Located along the old Boston Post Road since 1716, Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury has served Thanksgiving dinner to generations of locals and travelers. This year, new executive chef Michael Brentana, overseeing his first Wayside Thanksgiving, and innkeeper John Cowden, in his fourth year at the helm, look to add a few modern twists to the classic spread. We caught up with Brentana, Cowden, and Guy LeBlanc, the inn’s director of marketing and museum services, to discuss their holiday plans.
Q. Michael, what did you know about the inn’s Thanksgiving tradition coming in?
MB: I started right after Thanksgiving [last year]. I was going to my interviews just before Thanksgiving and that’s basically when I found out what a tradition it is here. We serve about 1,000 people that day a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. About 700 [eat] turkey. So we buy about 70 whole turkeys and slow roast them. We have an Alto-Shaam [holding oven]. We use the bones to make the giblet gravy and serve it with a cornbread sausage stuffing.
JC: We offer three entrees on that day. People, especially those who have been coming for years, are also big fans of our prime rib and we serve quite a few of those as well.
Q. How do you find a balance between modern and traditional on your menu?
MB: I try to take traditional New England ingredients and put a little twist to them. Like the salmon, I just do a maple glaze on it and I serve it with a grain mustard and apple cider cream.
JC: We’ve had to hold onto things that are very traditional because we do have an older crowd. But in trying to attract the younger crowd, he has tweaked the menus, offering things that they’re looking for. And one item on this Thanksgiving menu is the lobster pumpkin bisque with orange ginger cream. That wouldn’t have been offered in the past. Typically, it’s just your clam chowder or lobster bisque.
GL: Michael’s challenge is to keep meeting the expectations of people that want that look and feel of old New England but also to satisfy the changing demographic of the people that are coming to us, some locally and some from across the country. You’re getting people that want to experience the inn in a traditional way but don’t want to necessarily eat old-fashioned food.
Q. You started taking Thanksgiving reservations on Oct. 22. How quickly did you get booked up?
JC: We open our lines 30 days prior at 7 a.m. We have four lines coming in, and the first 1,000 people that are able to get through get a reservation.
GL: This is such a popular destination that literally within an hour and a half, all our reservations are filled in one phone day. We essentially spend the next three weeks before Thanksgiving turning down people. We could easily have had four full seatings at Thanksgiving. That’s how popular this place is and how much people want to be here on that day.
Q. What kind of crowd do you get?
JC: From year to year, it’s pretty consistent. It’s all families, so larger tables, typically larger than four [people]. There are a lot of [groups of] six, eight, 10, 12. Those families include children, parents, and quite often the grandparents. A lot of them are locals, that’s for sure, but we do get families from as far away as the South Shore or Worcester area. We also have overnight rooms and families come from quite a distance to be here during that time and to eat with us. Last year we had a family traveling from California that wanted to stay at a traditional New England inn and celebrate Thanksgiving in that way.
Q. Beyond the history, why do people seek out the inn on Thanksgiving?
JC: All of the fireplaces are going — we have 13 fireplaces on the property. We use all of the rooms small and large. It’s driving up to the inn and smelling the wood-burning fire and walking through and seeing the history that surrounds them and then having a terrific meal. It’s the whole experience.