MEREDITH, N.H. -Thanksgiving is about coming home. And when we are away, we crave the homemade fare that warmed us - not the establishments that self-consciously promote "comfort food" but the real deal. The trouble is there aren't many places left that fill that bill.
Like countless New Englanders, I ate at Hart's Turkey Farm Restaurant as a child when we vacationed around Lake Winnipesaukee. Back then, it was just another place to eat between swimming, ice cream runs, and go-kart rides. Then, vacationing in Laconia a few years ago, we decided - for old time's sake? - to visit the Meredith restaurant with our two toddlers in tow.
Frankly, I wasn't prepared for the sense of nostalgia that enveloped me as we walked into this Granite State institution. Perhaps it was the world's largest turkey plate collection that still lines the dining room. Or it could have been the knotty pine walls milled from trees that grew on the property decades ago. But the deal was truly sealed when the food came our way. Hart's still hit the spot.
"After 50 years, I've never gotten a meal that wasn't absolutely perfect," says Jim Smith of Guilford. He first visited Hart's on his honeymoon just over a half century ago. Smith, who generally orders the small turkey plate or the turkey pie, frequents the restaurant at least once a week. "They treat you like you are part of the family."
Operated by the Hart family since opening in 1954 as a 12-seat restaurant, the place can now accommodate 500 and serves up more than a ton of turkey, 40 gallons of gravy, 1,000 pounds of fresh potatoes, 4,000 dinner rolls, and more than 100 pies on a busy day.
Russ Hart Jr., one of the co-owners, says the restaurant typically serves about 1,600 customers on Thanksgiving Day. This year they plan to serve from 10:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Even with those numbers, just about all the essentials, including the carrot relish, squash, mashed potatoes, and desserts, are still homemade.
Despite its success, Hart's has not gone uptown. We appreciated the waitstaff who didn't flinch at an unavoidable mess by the little ones - and gratefully noted how quickly crayons, rolls, and drinks arrived. And the kids loved the turkey nuggets and the "Tiny Tot" turkey plate.
Hart inherited the family-owned farm and restaurant with his siblings Dale, Glenn, and Lynn. (Glenn died unexpectedly in 1998.)
"I look to keep consistency and to keep the brand going as it was 40 years ago. And don't sacrifice quality," says Hart. Along with an adherence to tried-and-true recipes, the restaurant is not afraid to branch out with dishes like turkey tempura and turkey pot stickers.
In typical New England fashion, it's the kind of place where people work together for decades and form a special bond with their customers. Two kitchen employees, Russ Brown and Donnie Chandler, have been there since 1965 and you are likely to be greeted in the gift shop by 40-year veteran Linda Brown.
"They are a very important part of my life," Hart says. "It's a pretty warm feeling. You always know their next move."
That's the way many customers feel about Hart's, too.
Kevin Rousseau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.