"This is the least sentimental or nostalgic group, and I know it comes down from me; I know I'm not that person," says Eastern Standard owner Garrett Harker, reflecting on the Kenmore Square restaurant's first 10 years, although the 10th anniversary party in late May buzzed with sentimental feelings as the place was packed with industry folks, some of whom got their start right there. "This is weird for me to be sitting and talking about the past, so to anyone reading this: Don't think our glory days have already come and gone. Don't come here just to pay your respects to the past."
Garrett Harker [Photo: Kristin Teig]
Harker speaks as a parent who has dropped off a child — well, a young adult — at college, accepting that Eastern Standard's ongoing success is, in a way, out of his hands now. He beams with pride for the restaurant's accomplishments but detaches himself from the equation, honoring the younger generation as they continue to push the restaurant forward into the next 10 years. "Don't think this is some sort of ES found its groove nine years ago, and we're just running out the string," he says. "There's stuff happening here that's innovative and interesting. We're still making mistakes. Try something, and if it doesn't work, we'll figure it out."
In a lot of ways, Harker doesn't feel like it's been 10 years. "I still feel like we have so much work to do, and there are so many kids that have come up through the ranks that are still looking at it like this is a work in progress; this is a restaurant where they can make an impact," he says. "One of the enduring things about this restaurant is that there's no one who seems to be nostalgic or sentimental or resting on their laurels, whatever laurels we might have achieved. Every year feels like a new opportunity."
"I don't feel old, if that's what you mean," Harker adds, laughing. "I think the first year was the longest year, and then every year seems to get shorter. It's sort of like when you have children. When they're teenagers, you're like, Oh my god, it's happening so quickly."
For Jackson Cannon, Eastern Standard's opening bar manager (and now beverage director for Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Row 34, as well as co-owner of The Hawthorne), it does feel like 10 years have passed, at least when he looks at it from the perspective of the restaurant's place in a changing neighborhood. "Before we opened, people were like, You're crazy — you're in Kenmore Square. Are you going to serve beer in plastic cups on game days?" Cannon recalls. But in a matter of just a year or two, the neighborhood was already evolving, and the restaurant was busy all the time. Around the seventh year, people who lived in the neighborhood "couldn't imagine the landscape without [Eastern Standard]," he says. The 10-year span, in his mind, falls into "chunks of two or three years" at a time.
The Beginning: A Balthazar for Boston?
It was a regular, Frank, at No. 9 Park who pointed Harker, then the general manager of the Beacon Hill restaurant, in the direction of the space that would become Eastern Standard. Harker mentioned to Frank, who ate frequent Thursday lunches at No. 9 Park, that he was moving on to do something on his own, although he didn't really have a plan yet — "probably some neighborhood kind of thing." Frank, one of the developers of the Hotel Commonwealth property that now houses Eastern Standard and siblings Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne, drove him over to the space that very afternoon. "It was just concrete and boarded up," Harker recalls. The hotel was open, as was seafood restaurant Great Bay (Island Creek now occupies that space), but the future Eastern Standard space — once legendary punk venue The Rathskeller, or "The Rat" — was sitting empty. The developers felt like Kenmore "hadn't quite come up yet," Harker says.
"We essentially talked that day about what we could do here. It started with a conversation of whether we could do Boston's Balthazar [a New York City brasserie], and when I saw the space, it felt like this grand old train station, 26-foot high ceilings," he says. "Part of my deal with the hotel was breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and that led us to the sort of brasserie concept, a place that would be active all day. And I knew I wanted to indulge the things I was passionate about — a craft cocktail program, a nose-to-tail thing. It's hard to believe, but 10 years ago, that was kind of a new thing."
"Boston's sometimes so stratified in terms of its restaurants," Harker says. "A certain crowd at No. 9, a certain crowd at Clio, a certain crowd at Sonsie. I wanted a spot that could run the social strata a little bit, that we could blend it all together in a cool dining room."
Jackson Cannon [Photo: Natasha Moustache]
As for Cannon, his involvement came about thanks to his friendship with opening chef Jamie Bissonnette, now of Toro and Coppa. When Bissonnette was chef de cuisine at Tremont 647 in the South End, Cannon spent a few months as a prep cook there. At the time, he was transitioning out of being a full-time musician (and paying bills with side restaurant gigs, including some bartending), trying to find his way in the restaurant industry instead (switching it up and using side music gigs to help pay the bills at first).
