Gorgeous lionesses clink glasses. Bow-tied men shake hands. Ladies of a certain age toss their hair. It’s noon on a gray Tuesday, but inside Eastern Standard at Kenmore Square’s Hotel Commonwealth, it’s all bubbles and brasserie glitter. Suddenly rain begins to pour, making the awnings above Boston’s most popular patio flap angrily in the wind.
Restaurateur Garrett Harker, 47, dapper in a navy suit, ambles across the dining room. He looks like a salt-and-pepper cross between TV newscasters Anderson Cooper and David Gregory, and he moves with the tentative elegance of “Mad Men” ad executive Roger Sterling. “It must be a slow news day if you want to write about me,” he says, sliding into a corner table.
Not in the food world, where his empire’s expansion has been analyzed with glee. Harker runs several of Boston’s biggest restaurants. Eastern Standard opened in 2005 and immediately became a neighborhood mainstay. Since then, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne craft cocktail bar opened inside Hotel Commonwealth, both forever packed. Ditto his Row 34 oyster bar in Fort Point. Last month, a second Row 34 opened in Portsmouth, N.H. This fall, he’ll open Branch Line rotisserie in Watertown’s Arsenal on the Charles complex. Burlington gets its own Island Creek Oyster Bar next year.
Partners and chefs vary at each, but Harker — a recent James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur — is the recurring cast member. According to him, this flurry of new business is only natural as he helps his team pursue ventures. “I don’t have an MBA or a strategic business plan,” he says with a shrug.
He does have loyal colleagues: At Watertown’s Branch Line, Eastern Standard general manager Andrew Holden will become a partner. Eastern Standard bar manager Jackson Cannon went on to become bar director at Island Creek Oyster Bar and a partner in The Hawthorne. Row 34 general manager Jillian Rocco started as a food-runner at Eastern Standard. The list goes on. If the restaurant world is full of big egos, Harker seems more a benevolent uncle.
“He’s an unusual operator in some regards,” says Cannon, who started as a musician but became one of Boston’s preeminent mixologists working with Harker. “You get a sense that he eschews the limelight. He has a philosophy of engaging and empowering his colleagues — it’s tactical but also his personality, and I think it provides him pleasure in this grueling business.”
Says Jeremy Sewall, a partner at Island Creek and Row 34: “There are two kinds of [restaurateurs] in this world. There are people who make a living doing it and people who make a career out of it. He’s made a career by getting better, smarter, elevating people around him. Believe me, that’s a rarity.”
Many chefs credit him with elevating the Boston dining landscape too. “Garrett did for Boston what Keith McNally did for New York. He brought a new level of consistency to the restaurant scene,” says Jamie Bissonnette, who was opening chef at Eastern Standard and went on to glory at Boston’s Coppa and Toro. McNally runs landmark Manhattan restaurants including Balthazar and Minetta Tavern.
Eastern Standard’s food is straightforward brasserie fare, not overly fussy. The service is warm, the prices are reasonable, the patio is around the corner from Fenway Park, and it’s open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m., attracting everyone from business travelers staying at the hotel to late-night partiers.
It’s an unlikely perch for a guy who started his career as a California paralegal. After growing up in Baltimore and attending Pomona College in California, Harker headed to Boston — “I was chasing a woman,” he says, smiling — and waited tables at Legal Sea Foods. Then he moved to San Francisco and applied to law school.
“One school said I should demonstrate that I was passionate about the law,” he recalls. He couldn’t. So he applied for jobs at the Kimpton hotel and restaurant group — “any salary, any level” — ultimately managing its bistro Scala’s.
He and his wife, with two kids in tow, returned to Boston in 1998. (The pair has divorced, but they’re neighbors in Winchester and stay close while raising two teenagers. “What can I say? It’s kinda New Agey,” he says.) Back home, he met with chef Barbara Lynch about a new project. “She’s a woman of few words. She told me, ‘I want the best restaurant in Boston. Maybe you know how to do that.’ ” He became general manager of No. 9 Park, one of the restaurants many consider to be the best.
“He was so cool about it,” says chef Jason Bond, who worked with him there and now runs Bondir in Cambridge and Concord. “When he was GM at No. 9 Park, he was so low-key, well-dressed, reading the newspaper — but he knew everybody! He knew everything going on in town. Especially on Beacon Hill, he knew exactly who was walking in the door.”
Lynch and Harker then opened the South End’s B&G Oysters, named for Barbara and Garrett, and the Butcher Shop in 2003. Not long after, though, Lynch bought him out and Harker struck out on his own.
“It was a tumultuous time,” he says. “Walking away from B&G was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was time to do something I thought our city needed. This was 2005. There was no Hungry Mother. There was no Highland Kitchen. There was mainly fine dining or Irish pubs and small neighborhood spots,” he says.
He opened Eastern Standard at the Hotel Commonwealth without lofty ambitions; he wanted a comfortable gathering place. Boston University, which owned the hotel at the time, wanted Harker; it brought him on as a partner. In 2012, BU sold the hotel, and sold Eastern Standard, The Hawthorne, and Island Creek Oyster Bar to Harker and his team. (Row 34 and Burlington ICOB are backed by private investors, while Harker and Holden took out a loan to open Watertown’s Branch Line.)
As a restaurateur, Harker sees himself as someone who activates up-and-coming neighborhoods, whether it’s Kenmore Square or Fort Point or Watertown. In his own telling, front-of-the house is his strong suit. Communicating with chefs is harder, maybe because he’s so even-keeled. He credits Sewall with helping him understand kitchen culture and Cannon and Holden with raising his ambitions.
“I remember when I interviewed Jackson, he told me he was going to have a world-class boutique-style Manhattan cocktail program,” Harker says. “I was thinking, Dude! Just make sure the beer’s cold! I think we started with modest aspirations. Jackson and Andrew Holden really said, ‘No, that’s not enough for us.’ ”
Is it enough for Harker? As the lunchtime crowds trickle into Eastern Standard, he seems unhurried. “You know, I thought I’d just be here forever, checking on your baked rigatoni,” he says. “But really, I’m so fear-based. I am absolutely in fear of ever disappointing my team. We’ll only grow as determined by the depth of talent that we have. If it ever dries up, then we’d reassess our growth plans. I would never want to do something that I wasn’t completely proud of.”
In the meantime, he’s off to visit Watertown’s Branch Line construction zone. He adjusts his blazer, salutes a bellhop, and strides down the sidewalk. Somehow, it’s not raining anymore.