Mister Up’s celebrates 50 years of brews under the bridge
Tucked away on Bakery Lane, below the Cross Street bridge crossing Otter Creek, is a Middlebury landmark: Mister Up’s. Founded in 1970 by Middlebury native Ronald Mainelli, Mister Up’s has been a longtime gathering spot for college students and the greater Middlebury community. The restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
According to current Mister Up’s owner and manager Rick Buck, Mainelli named the restaurant after his favorite restaurant in New York City, Mrs. Down’s. Mister Up’s has had four owners throughout its past 50 years of business, but Buck and his partner have owned the pub since 2012.
Today, the restaurant typically accommodates a mix of Middlebury locals, parents and students attending college functions, such as Fall Family Weekend, according to Buck. With a dining room capacity of about 200 people and an 80-person outdoor deck, Mister Up’s is spacious enough to host large groups for sports teams, anniversaries or other events. “Homecoming is a big event, along with annual basketball team, hockey team and swim team dinners,” Buck said.
In the past, Mister Up’s was a popular weekend spot for students. Alumni who attended Middlebury in the late ’80s shared memories of enjoying their times at the restaurant because of its welcoming atmosphere, food and drink selection and affordability.
Heather Bohr ’89 described the restaurant’s versatility as a reason Mister Up’s was a favorite of hers. “We used to go there for après-ski in the late 80s after cross country skiing at Breadloaf. It was so much fun to sit at the bar, get to know the bartenders and drink warm alcoholic coffee drinks,” she said. As the year progressed and ski season ended, Mister Up’s remained one of Bohr’s top choices for off-campus dining with friends: “It was always such a happy moment when the deck opened in the spring and we could sit by the river.”
Kristen Homer ’90 recalled Mister Up’s as a common pregame spot. “I think we mostly went for appetizers and a drink before heading out to parties on campus,” she said.
In the late ’80s, students benefited from the “grandfather clause” of Vermont’s 1986 law that raised the drinking age from 18 to 21 years. The clause allowed anyone who was legally allowed to drink at the time the law passed to be exempt from the higher age requirement. In other words, any student who turned 18 before the law went into effect in 1986 retained their legal right to purchase alcohol.
Tom Crowell ’90 recalled the grandfather clause as particularly exciting for Middlebury students in the late ’80s coming from areas of the country that did not offer the same exception. “For many of us, the drinking age was still 18 [in Vermont] unlike our home states, so this was a new thing adding to the college experience,” he said.
Mister Up’s was able to capitalize on the large proportion of the student body still allowed to legally drink. Crowell noted the restaurant offered “an extensive cocktail list of frozen blender drinks and mixed drinks like $2 long island ice teas and tap beer.”
In addition to being a fun drinking spot, Mister Up’s was chosen by some students as a good place to share a meal with a professor. Sarah Evans ’89 recalled a fond memory of going to Mister Up’s for dinner with a friend and one of their favorite biology professors, Steve Trombulak. “I remember thinking about seeing him in a different light — a person — not a professor. It was fun to have a chance to know him in a different setting and relate on a different level,” she said.
Bohr also noted that the restaurant was ideal for a more romantic outing. “The salad and bread bar made dates easy because there was something to do. You could get up, get more bread, walk around. It was definitely the favorite spot for a date,” she said.
In addition to the salad and bread bar, Bohr enjoyed the offer of a unique dessert selection: “I remember their gigantic alcoholic ice cream drinks: White Russians and Grasshoppers.”
The salad and bread bar and spiked ice cream floats are no longer offered on the Mister Up’s menu, but the pub food selection remains intact. One of Buck’s favorite recent introductions is an appetizer he named “Thumbs and Toes.” These boneless chicken tenders, fried and tossed in signature sauces or rubs, are one of the restaurant’s most popular items, according to Buck.
This type of pub food was especially enticing compared to the regular dining hall offerings. Evans commented,“Back when I was in school, the food on campus was unremarkable and uninspired, so dinner out was a real treat.”
Covid-19 has disrupted many of the events that alumni fondly remember and current students still hope to enjoy. Buck was disappointed that Mister Up’s could not have a large 50 year anniversary celebration as originally hoped. However, he feels fortunate that they were able to reopen indoor dining under Vermont state guidelines in June 2020, and they have been able to keep indoor dining open for the past 11 months. “Take-out [and catering] are typically a large part of Mister Up’s’ sales,” he explains, so the restaurant was well-positioned to continue generating business throughout the pandemic.
Shifts in owners, menu adjustments and cultural changes are inevitable over the years, but Mister Up’s has maintained many of the qualities that cause alumni to remember their time there so fondly to reach the milestone of 50 years of business.