Down an unassuming brick walkway off Brattle St., the glow of a red and green neon sign illuminates a simple glass facade. Inside—dimly lit, painted in natural tones, and covered in wood paneling—the restaurant feels worlds away from the bustle of Harvard Square.
Its tucked-away location belies the central role Harvest has played in the birth of New American cuisine since its founding in 1974. Before farmers markets and community gardens came in vogue, Harvest offered diners inventive fare made with ingredients local to New England.
Cozied up near one of the functioning fireplaces, parked in one of the bar’s red leather banquettes, or seated in the leafy patio out back during warmer months, patrons enjoy signature entrees like coffee roasted axis venison, free range guinea hen roulade, and pumpkin agnolotti. Other menu staples include the seafood raw bar and bread basket—filled with corn and Irish soda bread.
Though the restaurant has seen its ups and downs, current Executive Chef Mary Dumont has committed herself to honoring Harvest’s four-decade tradition of innovation. The menu changes with the seasons, and even longtime staples are constantly updated.
Indeed, 40 years in, Harvest is still pushing culinary boundaries and bringing people closer to the source of their food, restaurateurs and industry experts say. Establishments in Harvard Square and throughout the U.S. look to Harvest as a leader in the local food movement. In the words of Dumont, “Harvest was farm-to-table before that was even a term.”
A MOVEMENT’S FIRST COURSE
Though ubiquitous in today’s dining scene, the local food movement was novel at the time of Harvest’s founding. Other than Alice Water’s renowned Berkeley, Calif. restaurant, Chez Panisse, which was founded a few years earlier in 1971, Harvest represented an untested idea.
Original owners Ben and Jane Thompson shared a love of food and a desire to promote a different vision from the dominant hotel restaurant model of the time. The couple aimed to create the restaurant as they would have thrown a dinner party, current owner K. Christopher Himmel said.
“It was very forward thinking about things that we probably take for granted in restaurants today like heavy seasonality of menus, utilizing an herb garden, trying to work with more exotic meats,” Himmel said. “There really wasn’t an American restaurant...and the Harvest [was] really at the forefront of solidifying a whole different cuisine which is considered to be American cuisine today.”
According to Yale history professor Paul Freedman, who specializes in the history of cuisine, emphasizing seasonality and locality, farm-to-table cuisine was revolutionary in its noncompliance with traditional trends, which prioritized exotic foods.
“It seems so self-evident now, but we forget there was ever another definition of elegant food. Harvest is a big contributor to that, showing what wonderful things you can get if you pay attention to these local and seasonal qualities,” Freedman said.
During its early years, culinary legend Julia Child, a close friend of the Thompsons, frequently patronized Harvest, even celebrating her 90th birthday at the restaurant.
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