Summer 2013 /Baseball/

The Smartest Stadium Restaurant in America

With his acclaimed bistro, Garrett Harker ’89 offers a brainy beacon amid a sea of beer-soaked sports bars.
Garrett Harker '89 at his Fenway-adjacent bistro the Eastern Standard.

Garrett Harker ’89 at his Fenway-adjacent bistro the Eastern Standard.

Technically, the restaurant Eastern Standard is located a few blocks away from Fenway Park in Boston’s Kenmore Square neighborhood. But as owner Garrett Harker ’89 will attest, the legendary ballpark’s shadow looms large on his brasserie-style eatery, literally and otherwise.

Red Sox fans walking to Fenway from the closest stop on “the T”—Boston’s subway line—can’t get there without passing Eastern Standard’s big red awning. For an upscale bistro in a sea of beer-soaked baseball bars, the location can be both a blessing and a curse (to use a phrase with unfortunate connotations for Red Sox Nation).

Since he opened shop in 2005, though, Harker has deftly straddled the line in appealing to a diverse clientele of foodies and foam-fingered Fenway faithful. GQ magazine even gave his establishment, decked out in dark wood and leather, the unusual designation of “most elegant sports bar in the country.”

When he was first scouting Boston properties, Harker was intrigued by the track record of the Sox’s then-new President and CEO Larry Lucchino. In the early ’90s Lucchino oversaw the creation of Camden Yards in Harker’s hometown of Baltimore—another example of an urban ballpark situated in a less-than urbane neighborhood. The executive’s efforts to build ties with local institutions helped revitalize the downtown area, and Harker thought that Lucchino could work similar magic in Kenmore Square.

“The Red Sox’ old ownership had this insular idea that what happened outside the green walls didn’t apply to them,” Harker says. “I could tell that Larry understood that a rising tide lifts all boats. He wanted to enhance the whole experience of going out to a game.”

To prepare his staff for Kenmore Square’s hodge-podge of customers, Harker has instituted his own form of spring training every year. In special weekly meetings, everyone from the general managers to the busboys present reports on topics ranging from the importance of cocktail bitters to the neuroscience of body language. He even sends employees on trips to Maine and Cape Cod to study different areas’ cultural vibes and then report back on their findings.

“Garrett is all about giving us the chance to share knowledge,” says manager Deena Marlette, who has a master’s degree in education and runs a book club for staff. “It’s his philosophy that you ultimately learn the most by teaching others.”

Harker, who majored in English, says the approach goes back to his liberal arts training at Pomona. But if he hopes to “spark a little passion” and spur intellect, there is business sense at work as well. Cultivating conversationalists is another way to connect with customers, something more than a garnish to his menu of surf, turf and the occasional braised lamb shank.

Baseball, of course, is a key part of an Eastern Standard education. Before every home game the managers brief their servers on the visiting team and slip one-page cheat sheets into all of the billfolds. At this spring’s staff kick-off meeting, held at Fenway, Red Sox “fast facts” were passed out, former Boston Globe sportswriter Jackie MacMullan offered some motivational remarks, and Lucchino even said a few words about the restaurant’s important role in Kenmore Square. (Harker is on a first-name basis with several of the Red Sox’ top brass.)

Just like on the diamond, spring training has paid off during the regular season, in the form of Eastern Standard’s above-average employee retention and, most notably, one of the city’s strongest reputations for service. Eastern Standard regular T. Barton Carter draws a parallel between bistro and baseball. “You must be able to handle any situation with that same consistency and attention to detail,” says Carter, a Boston University communications professor who holds season tickets to weekend games at Fenway. “The only difference is that the Sox unfortunately aren’t as consistent as Eastern Standard.”

In recent years, the spot’s success has spurred further culinary growth in Kenmore Square, including Harker’s own Island Creek Oyster Bar and the Hawthorne cocktail bar, which he opened in 2010 and 2011, respectively. “There’s a neighborhood here,” he says. “A decade ago, nobody would have thought it possible.”

Life as a Fenway-area restaurateur does force you to always have an eye on the standings, and even the day’s box score. During our interview Harker kept glancing at one of Eastern Standard’s TVs to monitor a rain delay that ultimately sent thousands of fans onto the streets and back into his establishments. (Worse still, it happened in the sixth inning, after the ballpark stops serving alcohol.) “When the Red Sox are in first, it’s rib-eyes and red wine,” he says. “When they’re struggling, like last year [Boston’s first losing season since 1997], it’s burgers and beers.”