Cannon and Bissonnette got to know each other there, thanks in part to a shared love of jazz music, but Cannon wasn't really cut out for the kitchen. "My knife skills were terrible," he acknowledges, laughing. "Instead of deciding to go the kitchen route, I had some experience bartending, and I had collected a lot of books, and I was already sort of a storyteller, so I decided to find the right kind of bar job." He left for a bar manager job across town, but he stayed in touch with Bissonnette, who ultimately brought him in for an interview when Eastern Standard was a few months away from opening. "I thought I tanked it," laughs Cannon, but he got the job.
"The construction, equipment, and details had all been decided, but I did get to see that process," he says. "And anything to do with staffing, beverage program content, that sort of thing was all mine. I kind of jumped in and had never done anything of this scale and scope, but I was just dumb enough to think we could do fresh juice and good technique and a little bit slower approach to making a cocktail. It was a little rocky at first, but I had a really great young crew. I put together people who had some No. 9 Park experience and people who had B-Side experience, a team that spanned different restaurant scenes and traditions, and we just went for it."
The Early Days, From Sox Games to Whiskey Smashes
One of Harker's enduring memories from opening night is how the restaurant's accountant, Saul Garlick ("kind of a legend in the restaurant business; he's been through so many openings," says Harker), planned to come in for dinner around 9 p.m. when everyone assumed the night would be winding down. After eating, he'd do the close with the closing manager, probably at some point around 12:30 a.m. But he came in, waited for seats at the bar, and finished dinner, only to find that customers were five deep at the bar. "You know what? Just wrap everything up and throw it in the safe and lock it," he said, as Harker recalls. "I'll be back in the morning."
"On our first night, we had no press," says Harker. "It was just people who saw these red awnings go up in Kenmore Square. We had a lot of work to do to build the business the way we wanted it, but at least that first night was kind of interesting how it played out."
Cannon, on the other hand, recalls the lack of a rush on the first day of a Red Sox home game. The Sox were on the road when Eastern Standard opened, so there were a few services before that first home game day, which was a Monday. "We were like, Oh my god, here come 40,000 people," says Cannon. But no one came. "I swear, we're standing there, and they just walked right by the place," he laughs.
It wasn't until a Thursday in June after a getaway game that ended with a walk-off home run by Papi that the place really "exploded," he says. "That was our first rush, and then it built from there. By the end of that season, we sort of had a regular clientele." But he didn't expect too much when opening day rolled around the next year — "We got trampled."
During night games, though, it was tumbleweeds between the pre-game rush and the end of the game, at least at first. "What are we going to do between 7 and 10 every day?" Cannon remembers wondering. Fortunately, over time, a small but significant clientele emerged that would come in to watch the game on television, and slip back out.
The menu format hasn't changed much over the years. Plats du jours have always been a focal point, but "they were more comfort food" in the beginning, says Harker. "I think things have evolved to become a little bit more continental, a little more chef-composed." Still, some dishes have held on through the whole decade, like the baked rigatoni. Harker estimates that 30,000 have been sold over the years.
Meanwhile, the cocktail list grew from a starting line-up of six drinks to as many as 64, eventually dropping down to about half that. "I think in our mind we had a vision of what we wanted the cocktail program to be, but then we had the reality of training this big staff, these young kids who didn't have a ton of experience," says Harker. "The last thing we wanted was to say we had this great cocktail program and then be exposed that we hadn't filled in, so we started really small.
Those original drinks included:
- Whiskey Smash — "It was one of those things that had a certain degree of difficulty compared to just throwing a bunch of stuff together the way a lot of bars were operating," says Cannon.
- Americano — "It was kind of a training tool," notes Cannon, because bartenders had to make sure customers weren't ordering a coffee by the same name. Also, it served as a gateway into the Negroni conversation, both functioning as low-proof aperitifs that fit Eastern Standard's breakfast, lunch, and dinner vibe.
- Pegu Club — Partly a shoutout to Audrey Saunders' bar of the same name that was in the process of opening in New York.
- Margarita — "We were making our own fresh sour mix with egg whites, which we still do today," says Cannon.
