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The Chips Are Up

by B.A. Nilsson on September 7, 2011

Lil’ Britain

Lil’ Britain, 116 North St., Bennington, Vt., 802-442-2447, lilbritain.com. Serving 11:30-8 Tue-Sat. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: classic pub fare

Entreé price range: $4 (chip butty) to $11 (seafood combo & chips)

Ambiance: bright and friendly

London’s first fish-and-chips shop opened in 1860, unless an 1863-dated Lancashire shop came first. But the glory of deep-frying potatoes (the chips portion) was noted at least two centuries earlier, possibly as a substitute for fish during freezes: It seems that the Belgians carved their potato slices into fish shapes.

The popularity of battering and frying slabs of cod or haddock took off during the Industrial Revolution, spurred by the boom in North Sea fisheries and the ease with which fresh seafood could be transported.

Well-traveled Yanks can attest to the appeal of a true British chippy. It’s remarkable for being prosaic, a taken-for-granted part of the U.K. landscape that never successfully migrated to these shores—unless you count the brief popularity of the chain to which Merv Griffen sidekick Arthur Treacher lent his name, its terrible food probably doing much to ensure that the hamburger remained the fast-food king.

Hamburgers are offered at Bennington’s Lil’ Britain, but only Tuesday through Thursday and even then they don’t sell as well as the fish. That’s because the eatery is so accomplished in its simple mission that you wouldn’t dare order anything other than the signature dish—at least not until you’ve made a few visits.

Bennington is an appropriate place for this enterprise. The downtown shops aren’t your typical small-city array, reflecting alternative ways of thinking. And why shouldn’t fish and chips be among them? Lil’ Britain opened on July 5, 2008. “We thought about opening the day before,” says frymaster-owner Kevin Wright, “but that just seemed to be rubbing it in.” Wright hails from Stoke-on-Trent, in England’s West Midlands area. He met his future wife, Sarah, in 1997 and moved to this country a year later. She was already a U.S. resident, having transplanted from Sedgley, England, when she was a youngster.

The restaurant is about more than fish and chips. Two large TV screens were showing football matches (soccer to us Yanks); beneath them are racks of such indigenously British products as HP Sauce (regular and fruity), HobNobs (“one nibble and you’re nobbled”), mushy peas, PG Tips tea, Marmite (“love it or hate it”) and its Antipodean cousin, Vegemite. And there’s a reproduction (domestically acquired) British telephone box in one corner. Wright noted that the real thing is so heavy that it would have required floor reinforcement. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a double-decker bus go by.

The secret behind the fish and chips is the fryer. It’s a two-barreled monster with large, shallow frying areas. Potatoes are cut to order in their own machine; fish is dredged in Wright’s own batter. Then they’re cast into their respective hot baths. Fish and chips comes in two sizes, $7.75 and $10. We didn’t bother with the small. A generously large slice of golden haddock dominated the plate; a hillock of similarly gold and crunchy fries was piled alongside, hustled to our table by Sarah as soon as it all emerged. Arthur Treacher’s taught me to inundate my meal with tartar sauce. Lil’ Britain reminds me why that’s not necessary. A few shakes of the malt vinegar that’s at your table may provide all the accompaniment you need; certainly the proffered tartar sauce and ketchup can be used sparingly. The price includes a side dish; we chose pickled beets, a reliable standby; other options are coleslaw, gravy, mushy peas or a buttered roll, each of which is also available for $1.50 or so.

Speaking of gravy: There’s a Canadian favorite known as poutine that adds cheese curds and gravy to a plate of fries, and Lil’ Britain lately has been getting curds locally from Maplebrook Farm, so poutine is a recent offering.

Other chips-paired options are shrimp or scallops ($7.75/$10), chicken tenders ($6/$7.50), clam strips ($7.75), a fish sandwich ($8.25), seafood combo of haddock, shrimp and scallops ($11) and bangers—a traditional English sausage ($7.50)—each also giving you a side dish. Bangers and mash ($7.50) adds gravy and mashed potatoes to the sausage.

Savory pies are another staple. We sampled the steak pie ($5.50), which is a single-serving portion of beef in thick gravy topped with a traditional pot pie-style crust, and it was refreshingly flavorful. Other varieties are steak and potato ($5.50), chicken and mushroom ($5.50) and a puff-pastry-wrapped sausage roll ($4.50). Each is baked to order, so be prepared to wait the 15 minutes or so. It’s worth it.

Add chips or mashed potatoes to your pie for $2.50, or enjoy a chip butty—chips on a buttered roll—for $4.

As noted above, burgers are available early in the week and run $6 to $7.75 depending on complexity, served with chips or coleslaw. The most expensive burger is topped with onions, mushrooms, cheese, bacon and a fried egg.

A large map of the United Kingdom hangs on a side wall, studded with pins to signify the points of origin of British visitors. Neither my wife nor I could legitimately claim such a distinction, although three or four visits from now I could see myself sneaking in a pin from my own, however imaginary, West Midlands home.