BENNINGTON — One of Bennington’s finest historic Victorian homes is adding a unique and authentic dining experience to its thriving hospitality business later this summer.
The South Shire Inn on lower Elm Street, a wonderfully kept and original historic home turned international inn dating back to the late 19th century, plans on opening what they describe as a “Royal Thai” restaurant later this summer. The restaurant will feature a formal menu by a world-class Michelin-rated chef from Thailand. The setting will be the cozy, historic dining room of the residence built by Louis Graves, the founder of the original Bank of Bennington and briefly owned by Maria Von Trapp of the family featured in “The Sound of Music.”
The inn, brainchild of the proprietor and hospitality expert Joseph Polito, opened its doors two years ago and has established itself as a premier destination for discerning travelers from all corners of the globe, even though many residents might not have heard of it or know exactly where it is. The Banner recently asked Polito about the historic inn, the coming restaurant and why he chose Bennington.
“That’s a very good question,” Polito says with a laugh, speaking in the formal, mahogany-paneled sitting room inside the South Shire Inn. “In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar.”
Polito, 56, describes himself as a lifelong hotel person. He’s been in the hospitality industry since leaving Rochester, N.Y., at 18. Polito graduated from hospitality and culinary school soon after earning certification in both from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Napa, Calif., and wound up managing the food services, and eventually graduating to front-of-the-house duties at the Helmsley Corp. for several of their prominent hotels in Manhattan — including The New York Helmsley Hotel, The Mayfair Regent on Park Avenue, and the world famous eatery, Le Cirque, working with chefs like Jacques Torres and Daniel Boulud.
He eventually left New York for two and a half decades, running world class and groundbreaking hotels and resorts for well-known international resort visionaries in Hong Kong, Myanmar, Phuket, Thailand and several European countries, including the historic reopening of the famous Strand Hotel Yangon.
“The Strand was this iconic hotel built in 1901, beautiful, Victorian style, British colonial hotel with 40 rooms,” Polito says. “It was very small, exclusive, right on the river in Rangoon. The Burmese government gave us their permission to renovate it. We were Burma’s first joint venture company since the Second World War. There were no resorts like this in the world. I mean, this was stunning. It inspired a whole generation of architects and hotel people to see this as the future, what resorts should be like.”
Polito couldn’t remember how many places he’s been and where he worked, because it would be 100 or more. “Asia, Europe, on every continent, primarily high-end resorts, Pan Pacific, MGM Resorts, several brands worldwide.”
The conversation then circled back. Why Bennington, a traditionally working-class town, for a place like the South Shire Inn?
Polito chuckles. “I was going through a divorce at the time COVID hit. I’ve had a couple of restaurants before, but I’ve always wanted to have my own hotel, a small place like this, so I said, maybe now is probably the time with my whole life changing. I started looking all over the whole country. I knew I wanted to focus on certain areas and where I wanted it to be. I liked the West. I felt that there was a lot of growth in the West. I found a cool place that I was going to buy in a small town in southwest Colorado, about 30 minutes away from Mesa Verde National Park and an hour from Telluride. I put an offer down on the place. One of the brokers that I was dealing with sent me this property, and I was like, whoa, hold the phones. This checked all the boxes. Just look around you.
“The more I researched, the more I realized that Bennington has so much going for it. I call it a diamond in the rough. It’s a really well-kept secret. We have a lot of customers that come here every single year. They just love Bennington. We also get customers traveling through here on their way to Maine or other parts of Vermont. Bennington seems to be the hub for many people on their way to somewhere else.
“When they come, I tell them, ‘Have you visited the museum? Have you been to the Park-McCullough House? Did you go to Manchester? Have you been to The Clark?’ They start to realize that, you know, you can stay here like four or five solid days, not to mention the hiking and the boating and all the other great things to do outdoors, skiing, all those things. There are many customers I get here that we’re originally passing through that now come back again. They’re like, ‘I’m going to spend more time here in Bennington.’ That’s starting to happen now with international people, as well.
“This is what I do,” he says. “I take something and create an experience that becomes, in some senses, the destination. You can open an inn on the moon, and people will go there if it’s a destination itself. If you ask a normal hotel guy from, say, a Marriott or Hilton, they will tell you the destination is the reason you have a hotel there, right? People go to their destination, and they need a place to stay. I sort of looked at that and flipped that upside down. Once you create something special in a space, you then create that demand for people that are saying, ‘Hey, I want to go to South Shire. Where is it again? Oh, it’s in Bennington. Yeah, let’s go there.’ Versus, ‘I need to go to Bennington. Where am I going to stay? It’s more like I want to stay at that hotel. Oh, it’s in Bennington? Oh, what’s in Bennington? Oh, hey, Bennington is kind of cool. There’s a lot to do there.’”
But why a Thai restaurant in a formal setting like your dining room?
“Well, I wanted to open this into a cocktail bar and apply for a liquor license at some point. I think this would be perfect. You know, that’s why I started doing tea here. I wanted to open the restaurant to the public. And then I started thinking about what concept would I do. I know Thai food well, having run food and beverage for a whole Thai company and opened multiple Thai restaurants. Thai food is really not represented very well. Thai people that are opening these restaurants, most of them are not professionals. They come to America, and they’re like, ‘What am I going to do to survive? I’ll open a restaurant.’ But they’re not professional restaurant people, so they open restaurants that they think are going to hit the note with American people. They alter the flavors, the textures and the whole experience for what they think the American tastes are. I felt that there was a niche that wasn’t being filled. And it’s in my wheelhouse. It’s what I know. My business partner is Thai. She wanted to do the restaurant anyway, herself. And then I said, ‘Why don’t we just do one here? You know, start small. See how it goes? And do something different, full service, not take-away, a proper sit-down, full service, Thai restaurant.’
“If you’ve been to Thailand, you will see a lot of Victorian houses, European-style motifs with leaves, and stuff like that. Part of that is also what they called Royal Thai. So, if you go to Thailand, they call it ‘Royal Thai.”
“I started thinking this could be how I can merge the Victorian and Thailand, become that destination, and create these authentic experiences. I wanted to make sure we did this right. I started contacting some of my chef friends who are based in Thailand. One guy I’m dealing with right now has one Michelin star. And he’s also James Beard Award winner based in Thailand. He’ll be doing our menus, recipes, training staff and the whole thing.”
The restaurant is slated to open sometime this summer. The inn is booking up quickly for the coming season. September until the last week of October is already sold out.
“I’m so happy to be part of the community here,” Polito says. “I think we and all of Bennington are on an upward trajectory. You can feel it. You can feel the vibe. I feel fortunate to be a part of Bennington at this time. Wherever you do business, it’s important to know that it goes both ways. I hope I’m contributing to the community and the prosperity of the area. If there’s anything more that I can do to help, I will feel that I’ve been successful to be a part of that.”
The South Shire Inn is located at 124 Elm St. For more information or to make a reservation, call the inn at 802-447-3839, or visit its website at southshire.com.