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The Food Whisperer: Dinner at Patio in the Park

It was opening night for dinner Friday, Sept. 4. Patio in the Park at the Harvard General Store was aglow with fairy lights; Italian oilcloths and vases of wildflowers brightened the tables; waitresses hurried among the nine widely distanced tables; and blended aromas rose from the grills in the corner.

For the first time in 57 years, one could go out to dinner at a restaurant in the center of town. Back in the 1940s and early ’50s, the old Harvard Inn at 11 Fairbank Street offered home-cooked meals for luncheon or dinner to the public six days a week. Chicken, a delicacy at the time, was featured on the menu, but there was no alcohol, as the town had been dry since 1934. The Inn closed its doors in 1953.

Kelsey Seaman (left) of the Harvard General Store speaks with Cindy and Meghan Glade during the General’s opening of dinners on the patio. (Courtesy photos)

Tables are spaced a generous distance apart.

My two friends and I had a reservation on the early side of the 6 to 9 p.m. window, and we were promptly shown to our table by hostess Katie Croyle, who is the marketing and social media director for the General Store. She grew up in Harvard, as did waitress Kenzie Klem and other members of the staff, all of whom put their careers on hold and returned to town in the spring. Croyle said later that on opening night they turned over every table at least once, with 62 diners. Saturday night the count was 76.

As we sat down, the three of us were torn between looking first at the menu, which one friend described as “quite a melange,” and looking around for familiar faces. We were happy to see and acknowledge quite a few people we knew. When the General sent out a survey in June, almost all of the 200 responders said what they miss most during this time is seeing friends. With dinner available in town, Friday and Saturday nights for now, the community will have an evening gathering place on the Common.

Our waitress, Kelsey Seaman, who is the alcohol manager for the store (and, along with Croyle and Klem, an aspiring actress in New York City), came with water and to ask if we wanted to put in a drink order. We chose an Entitled IPA and a Jack’s Abby lager on tap from local breweries and an Oak Hill Blend cider from Carlson Orchards. There were also choices of a few bottled beers and wine by the glass or bottle. We passed up fries and dipping sauces to order a starter of bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes grown at Old Frog Pond Farm.

Patio in the Park
1 Still River Road, Harvard
Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Reservations required
resy.com/cities/hrv/harvard-general-store

The menu was varied, and as my friend said, “Everything looks delicious.” The New York strip steak, from Lilac Hedge Farm in Holden, was accompanied by green beans from Westward Orchard, and a local produce kabob combined yellow squash, bell peppers, and red onions. There was a variety of burgers, among them cheeseburger royale, bean, and yellowfin tuna, accompanied by radish cabbage slaw or fries and dipping sauces, at an average price of $16. Fish tacos and pulled pork were also on the menu. Two of us had the tacos, which had a generous filling of grilled salmon topped with a mango and pepper salsa. A nice option was that you could order two for $14 or three for $18.

Tempting though it was, we didn’t opt for dessert—a choice of Carlson Orchards’ peach cobbler or vegan chocolate bundt cake. There was tea, iced or hot, as well as a wide variety of coffee drinks. Throughout our dinner, our server was prompt, attentive, and very personable.

Behind the scenes at Patio in the Park: Family and friends

A number of friendly and energetic young people, including owner Scott Hayward’s two sons, are at work behind the scenes at Patio in the Park. Steve Hayward is general manager and Danny Hayward is head chef. Danny hired Charles Willis from Boston as his executive sous chef, saying of him, “We speak line-cook lingo.” Hilary Maglothin of Old Littleton Road is working with Danny, finding local sources for fruits, vegetables, and meat. All of them are committed to buying local and to the farm-to-table movement, connecting with a variety of local farmers. “We want to astound people with an heirloom tomato from right down the road,” said Danny.

In a telephone conversation, Danny said he sees dinners at the General as a great, safe way for the community to come together at this time. Danny, who has already had successes in his musical theater career in New York City, said he’s always loved cooking. “Dad’s a great cook,” he said, and Danny grew up learning the “rules” of home cooking. While at Bromfield, he worked at the store, where he learned from the line cooks in the kitchen. During college he honed his skills in a number of restaurants, including some “weird places,” like a paleo barbecue restaurant in Ithaca, New York.

Danny is finding his job as head chef interesting and gratifying. “It’s a series of puzzles every day—how to order effectively, manage people, and communicate,” he said. He praised two rising seniors at Bromfield, Ben Brown and Ethan Tayler, who have been working with him, saying they start early in the morning, are eager to learn, and are able to withstand the pressures of working line. Danny plans the menus, gets approval from the group, and works with Maglothin to see what can be obtained locally. He said he loves vegetarian cooking, but he’s also a meat lover—with the caveat that animals are grass fed, humanely treated, and local.

Charles Willis has been in the food service industry for 13 years. He came to Boston from North Carolina, and his Boston experience is varied, with his latest job at Porcini’s in Watertown until it closed due to COVID-19. “I have wanted to get into a local restaurant for a while and have the ability to bring a rustic farm-to-table style menu to life … working with local farms,” wrote Willis in a recent email. In supporting the local agriculture community, he hopes to incorporate fall favorites like apples and pumpkins not just into desserts but main courses as well. “I am looking forward to bringing entrees such as slow-cooked ribeye with green garlic butter paired with potato confit, or roasted pork loin with carrots and parsnips, to the new night menu,” wrote Willis.

Maglothin said when she and her family moved into their house a year ago last June, they had no working kitchen, so her family ate breakfast and lunch at the General almost every day. She asked Hayward a lot of questions about local farming, and it seemed a natural role for her to become a liaison between the store and local farms. Maglothin grew up spending a lot of time at her grandparents’ farm. “I love farms. They bring peace,” she said. She has been meeting with Danny at the start of the week to see what menus he has in mind and then she scouts to find what he wants. She goes to each place for seasonally specific things: tomatoes, Asian pears and fall raspberries from Old Frog Pond Farm; blueberries and nectarines from Carlson Orchards; and vegetables from Westward Orchards. People think Westward is just an orchard, she said, but there are many different veggies growing, right where people can see them.

Maglothin loves the beauty and character of the town and wants to “keep what’s Harvard’’—its roots as an agricultural community. She wants the General to be as linked to local farms as possible and for people to “feel a strong sense of community through what they are eating.”

—Carlene Phillips

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