Affable restaurateur Garrett Harker has been charming hungry locals since he moved to Boston from San Francisco in 1998. This spring he got a well-deserved nod from the James Beard Foundation—his name on the long list for Outstanding Restaurateur. Indeed, he's the proprietor of four popular outposts: his first, Eastern Standard, as well as Island Creek Oyster Bar, Row 34 and the Hawthorne. We recently chatted with him about his adopted hometown, the secret to his success, and where he likes to go to kick back.
You were not born and raised in Boston. Does this city feel like home yet?
Absolutely. I raised my daughters here, built my businesses here. I've fallen in love with Boston. As a city, it's completely under my skin.
What surprised you about the city when you moved here?
I was most surprised at how vital the neighborhoods are. I didn't understand exactly how connected people feel to the vibe of Beacon Hill and the South End and Back Bay. And now, watching what's happening in Fort Point. The story of Boston is really the story of these neighborhoods. And have a synergy and a competitive feel to them that the people who have put down stake in the neighborhood, the people who live there and who have businesses there, are so proud of what's happening in their neighborhoods.
At your restaurants situated in two different neighborhoods, Kenmore Square and Fort Point, is there a different vibe at each?
Absolutely. When we opened in Kenmore Square, a lot of my colleagues who are from Boston said to me, 'You know, there's no neighborhood there. The people from Back Bay don't come up past Mass Ave, and the community that is west of you is all transient college kids.' But I didn't believe that. I think not being from here helped me have a little clarity. Anyone who was from Boston, it was just imprinted on them that Kenmore Square could never be a viable destination for adults who were looking for a certain food and beverage experience. I wasn't from here. I looked at the history, where it was located on a map, at some of the institutional forces that had a stake in the game, like the Red Sox, like Boston University. I just couldn't believe there was this opportunity with this urban impact. When we opened Eastern Standard, it was really part of the service ethic that we would honor and celebrate the neighborhood. And sure enough, they came out. When we opened in the South End [in a former partnership with Barbara Lynch], a little bit more of a mature neighborhood, we went with our palms open and said, 'We want to create something special at that little corner on Tremont Street at B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop,' and the South End said, 'Okay. You can't leave your trash. You're not going to unleash your guests out late at night, drunk onto the street.' It was a little more conditional. When I look at Fort Point, the enthusiastic response behind Row 34, it is at that sort of primordial phase where the neighborhood is just so excited and passionate and proud, both of our restaurant and the other restaurants that have landed there: Barbara's [Lynch of Menton, Sportello and Drink] and the DiBiccari boys [Louis and Michael of Tavern Road]. There's this real sort of enthusiasm for what's happening in the neighborhood.
Earlier this spring, you got a nod from James Beard Foundation before they annouced the 2014 finalists for the annual James Beard Awards. What did that feel like?
The restaurants have been in the mix before, but it was the first time I had been mentioned by name personally. I was really proud to see my name on there along with other luminaries in the culinary world. But, I felt a little exposed. I've always put a team together selling them on the idea that collectively we can achieve something, and the first time we start considering our own independent agenda then we start to lose something special. So, it felt a little funny, but my team couldn't have been more proud. They were really excited. They also understand that something like Outstanding Restaurateur is probably the most shallow of the recognitions of Beard. I mean, that is an award that belongs to so many people, as opposed to Outstanding Chef, where it's one actual person putting food on a plate, and cooking it, and conceptualizing it. We are a collection of really passionate and committed people.
Eastern Standard turns nine years old in May. What’s the secret to your success?
Striving for consistency. Never resting on what we've achieved. From the beginning, the mandate was: We want to be relevant for 30 years. We want to be an important part of the restaurant community. We were thinking 30 years out. All along the way, we never come up for air and assess where we are. Every day we get together and we say, 'Where are we going? What can we do to get better?' The management team is unlike any other management team in the restaurant industry right now, and I'm not a bragger. But, it's an amazing collection of kids who came up through the ranks, they're all veterans of Eastern Standard, and they're all stewards. They're the life-force of the restaurant, and I think the guest can really feel that.
What does Garret Harker order at … ?
Eastern Standard: I would probably order the baked rigatoni, if only I could take half of it home to my daughter Quinn. She's addicted to that dish, which is an original menu item from Jamie Bissonnette. We figured out the other day that we've sold 57,000 servings of that single dish since Eastern Standard opened.
Island Creek Oyster Bar: Fish I don't recognize, cooked by the amazing kitchen crew. They revere seafood, treat it so perfectly, and, under Jeremy Sewall, let the pristine fish speak for itself.
Row 34: Something off the smoked and cured section, like the smoked uni toast or the smoked scallop with creme fraiche and a side of the Maui onion mustard Chef Fran makes. Also, I'm in love with the warm lobster roll, but we're still in the honeymoon period.
The Hawthorne: A sherry cocktail that bar manager Katie Emmerson might be working on. I can't help them with the construction of the cocktails, but I can encourage the innovation!
You are so busy with your restaurants, do you ever get to kick back and enjoy, maybe travel a little bit?
Traveling is tough. I can't even pretend to blame it on the restaurants. It's my own little hang-up. I get tense at the thought of being away for longer than four or five days. I try to make it to New York four times a year. San Francisco once a year. And then I try to pick new city where I can really get to know the restaurant scene a little bit. So it's more trying to do some frequent things that are less time-consuming.
What are your three favorite travel destinations?
You're talking to the dullest guy in the world. I'd say, Manhattan. San Francisco, where I got my start in the business and where my daughters were born. And then, a couple-day golf vacation in Florida is the most that I can muster.
Where are you headed next?
That's a really good question. A craft beer trip. Right now, Row 34's beer program has become an obsession for me. I'm thinking about a trip to Europe to explore some of the original iconic beer destinations. That is top of my list. I realized I'm a little exposed on the beer thing. I don't know as much as I should.
Garrett Harker planned his own perfect day in Boston trip itinerary. Follow it on your next visit.