He also thinks there was a stirred whiskey drink on there, probably a Sazerac, as well as a rum-based drink. By August, he doubled the size of the list, adding a few champagne-based cocktails, for example. The list tripled in 2006 and ended up in the 60s by 2007.
The whiskey smash — 100,000 sold in 10 years, Cannon estimates — hasn't been on the menu in four years. This past Marathon Monday, they sold about 240 of them. "When the printers go off on the weekends and we look at the picks, half of them are off of the menu that we're using right now, and half of them are off the menu that came before it," says Cannon. "As a bartender comes up in training here, they really do have to learn about drinks. We have great ways of looking them up, those really obscure ones you haven't made before because they were on the menu five years ago. That's one of the things that's really interesting about the restaurant as a whole. It's a brasserie menu too, and there's a huge, broad, deep wine program. And the beer program has expanded to take its rightful place, literally offering something for everybody, even though you don't see all those kinds of mainline brands."
A Changing Neighborhood and Ghosts of the Rat
"The most fulfilling thing, I think, is from kids in their twenties who look at Kenmore Square and say, Wow, this is such a dynamic urban environment," says Harker, "but they have no idea what Kenmore Square was like when we opened, let alone 15-20 years ago — how detached from the rest of the city it had become. And then you have the older crowd who can't believe they're going to Kenmore Square for a nice dinner. It's so imprinted on the Boston psyche that Kenmore is just not where adults go for drinking and eating. The ghosts of The Rathskeller have always been a part of Eastern Standard in a really real way — we have people come in once a week who say they paid us a visit because they played on stage there and want to bring in a friend or wife or whoever to say, This was a really important punk rock club, and I played here. We always wanted to honor, never wanted to just rewrite history or what this square was; we just wanted to incorporate it in our scrappy way that we looked at ourselves, that we were this restaurant and we could do anything. It was that punk kind of spirit from the Rat, just a little more polish and a little more welcoming of a sort of wide mix of people."
When Cannon thinks of the changing neighborhood over the last decade, he sees it as more of a general change in the city at large (and beyond). "I remember in the early days during a game rush, customers would be trying to decide between the burger and the steak tartare, and they'd say, I'll do the steak tartare, medium rare," he says. "Well...let me explain to you what this dish is. Now, it's a whole generation of pretty savvy food and drink people. They read a lot of stuff; they don't need you to tell them what bouillabaisse is, you know what I mean? They've got it, and I see that in Boston at large and in the country as a whole. People eat out a lot more, they're proud of their bar tabs, and they're better educated than they were 10 years ago."
There would be this sort of raucous pursuit of leaving a mark.
As things changed, Eastern Standard evolved as well. "I would say the major change is just how the service has developed," says Harker. "It was a year in when I hired [general manager] Andrew Holden. I came out of fine dining wanting to go into something more accessible, and Andrew was leaving fine dining, Clio, but didn't see any reason why he couldn't integrate some of the fine dining approach into what I was calling mid-level dining. He started taking the right kind of mechanics from fine dining, things like decanting all of our red wines and the way we choreographed service at the table, and he started blending it with what I really envisioned as in-the-moment service. If No. 9 Park was scripted and there was a sequence and a pursuit of perfection, I wanted Eastern Standard to be all these great kids that really cared and were really inspired to be involved with your table, to demonstrate some of their knowledge, to make an impact on your evening. There would be this sort of raucous pursuit of leaving a mark."
Holden agreed, Harker recalls, but noted that it was important to be a "little more elegant" and "respect the product" they were serving, as well as "teach those kids something." And Harker had to go back to wearing a suit.
The team had always wanted industry people to be interested in the restaurant, and the popular late-night scene evolved organically. "It's hard to believe we used to give last call at 11:30, midnight, and now you're getting serious food until 1:30 a.m. every night," says Harker. He still gets chills when the late-night specials being written on the giant mirror behind the bar, a nightly tradition that started about seven years back.
A Decade in Moments
There are simply too many memorable moments over the years for Harker to pinpoint his favorite, but he does describe a couple that helped define the restaurant's philosophy.
A restaurant like this doesn't happen, it absolutely doesn't happen, if there's a personal agenda that overrides the group.
