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At First Sign Of Spring, It's Time To Head To Harry's Place

Burgers, hot dogs and 90 years of nostalgia at Harry's Place in Colchester

No matter what the calendar says, Colchester locals know spring has arrived the second Harry's Place opens its shutters for the season.

This year, Harry's turned on the grills on March 8, thanks to a mild winter and a stretch of particularly nice days in the forecast. Guests immediately flocked to the 96-year-old drive-in for their first burgers of 2016.

Even chillier temperatures don't dissuade customers once the windows are open, says Suzanne Caruso, who owns and operates Harry's with her siblings and their mother, Romilda Garet-Neville. Harry's typically closes its season in October, before Halloween.

"If it's 40 degrees in spring, more people will come and eat here than [if it's] 60 degrees in the fall," she says. "Everybody wants to get out and see people."

The Garet family members make up the third generation of owners at Harry's, founded in 1920 by namesake Harry Schmuckler. In the 1930s, Schmuckler sold the business to Rubin "Ruby" Cohen, who later became a state legislator, and Cohen sold it to the Garets in 1978. John Garet, Caruso's brother, was just 11 when his parents bought the restaurant; now, at 49, he's been managing the business for more than 25 years.

Burgers and hot dogs make up the biggest percentage of sales, Caruso says. The grilled Hummel hot dogs are served plain or dressed up with chili, cheese, bacon, kraut or slaw, and the burgers, seared on a flattop grill, start with meat from nearby Noel's Market and rolls from Nardi's Bakery in South Windsor, available as 4-ounce patties or 8-ounce "stackers."

Toppings are plentiful: fried egg, chili and grilled mushrooms and peppers are available along with such staples ketchup, mustard, relish and onions, both raw and fried. Caruso remembers a time where those basic condiments were the only options.

"Back then, it was very streamlined," she says, and adds that Harry's has had to keep up with food trends, to some extent, and adapt accordingly.

Then there's an extensive seafood menu: batter-fried fish, fried whole belly clams and clam strips, scallops, calamari. A hot lobster roll started as a special and became a regular seasonal item, and over the years Harry's has also added soups, like New England clam chowder and lobster bisque. Visitors often end their meal with ice cream treats, with nearly two dozen flavors from Gifford's and Hershey's.

Burgers are $3.99 to $8.29, hot dogs are $2.80 to $4.80 and sandwiches are $3.50 to $8.95, excepting market-priced lobster rolls and whole belly clam rolls. Fried seafood dishes are $6.50 to $11.99; soups are $4 to $4.99, french fries and other sides, like wings, mozzarella sticks, cream cheese poppers and onion rings, are $1.25 to $6.25. Ice cream scoops, cones, sundaes and beverages are $2.99 to $5.99.

The whitewashed exterior has long been a familiar sight in town — it's on the National Register of Historic Places — and when the season gets underway, the lines are lengthy. Picnic tables by the parking lot offer umbrella-covered comfort, and guests often take their trays to seating in the attractive grassy side yard, shaded naturally by large trees.

In nearly 40 years, the Garet family has seen plenty of drastic change, particularly with technology. "We used to write everything on a napkin; it was a lot simpler to add it up," Caruso said with a laugh, and the cash-only business now has an on-site ATM. Travelers now stop by Harry's en route to and from the southeastern Connecticut casinos.

But that nostalgia factor is still strong, as evidenced by visits from "multigenerational" families with grandparents and grandchildren, Garet says, and attributes it to Harry's nine decades of success.

"You can't re-create that. You either have that or you don't.

"The key is [to] look at what a great job all the people before us did, and set that standard. It's up to us to continue it."

About two years ago, Ruby Cohen's oldest daughter made a trip to the restaurant, her first visit in about 15 years, Garet says.

"She waited until it was slow, and pulled me aside, and she said 'I absolutely love everything you've done with this restaurant.' Coming from her, it was validating. … It was the greatest compliment I ever got here."

Harry's Place, 104 Broadway, Colchester, is open daily at 11 a.m. Summer hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Labor Day. 860-537-2410, harrysplace.biz.

This summer we're telling the stories behind Connecticut's beloved seasonal restaurants — the destinations that open for an all-too-brief time period in fair weather. These are the small lobster shacks with the buttery rolls you crave in January when you're shoveling snow, the ice cream stands that throw open their windows with the first warm breeze, the beach-town eateries where the salt of fried whole belly clams and onion rings is enhanced by ocean air. Find the series throughout the summer at ctnow.com/summersweetspots.

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