Night & Day at The Crooked Ram

The Crooked Ram on Main Street in Manchester is a vibrant restaurant that has been making waves in the local dining scene with its innovative menu; cozy, yet exciting ambiance; and commitment to showcasing the best of Southern Vermont’s culinary delights.

STORY BY Megan Demarest
Jenn Perry Photography
[email protected]

From Lamb to Ram

When Peter Campbell moved with his wife, Courtney, to Vermont and embarked on his new business venture back in 2017, he knew they’d start off slowly and hopefully grow into something bigger as they got to know their new community and its ebbs and flows. The plan to start off simply as a wine and craft beer bottle shop with snack accompaniments was a shrewd choice, and now The Crooked Ram is a bustling restaurant filled with day and nighttime dining to delight their regulars and the thousands of visitors that travel through Manchester all year long in search of unique seasonal experiences. 

The Crooked Ram has gone through several iterations of food, service, and construction as their ideas flourished and blossomed, from charcuterie and small plates only, to now a full kitchen with offerings that still include charcuterie, but also boast a breakfast café, brunch, and two different kinds of dining vibes, all on the same property. Although firmly rooted in using local ingredients and showcasing what Southern Vermont has to offer, there is a European sensibility to the cuisine, bringing in the personal travel experiences of the staff and creating a space where diners can enjoy European-inspired tastes within the context of local, Vermont-sourced deliciousness.

The quirky name fits in well with some of its neighboring restaurants, which also have animal-inspired monikers. “Prior to moving up here, I’d been working in London and liked a lot of the older pub names,” shares Peter. “Our family lineage goes back to the UK and Scotland.” As it turns out, Peter’s surname literally means “crooked mouth” in Scottish Gaelic. “There was something about the word ‘crooked’ that stood out, I liked the way it sounded,” he adds. “We were thinking of connecting it to the agricultural history of the area. There are different breeds of sheep here, like the Dorset sheep, and I also like the word ‘ram’.” 

Rams are symbols of determination, power, and leadership, and although unintentional, that part of their name suits the evolution of this eatery. Most restauranteurs will say that it takes years to build a strong, sustainable business after opening. Navigating the usual challenges to any new business, in addition to the pandemic, wasn’t easy, but Peter and his staff were determined to persevere. As they continue to grow and experiment with local ingredients and great taste, they go beyond the minimal call of duty and have presented themselves as leaders in the Manchester culinary scene, offering experiences you can’t find anywhere else in town.

Evolution of a Cuisine

At the heart of the Crooked Ram’s appeal is its inspired menu, crafted with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and creative flavor combinations. From fresh, small plates like oysters dressed in Meyer lemon and Calabrian chili, to heartier mains like lamb loin with merguez, butter beans, and asparagus, each dish reflects the restaurant’s commitment to intentionally created cuisine that is elevated and artfully presented, yet oh-so approachable. 

The concept of the wine bar is part of what guided them, at first, to build their identity. In the beginning, a toaster oven was the only way to prepare hot food as they offered tasting items to pair with their thoughtfully curated wine and beer selections. During this time, Chef Tiara Adorno had been curious about the place whenever she walked by and wondered “what’s going on in there?” One day, she popped in and found out. It wasn’t long after that that she jumped in and became the Executive Chef and part of the team that has helped the Crooked Ram grow into what it is today, which now has a full, open kitchen to prepare a larger variety of menu items, while also connecting the chefs with the patrons. “That was close to almost five years ago now,” reminisces Chef Tiara. “There was nothing but two toaster ovens, a counter, and a fridge.” 

Another essential component that has driven their identity is working with local purveyors like Mighty Food Farm in Shaftsbury to keep their menu fresh, representative of the season, and truly Vermont. “Certified organic produce is just down the road and very easy to get. You don’t have to ship it across the country for us. To be able to feature that— I think that is when we’re firing on all cylinders,” says Peter, proudly. Seasonal ingredients abound and inform the menu monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily. This offers menu surprises for repeat patrons and keeps the experience exciting from visit to visit.

Though the menu changes seasonally, diners can rest assured that the more popular offerings have remained, in some form, on the menu. “Now that we’re in a good rhythm, we’ve found this sweet spot where we have our staples, then we will tweak them a little by the season, but we won’t shake things up so that people feel shocked,” says Chef Tiara. “We’re never stagnant.” 

While carnivores and pescatarians will find a plethora of animal-based protein dishes on the menu, the Crooked Ram’s vegetarian fare is particularly notable. They go above and beyond the usual options tossed at vegetarians (and the omnivores who love it all). There is not a veggie burger in sight. Instead, Chef Tiara pays homage to the vegetables and herbs reflecting the current season, presenting such dishes as blistered snap peas and radishes with brown butter and tarragon vinegar or chickpea panisse with fava beans, red onion, pepita cream, and romesco. When vegetables are prepared with such honor and dignity, even the greatest meat-lovers can entertain the notion of going all-veggie…at least for one meal.

The Vibe

What is the vibe, you ask? It’s elevated, but approachable. “It’s not white tablecloth, fine dining, and we don’t think of ourselves that way,” explains Peter. “We want to execute at a high level, be intentional about everything we’re doing, and be creative, but also still be a neighborhood place.” On any given day or night, there is a mixture of people coming in dressed up to celebrate a special occasion, with others sporting more casual attire, including the après-ski crowd in their winter gear. 