"There's the famous story of when Jamie Bissonnette and I were probably nine months in and things were just going flat out, and it was really testing us individually and testing our relationship," says Harker. "We were always trying to catch up to the restaurant. We sort of had a heated argument about something, and Jamie said, You know, G? If I had known how busy this restaurant was going to be, I never would have taken the job. And I said, Jamie, if I knew how busy this restaurant was going to be, I never would have hired you. He and I talk about that all the time. We really had to learn...there was no template we could follow, but there was something about acknowledging that we were a little bit in over our heads, but all we had was each other, and we had to make it work. I think that that original bond between Jamie and myself and Jackson grew into this really cool thing. A restaurant like this doesn't happen, it absolutely doesn't happen, if there's a personal agenda that overrides the group."
"It's a real credit to Andrew and his team," Harker continues. "I don't think there's another team in the city that's so in tune with each other." All of the front-of-house managers came up through the ranks, leading to a special bond, he says. "It's definitely not this top-down management style; it's bottom-up for sure."
Another moment that comes to mind was early on in Eastern Standard's life. "I was really nervous that Eastern Standard would have this kind of corporate feel, that it looked kind of boring," says Harker. "We have a grilled cheese, we have a burger, but Jamie and I knew we wanted some tension on the menu. You have to think back 10 years; there wasn't bone marrow on everyone's menu; there weren't sweetbreads and charcuterie. We always had a daily offal special — now everybody does — and I got this awesome letter a couple months in, a handwritten note in really floral script. The address was Commonwealth Avenue. It said, Mr. Harker, I ate at your restaurant, and when I got home, I looked up the definition of offal. I'll be calling the authorities on what you're doing. The people need to know what it is you're serving."
"I read it at line up," Harker continues, "and I said, Guys, we're on to something. This is a good development. No one would mistake us for a superficial all-things-to-all-people restaurant if we kept antagonizing people with cool menu items. That was a great letter."
For Cannon, one memorable moment was Eastern Standard's first Marathon Monday, which was also a home Sox game. "We just got our butts kicked at, like, 8:30 in the morning with scrambled eggs and Budweisers two deep at the bar. And then we kind of regrouped while the game was on, and then the timing was so extraordinary: Mark Loretta won the game in a walk-off home run, and as everybody kind of turned to look outside, the Kenyans came flying through the square. It was just this moment of game on and this relentless service from 1 p.m. until 2 a.m. That was so awesome. Moments like that stand out because they're just so punctuated with excitement."
"I think the most enriching service I was ever a part of," he continues, "was the day of the shelter in place [after the 2013 Marathon]. I had closed the night before, so I woke up late to that news. My family was out of town, and I got up groggy, saw some texts from managers — Are we opening? What's happening? I got in the car and drove in, and it was really surreal to be on the highway; everybody was driving at exactly 55 with hands at 10 and 2. I managed to get into the square, and a couple other managers got in, but Garrett was out of town, Andrew was penned across the river, and a bunch of our key people were not there. I put up signs and forwarded phones at Island Creek and The Hawthorne and came down to Eastern Standard where we'd been serving the hotel guests breakfast and lunch."
"We put a team together to do dinner service," he continues, "and we had to do a really limited menu. The guests were so amazing; they were so grateful. I took a section as a server, and at the time I was not working at Eastern Standard very much, so it was kind of a reach. We walked up to people and said that we had a bit of a limited menu, and they were like, Oh, we're so glad you're here. We'll each have the salmon; we'll each have a burger. People ordered real easy, and then they caught him, and the place burst into this applause, and it was just a really, really intense set of emotions between guests and staff. I was so proud to be part of us being able to stay in service that day."
Eastern Standard's 10th anniversary party. [Video: Provided]
A Growing Family
In the years since Eastern Standard's opening, Harker has opened several other restaurants with various partners — there's Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne right in the same building in Kenmore Square, along with Row 34 in Fort Point and its brand new sequel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Plus, a new Island Creek Oyster Bar was recently announced for Burlington, Massachusetts, and Harker and Holden are opening Branch Line in Watertown this fall. So it makes sense that Harker, although known for his visibility in the dining rooms, has to take a step back and entrust Eastern Standard and eventually the younger restaurants to the next generation of managers.
