Ken Burns loves to talk. The legendary filmmaker admits he can get long-winded, which makes sense when you think about it. “You’ll remember I’m a filmmaker who makes 10-part series that last 18 hours,” he jokes.
The one thing he’s never spoken at length about is his restaurant. For almost 18 years, he’s been part owner of the Restaurant at Burdick’s, a cozy nook serving French and American fare in Walpole, New Hampshire.
“Somebody asked me recently ‘Why don’t you just say something?’” Burns told Travel + Leisure. “And I thought, ‘Who cares?’’ I mean, it’s not really a labor of love because the only thing I do is lift my fork.”
Burns calls himself a silent partner in the business. He’s not involved in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations, but can be seen eating there as many as six or seven times a week.
In 1979, Burns made a home out of an 1820s farmhouse in Walpole to achieve the “magnificent isolation” he sought to finish his work. He’s been there ever since — it’s where he’s created all of his documentaries with Florentine Films, where he raised his daughters, and where he opened his French-inspired bistro.
Burns saw an opportunity in his charming New England town in the mid-1980s. When a grocery store in town moved to a new location, it left a gaping vacancy in Walpole's town center. Burns teamed up with chocolatier Larry Burdick, who owned the nearby L.A. Burdick’s chocolate shop, to eventually open the restaurant there in 2001.
“The whole impetus for me was not to invest in a restaurant, not to own a restaurant, but to do a community service, which was to fill this empty hole,” Burns says.
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With a population of just under 4,000 people, Walpole is small, and also extremely idyllic. The center of town is its lifeblood, clustered around a post office, a clinic, a real estate firm, and a chocolate cafe. Today, the Restaurant at Burdick’s acts as an anchor of sorts, despite the low profile Burns has kept as one of its owners.
“In the midst of all of that Normal Rockwell or Currier and Ives is a real legitimate restaurant with complex flavors and wonderful things,” Burns says.
The Restaurant at Burdick’s sits inside a whitewashed antique clapboard overlooking one of Walpole’s main thoroughfares. Inside, the vibe can only be described as cozy, thanks to soft twinkle lights and local art adorning the walls. It’s a haven for fine dining in southern New Hampshire, offering a seasonal, locally sourced menu with a few sought-after staples like oven-roasted chicken and seared duck breast. An extensive wine list, along with a robust event calendar, attracts locals and tourists alike.
“If you go to downtown Walpole, it’s sometimes hard to get a parking place. It’s not necessarily because of the restaurant as it is, but from what the restaurant has brought in,” Burns says.
Burns and Burdick, who is no longer a partner in the business, also opened a small specialty market called Walpole Grocery. It stocks local meats, cheeses, and breads, along with wine, beer, and organic fruits and veggies.
Walpole Grocery and the Restaurant at Burdick’s certainly serve the community, but they also serve Ken. When his work requires him to hole up in the editing room for days at a time, he’s been known to subsist solely on the restaurant’s Ken’s Salad. The dish of Bibb lettuce, grilled salmon, avocado, shaved parmesan, and lemon vinaigrette is Burns’ own creation. He had been ordering it off-menu for years until one day it was put on the lunch menu. It’s remained a favorite ever since.
“The running joke I have with Ken is ‘How often do you check your mercury levels?’ Because he is a lover of salmon,” says Tom Goins, partner and general manager at the Restaurant at Burdick’s.
Goins says Burns has always been careful with the use of his celebrity. He’s hosted a few talks at the restaurant and once agreed to display his Emmy awards over the bar, but has never wielded his influence to snag a table or a free meal.
“It’s just one of the great pleasures of my life that I’ve been able to do this,” Burns says. “I’ll tell you, if people come in and see it and I’m in town, there is a really good chance I’m there for lunch or dinner.”
Burns explains he’s played “a very small part in creating a really wonderful thing,” and he hopes patrons will continue to slip into their seats, order a good meal, see friends, and have conversations.
“Where I live is central to who I am as a person,” Burns says. “And at the heart of that is Burdick’s.”