- Jane Golden
1977 Ear of the Year - Horsefeathers
It's not easy to pick winners. Gamblers die trying, and the rest do so with such infrequency that most prefer the matter be left to the pros. Yet when Horsefeathers first opened its doors in September of 1976, almost the opposite was true.
The feeling of impending success was pervasive. Not that the food or service, in the beginning, was that spectacular - there are kinks in every new operation - just that its early patrons recognized its promise and agreed with what the makers were trying to do: make dining more of an experience. In fact, make it fun.
That Horsefeathers has not only flown through its maiden year, but, more accurately, rewrote the rules of restauranting in the process, is largely due to the imagination (some say clairvoyance) and expertise of its impeccable prime movers, Ben Williams and Brian Glynn, two young men (both now 27) who answered their own questions and put together a complex formula of good fortune that both described as simply, simple. "Location," said Ben. "Attitude," echoed Brian. Neither would admit how effective their own influence had been in turning an average dining spot into an overnight record breaker.
It was more by accident than design that the two wound up working together. Ben, a Swampscott, Mass., native was employed as a summer service bartender at the Red Jacket to supplement his income as a ski instructor (four years at Attitash, and two years as Director at Tyrol). There he met Brian, who had grown up in the restaurant business in Boston, and the idea of opening their own place was kicked around for a few years before it finally became a reality.
Primarily, what Ben wanted most was a "people business" and "involving people in the restaurant" is probably what Horsefeathers does best. From the moment you enter the door, you're greeted by either a room length line of diners or the brass railed neighborhood style meeting bar. Antique photos and prints line the walls of the room which Ben described as "tending toward Victorian, but not the bawdy variety. Lots of brass, stained glass. oak, earth colors." An old-fashioned telephone booth, wood stove, and other items pepper an atmosphere that combines country charm with elegant simplicity. Many of the doors and windows, even the lighting fixtures, are remnants of the old Crawford House and an earlier age, when wealth and mountain living was the order of the day.
The menu is not fancy, but it is unique. How can anyone resist an offering where fully one third is dedicated to "The Unusuals" and an appetizer asks "What's a Shrub"? "Oh, in the beginning," said Ben, "some people thought it was weird, but they came back. We serve what people like to eat, and the food is wholesome and bulky." Besides the daily specials, the menu is basically soups and sandwiches. Horsefeathers opens at 7:30 a.m. and serves breakfast until 11:30 a.m. Luncheon and light suppings are the main fare from then to closing at 11:45 p.m.
"Some restaurants can let their menu and prices determine their clientele," Ben explained, "but because of our location ("two doors down from the only stoplight in town") we have to gear it to everyone. Our prices make everyone comfortable, and the size of our portions surprise people in the business. But we know we can do it and still make a profit, so we will."
On an average day, Horsefeathers serves 300 meals, a figure which indicates a ten times turnover of each of its 30 sears. That means a total of 10,000 meals a month, or, on a good day, like Monday, December 26, 500 seatings, or a good month, like October, 15,000. To reach such numbers, Horsefeathers relies on its repeat business.
"A lot of people come in a couple of times a week," noted Ben, adding that many diners who eat alone prefer to sit at the bar, even for breakfast, and enjoy the spirit of their fellows and the room. "Because of the size of the restaurant and the bar, you're almost forced to talk to someone else. It stimulates conversation and meeting new people." Even the grates which separate the two main areas were added with one purpose in mind: encourage personal interaction.
Both Brian and Ben agreed that they succeeded because they filled a void: they served sandwiches after 2 p.m. and continued long past all the others had closed. It fulfilled two purposes: they kept off other restaurateurs' toes, and they, in one fell swoop, eliminated all the competition.
What they neglected to say was that they did it all in a way that pleased almost everyone. The key is quality in their offerings, and taste in their approach. They would like to branch out, and will someday, as soon as they are convinced they could do so and still maintain the same food and service. When the opportunity arose last summer, they opted instead to open a store, The Great Saco and Swift Trading Company, alongside Horsefeathers rather than risk expanding the dining operation too quickly.
Beyond that? The question draws a quick, "retirement," Brian announced, "only 198 weeks to go," and repeated the promise often heard in the kitchen that "those of you still with us when we retire in five years can retire, too." That keeps the help loyal and attentive, another important factor in their success.
"In a year and a half," Ben concluded, "we're on people's lists of where they send friends and visitors to dine."
For that, and all the other reasons heretofore suggested, and countless others unmentioned, the fickle ear of fate turns to Horsefeathers for the 1977 Ear of the Year Award.
NOTE: Brian and Ben no longer run Horsefeathers, but Ben is still an important fixture on the Mt. Washington Valley restaurant scene as he currently runs the popular Black Cap Grille in Settlers Crossing and stay tuned for his new restaurant to be opening soon in Settlers' Green's new Streetside complex.