So much expansion "only would have happened with excellent partners," Harker says, praising the "natural relationships" that have evolved with partners Skip Bennett, Jeremy Sewall, Shore Gregory, and Cannon. "I'm not interested in just diluting myself," says Harker. "As we have talent and the kind of resources to be able to grow, that's how we'll grow. And on the back end, it only happens at Eastern Standard if I have some like Andrew, who for all intents and purposes (and now formally because of the Watertown project) is my partner, which I'm so excited about. I would never know how to do this if it were just me. A lot of the inspiration when I get up in the morning is because I want to help make Jeremy's dreams come true, and Andrew's, and by extension, my general managers. I feel like as much as it's mine, it's on behalf of them. That's the most important thing."
Row 34 was the first restaurant in the family to break out of the Kenmore Square block; Harker saw some similarities between the neighborhoods. "I felt like the things that we've learned in Kenmore Square can relate to a neighborhood like Fort Point, or even a city like Portsmouth. Kenmore Square doesn't have the conventional look of what we think of a neighborhood, but part of it is the relationships that Eastern Standard established. Fort Point really moved me when I was down there. Even if it's obviously poised for this next-level vibrancy, it felt similar, and now it's just part of our DNA."
We want to get in the current and help be a part of where it’s going.
"When we think about restaurants," he continues, "we think we want to put stakes down in the neighborhood, we want to help it evolve and transition, we want to just celebrate what it is. We want to get in the current and help be a part of where it’s going, and that’s the way we looked at Portsmouth and Fort Point, and that's the way I look at the Watertown project, and I learned that from here. I learned how motivating it is for the staff — we didn't impose on them, Hey, you're going to have this reverence for Kenmore Square; I'm going to make you appreciate this neighborhood. We did it organically over time, and now these kids love Kenmore. They have so much emotional investment in this neighborhood, and it galvanizes them. Being a part of the transition of Kenmore Square, they get a lot of pride when they read something about urban development, distressed areas growing into something healthy and stable. They feel a lot of pride about what they've helped accomplish here, and it's palpable; it's real. I know it's real."
The next frontier, Watertown, is "going to be really interesting," says Harker. "I think there's going to be this sense of discovery about it. As far as timing goes, this is when we want to get involved with the city. We want to help be a part of establishing the vision and helping it grow. Andrew's from Watertown, and he's like, Watertown is it. Watertown is real."
Construction's on the verge of beginning at Branch Line, and it could open as early as September. "What's exciting is Andrew having a chance, the same way Barbara [Lynch] gave me a chance to do B&G Oysters and kind of gave it to me on my own," says Harker. "This is Andrew's baby to make decisions about design and how much money we're going to spend and what kind of a place it's going to be, and I'm psyched for him."
The Staying Power of Eastern Standard
Like Harker, Cannon points to stepping back and letting others take the reigns as part of what gives Eastern Standard its staying power. "We've got such great people working here," says Cannon. "Naomi [Levy, bar manager] is doing wonderful things with the bar program, always pushing the envelope and thinking about what's next. That's what got us to be an exciting place for 10 years, and that's what's going to keep us open, collaborating with the next generation of people who want to make it their own. That thrills me to just step back and watch and see it continue to evolve."
You gotta know your scales, it’s true, but then you have to let go and play.
It's also about education. "I know it's becoming a little bit of a dirty word," says Cannon, "because everyone wants to have fun again, but it's been the education that has really been the backbone of how we've attracted good people, allowed them to express themselves, and had something really special to offer the guests. I’m all for not making it overwrought, and sometimes I think you can give a little bit too much information about exactly how this wine was made, and that’s not really what you need, but it reminds me of music in that way. You can’t be unconscious until you’re conscious first, and so the hard work, study, learning, and experiencing that the current staff applies themselves to allows them to kind of relax and just give genuine service. You gotta know your scales, it’s true, but then you have to let go and play."
Harker also places the staying power on the team. "It's a team of people who are hyper self-critical, have really big hearts, and they always want to get better," he says. "They always want to live up to the expectations that the Eastern Standard community sets for itself. They’re really aware if there’s ever a sense of complacency or just good enough. We had mediocre food and pretty poor service for different stages of our life, certainly for the first year, but every day this group looks at how can we get better. It’s the most crazy environment down here of really invested people that genuinely love each other and the restaurant, and now I just try to keep the fuel going and help them make their dreams come true about what kind of place they want it to be. It’s left my hands now. It’s long gone from me. It belongs to them."
Garrett Harker at Eastern Standard's 10th anniversary party on May 25, 2015. [Photo: Provided]