IT was back in the early 1970s when two prominent architects in Cambridge, Mass., saw the need for a good-sized restaurant that would serve as a place for social interaction, stimulating conversation, and good food.
So Jane and Ben Thompson, the husband-wife team of Design Research, started to plan. The restaurant would be neighborly and glean the best from the Atlantic waters and New England farms.
The design keynotes would be simplicity and directness; the atmosphere relaxed, but not too relaxed. The cuisine would center around fresh interpretations of American dishes, with a special emphasis on seasonal harvests and regional bounty.
In 1975, the Thompsons opened the Harvest Restaurant in Harvard Square. Its first chef was the now-renowned Lydia Shire (of Boston's Biba), who helped establish the progressive track for the restaurant's cuisine and set a do-it-yourself trend for the famous-chefs-to-be that followed. Today the Harvest is recognized as one of the best restaurants around. Just ask Julia Child, who dines here every few months.
Tucked away on Brattle Street, the Harvest occupies its own nook in Harvard Square, an eclectic center filled with book and record stores, shops, eateries, and museums, as well as musical, theatrical, and historical attractions - not to mention the United States' oldest and one of its most prestigious universities, Harvard. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is just two miles down the road.
George Washington took command of the Continental Army in Cambridge. Literary greats, political leaders, and Nobel Prize-winners have called it home. A caldron of thought, Cambridge celebrates diversity and percolates with intellectual and cultural activity. The new and cutting-edge butts up against the old and traditional.
Harvard Square boasts an impressive concentration of bookstores (more than 20). Out of Town News carries more than 3,000 publications from all over the world and is one of the largest newsstands in the country. In the warm-weather months, outdoor cafes draw conversationalists, street entertainers, and people of all sorts: from professors and punks to preachers and peddlers.
So it follows that, like its surroundings, the Harvest Restaurant considers its cuisine to be fresh interpretation of the traditional. Executive Chef John Claussen calls it "New American."
Taking standard American food, refining it, experimenting with it, adding to it, all makes up the creative process, Chef Claussen explained in an interview.
To be sure, the food here is elegant, says the young, energetic chef. Yet there's also a feeling of being "laid back" here, he says. The adjoining cafe, Ben's Corner Cafe, is even more laid-back. "People need to feel free to talk and linger over meals," says Mr. Claussen.
Perhaps they will discuss politics or a theater production over Potato and Broccoli Soup (see recipe at left); law over Cashew Crusted Rack of Colorado Lamb; business or philosophy over Braised Stuffed Breast of Ring-Necked Pheasant.
The clientele tends to be the "in crowd" of cultured folk, particularly intellectuals and theatergoers. Claussen refers to it as a very "adult" group. The Harvest is also known as a hangout of notables. In addition to Julia Child ("It's always nice to have her on your side," says Claussen), mystery writer Robert Parker dines here often. They have also served singer-songwriter Paul Simon, actors Christopher Lloyd, Debra Winger, and Jane Fonda, and many others. Harvard faculty, including Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine, often dine here. Meals are pricey (entrees are in the $25 range), generous, and delicious.
In a community that spells education, Claussen says he, too, is here to educate, subtly, the 250 to 300 people he serves each day, seven days a week.
"I often get phone calls or letters or just questions about how something's done. There are no secrets here," he says. He also conducts cooking classes, benefits, and caters to nearby businesses.
"Just as the community is intellectually and artistically stimulating, we want our food to reflect that," says Claussen.
He praises his sous-chef, David Daniels, for his teamwork in the kitchen. The menu changes every day.
Presentation is of particular importance to Claussen, who considers food a creative art. It has to do with color coordination, the matching of flavors and textures.
"I try to think of food and how it would look on the plate, how it would taste, and keep a basic idea in mind," he says. "For myself, there are some things you want to look rustic. There are some things you want to look painted," he adds.
An appetizer of Steamed Asparagus and Fresh Bufala Mozzarella, for example, arrives on a large white plate, ever so carefully arranged, and complemented with tiny pepper confetti that resemble paint spatters.
The restaurant itself pays homage to local artists by displaying their works, serving as an alternative gallery space. The architect-owners' own Marimekko prints bedeck the walls. The decor is hip and homey.
Claussen says he feels strongly about using local ingredients as much as possible. "It's 8 million times fresher," he says. Buying organic produce when possible and being sensitive to the "politically correct" (ordering "dolphin-safe" tuna, for example, and free-range chickens) is important as well, he says.
Claussen summarizes his philosophy as: "Quality, consistency, freshness, and creativity; with creativity being a high point."
The ever-changing menu keeps things lively, and keeps customers coming back to see what's new.
"We'll take something that is traditional, and do it with more flair," he says. He might put creme frache on a baked potato, for example, or serve braised American greens topped with South American relish.
"It's strictly American, yet different," notes Claussen, who also refers to his cuisine as "elegant simple."
"People in Cambridge really like familiar items done in interesting ways."