Sardi. "People weren't interested in good dinners," he says. "Mike turned the place around, and now it's considered the best restaurant in the area -- all on account of him. ... The food is very good; his chef is excellent."

Jean-Patrick Matecat is executive chef at the restaurant. A Parisian who has lived in the United States since 1972, he's been cooking since he was 14. The Common Man's cuisine is European with a French emphasis.

Together with his business partner, chef Gustav Iten -- Gusti for short -- Ware set his restaurant on the course it still follows today. "Gusti and I worked out a formula that works," Ware says. The business prospered until Feb. 5, 1987, when an early morning fire swept through the old barn, which had stood on the site since 1881. The building was a total loss. "It was devastating," remembers Rae. "They lost everything."

Such was The Common Man's reputation with the ski set that the fire made the front page of USA Today. "The press were amazing," says Ware. "Here in Vermont, the Free Press had us on their front page. I let it be known that I was looking for a new barn. We got calls from all over -- as far away as Massachusetts and New Jersey. I looked at a whole bunch of barns, and eventually found this one in Moretown."

Looking around The Common Man, it's hard to believe that the present structure has stood here for only 13 years. A classic New England barn, the dining room is an airy web of hand-hewn beams and wooden rafters, lined with Georgian-style fabric wall coverings, that manages to be spacious and cozy at the same time. At one end is a huge stone fireplace; at the other is the bar, which is topped with solid slabs of honey-colored wood. The tables are made of the same thick wooden slabs, and chandeliers hang from beams that still show the marks of ax and adz. "We tried to make it as much like the old building as possible," says Ware.

"Mike's love for that barn was beyond belief," says Richard Brothers, of Brothers Building Co. in Waitsfield. Brothers supplied the crew for the renovation; Ware acted as general contractor. "He's an enthusiastic, super guy," Brothers continues, "and we enjoyed working for him on that project like you wouldn't believe." For Brothers, who has known Ware for 30 years, rebuilding the restaurant had a special significance. "My father was in the logging business," he explains. "The original barn was where we kept our horses."

It seems that the barn's re-creation has been a great success. "A woman came in just the other night, who hadn't been here for 16 years," Ware relates. "'The place hasn't changed a bit!' she said. 'Didn't you notice the bar?' I said, and told her about the fire. She looked around a bit more carefully and said, 'Oh my God!'"

Although Gusti decided to leave the business soon after the fire, chef Jean-Patrick Matecat has kept largely to the restaurant's original formula. "Patrick is executive chef," says Ware, "and he has lots of ideas. The wine list is mine -- we've grown together over the years." As for the food, "It's European. Gusti was German-Swiss, and that's certainly been an influence, although the food is more French than anything else," says Ware.

Dishwasher Robert La Perle has been with The Common Man 11 years. Long employee tenure is typical at the Warren eatery.

Matecat, a Parisian who has lived in the United States since 1972, has been at The Common Man for 10 years. "I've been cooking since the age of 14," he says, "which is when you traditionally start your apprenticeship in France." Originally brought to the United States by a French corporation to help develop a line of baked goods, he moved to Vermont 19 years ago. "It's beautiful here, and very close to Montreal. My wife's a Montrealer," he says.

Ware and Matecat are clearly good friends as well as colleagues. "What's Mike like to work for? Charming!" says Matecat, laughing.

"Charming? Yeah, right," grins Ware.

"Well, it's been 10 years, so clearly he's bearable," Matecat points out happily. "The problem with this business is that it's so damn seasonal," admits Ware. In the winter the restaurant employs 20 to 22 full- and part-time employees; in the summer that drops to 10 to 15. "By May, we're pretty much the only fine dining place in the valley."

Loyalty is an important part of the operation. "We're able to retain key people," Ware says. "Jean-Patrick, of course. Our head waitress, Chris-Ann Bauer, has been here for 17 years. And Robert La Perle, our dishwasher, has been with us for 11.

"Places come and go," says Ware. "There's only three of the originals left: us, The Den in town, and Chez Henri in the village. Although I always say I've been here longer than he has, because he's closed in the summer!"

The secret of The Common Man's longevity? "Consistency is the most important thing," insists Ware. "People come back to us after 20 years and say that the place hasn't changed, the food hasn't changed. How many places do you know where that's true?" Although the menu includes such eclectic dishes as Tagine Casablanca alongside more familiar bistro favorites, "We're not here to go with the trends," Ware says. "Most of our food is classic." But over the years he has seen tastes change.

"Twenty-eight years ago, escargots were wildly exotic," he remembers. "Now they're the most popular item on the menu. Rabbit" -- cooked with white wine, aromatic vegetables, whole grain mustard and fresh tarragon -- "has been on for a few years now, and that's definitely increasing in popularity."

Restaurant ownership is a notoriously all-consuming occupation. "Restaurateurs don't have spare time," Ware concurs, but he does find time in his schedule to downhill ski in the winter and fly-fish in the summer. "And I garden," he says. "My father was a gardener -- he had a bad leg from World War I, so gardening was his hobby: vegetables, fruits and flowers," he remembers. Ware is married to Sheila, who practices as an attorney in Waterbury, and they have a son, 17-year-old Nicholas, a student at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington.

The 1987 fire that destroyed The Common Man made the front page of USA Today. Mike Ware found an 1854 barn in Moretown and meticulously relocated it to Warren to keep the business going. From left: waitress Coleen Ritchie and head waitress Chris-Ann Bauer

Asked if he still thinks of himself as English, Ware laughs. "Well, for one thing I'm Scottish," he says. "I wear the kilt -- Clan Gordon -- and I'm a founder-member of the St. Andrews Society of Vermont. I haven't taken out U.S. citizenship yet," he adds. "I go back to England every year. My mother still lives there; she's 97." His British roots have found fertile ground in the Mad River Valley. "Some other expats and myself started a cricket club up here a few years ago," Ware says. "It's a non-profit organization, and we managed to raise $10,000 over three years, with which we set up a scholarship to send a pupil from the local high school to Harvard."

"He likes his Britishness," says Rae. "It's definitely part of his ambiance."

Ware also started another event which, although not quite cricket, has become a local tradition. "I introduced the International Cherry Pit Spitting Contest, which is still an event at Warren's 4th of July celebrations," he smiles. "This year, people paid $20 to throw a pie in my face, to raise money for ovarian cancer research. It was $10, but I realized that there might be some people who would really pay to throw a pie at me!" Appropriately for someone who believes in providing people with good food and good wine, Ware approaches life with gusto, so much so that the rafters of his restaurant have at times served more than a structural purpose. "Michael was always up there," remembers Rae. "If there was a big party, people would always be dancing on the rafters, and Mike always led them, in his kilt if possible."

"Ah, the Rafter Race," says Ware nostalgically. "We still do that on New Year's Eve." With Mike Ware as master of revels, the old barn is sure to be echoing with merriment for many years to come.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.