The space itself showcases a variety of vibes, both day and night. The latest offerings include breakfast in the Café from 8am to 2pm Thursday through Sunday, brunch in the Café from 9am to 2pm on Sundays, and bar service from 2pm to 5pm with dinner in the Dining Room from 5pm to 10pm Thursday through Saturday. But that’s just inside. To the delight of many, their outdoor space, The Yard, opened in the Fall of 2021. This special, pet-friendly space boasts an open-air kitchen, its own bar, fire pits, and a lovely roof that makes patrons feel transported to another place. It’s only open May through October, so make your plans now to get a table. You can enjoy wood-fired pizzas, which are only offered in The Yard, along with raw bar and small plates that highlight late spring, summer, and early fall ingredients in a super cool atmosphere. The Dining Room closes during this period in the evenings to focus on outdoor dining in the Yard.

The vibe of the Crooked Ram is not only established by the food, the spaces, and the seasons, but perhaps most importantly, by the staff. It is refreshing to see a staff of people that are happy to have worked together for years in the rewarding, but demanding environment of the food service industry. “Work should be enjoyable for the people that come here. We spend so much time together,” shares Peter. “It’s a lot of hard work, but when we get into the zone and things are working well, we enjoy what we’re doing. I think it translates well to the guests’ experiences. We all support each other.” 

“The core staff has been the core for almost 4 years,” adds General Manager and native Vermonter Emily Shore. “We know our stuff. We like to make people feel they can come here, have a new experience, and feel good about it. Customers notice it, too, we get feedback about it.”

Pastry Chef Alli Ford, who went to culinary school with Chef Tiara at Johnson and Wales, concurs: “I love the atmosphere at the Crooked Ram. Everyone works together and plays off each other to create beautiful dishes.” 

“None of this is possible without Tiara, Emily, our Wine Director, Kim Demeo, and the people that are working here now, because each time we’ve grown, it’s partly because of the right people coming into the picture,” asserts Peter. Truly, the happy vibe of The Crooked Ram is felt from the moment bartender Beth flashes her brilliant smile to welcome you; when server Dan comforts you after your kid spills orange juice all over the table; when any of the staff excitedly explains a new dish on the menu…a happy, calming sensation is felt, making it even easier to scarf down the gorgeously presented plate sitting before you. 

Pop-ups, Pastries, & Cocktails – Oh, My!

In addition to inspired food and presentation, the Crooked Ram has created distinctive experiences that have enhanced their business and pumped up the community. Last summer, they began the Jupiter Club, a supper club which afforded people the opportunity to enjoy a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings in a curated, intimate setting. They also held themed pop-up dinners, including Chef Tiara’s “Blue Fern Commons pop-up” and Emily’s “Neighborhood Noodle pop-up” that included Japanese inspired dishes created with her chef husband. “It’s a ‘casual ramen’ concept,” explains Emily. “We make our own noodles, broth, everything from scratch. Peter has offered the space for us to explore these other creative outlets that all relate to each other and what we’re doing here.” 

But it doesn’t stop at dinner clubs and pop-ups. In the fall of 2023, the Crooked Ram also hosted an artisan market in the Yard with different food vendors and makers, something they plan to bring back this year. Retail options are still in the mix, as well, with wine and cider bottles available, in addition to bags of Touchy Coffee and other local fare.

Guests can enjoy Chef Alli’s homemade pastries in-house and year-round during Café hours or they can pre-order some to take home on the website (except the donuts—those delightful bombs of flavor must be enjoyed on site!) 

Guests have also been able to savor cocktails since the fall of 2022. The same spirit of experimentation and inventiveness that goes into menu curation also goes into crafting their delightful cocktails, which can be relished with your donut or brunch “sando of the day” (like the Grampa Joe, a cappuccino made with Touchy Coffee and a splash of Maple Sapling bourbon) or enjoyed with dinner in the Dining Room or out in the Yard (like the Sakura Stroll, which combines Japanese whiskey with matcha and basil syrup!) These are just a couple of samplings. Be sure to peruse the menu during each visit for new and enticing seasonal cocktails. 

Visions of the Future

Never dormant, the Crooked Ram is not resting on its laurels. Patrons will be delighted to experience live music events outside in the Yard for the first time this season. Peter’s background happens to be in the fine arts and music production. He feels quite comfortable contributing to the overall aesthetic of the restaurant as he lets his staff take the reins each in their own areas of expertise. He also shares music roots with some on his team. “A lot of our staff members are actually musicians or very interested in music,” shares Emily. “Music is a huge part of service, and we want to make it a more regular part of service outside” adds Peter. “We will have live DJ’s and a program with full bands playing on off nights. The goal is to use our venue to highlight the music and have the bar going with a special menu. Something that complements the music and not the other way around.” 

They’re also keen on the idea of expanding to another location. “We would love to continue building in this area. People want to have multiple food and dining experiences in a variety of settings. There’s great momentum going, and we’ll lean into that a little bit more,” reveals Peter. 

As they head into another exhilarating year of culinary service to Manchester’s residents and visitors, it’s clear that “the same old, same old” doesn’t quite cut it for this crew. That’s reason enough to visit The Crooked Ram, day or night, in any season. Keep this culinary gem on your radar, as it promises an inspiring future ahead.