By Betty Gagne
Seacoast Scene, Wednesday, October 13, 2004
It had been a long, tedious journey. The weary soldier jumped off his horse and tied the reigns around the post. Water dripped from his wide brimmed hat onto his shoulders as he gave the mare an affectionate pat across her neck. "Easy, girl, " he whispered. "I'll take care of you as soon as I have a little something to eat. " The horse pulled her head back, then nuzzled the man's shoulder as her breath, visible in the raw night air, escaped her nostrils.
The rain, so typical of the English countryside, had been his companion since early that morning. The entire village was shrouded in cool, dense fog; the man pulled his collar up tighter around his neck, took a deep breath, and walked toward the front door of the Widow's Fletcher's Tavern.
Candlelight shone through the windowpanes, and the laughter of happy people came from inside. His heart felt lighter as he pushed open the heavy door. The warm air from inside enveloped him; heavenly aromas of roasting lamb, simmering stew, warm bread and baked apples mingled together to tease his appetite.
And there she was -- he caught his first glimpse of her through the smokey air. She was standing beyond the bar, pouring ale into a stein for one of her patrons. The customer must have said something amusing to her, for she suddenly smiled at him and delicately tossed her head back, laughing out loud. Her long brunette hair touched her back like a soft waterfall; the man's fingers ached from across the room to get lost in her long tresses.
He strolled across the creaking pine boards, keeping his dark, smoldering gaze directly on her. She turned and saw him. Even through the dim light of the flickering candles, he saw her green eyes light up like a cat's. Her lips parted slightly in surprise, and then settled into a warm, inviting smile. "Welcome hack, my friend," she said tenderly to him.
He grinned. He felt like he was home at last; a stop at the Widow Fletcher's Tavern was just what he needed to revive his senses and make him feel alive again.
And so began a legacy in Hampshire County, England that continues today on Lafayette Road in Hampton, New Hampshire. Parker Ryan, owner of Widow Fletchers's, enjoys telling the history of the name behind his unique restaurant, which he claims he read in a hook about English pubs in the Newburyport Library. "I was opening an English style tavern," he says, describing the events that occured over 20 years ago, "and I was looking for a name for my new place." Parker wanted a different name, as he knew so many English pubs were named after generals, or even after some of the older, popular drinks of the country. "I liked the story of Widow Fletcher," he says. "For a woman to be running a tavern out of her home was an amazing thing back then." Parker says he could have called the tavern Private Fletcher's, but he liked the idea of naming his establishment after a woman. One change will be taking place at Widow Fletcher's on October 15th - the entire restaurant is going to be smoke-free. But we'll talk more about that later.
It was in the early 80's when Parker bought the house that he now runs his successful eatery out of. The 1790 house, which had also been a barn at one time, was small. The first project he faced was to make it look like restaurant - specifically, an English tavern. Work began immediately; the tasks included tearing out the front doors and windows that faced Lafayette Road. What you see there now are paned windows that came from the library at the University of Sussex. It still baffles Parker how the construction of the restaurant "seemed to fit perfectly. The windows were just the right width to fit the benches, even with the additon of the downstairs bathroom and the design of the porch." So, when you go into Widow Fletcher's and notice that the decor is British, remember that the architecture has it's roots in England, also.
One sign that hangs on the wall as a reminder that around the 1760's, Lafayette Road (Route 1 north) was once referred to as Portsmouth Road by the locals. The baked enamel porcelain sign says, "City of Westminster - Portsmouth St." and Parker says he purchased it from a man who specializes in restaurant memorabilia. "I'm always on the lookout for British stuff," he says. Most of the artifacts you see in Widow Fletcher's come from local antique shops. The high shelves that line the walls are home to a collection of assorted antique pottery, steins of all sizes, cup and saucer sets, and other objects. The dark stained walls add a rustic flair to the atmosphere, and the cast iron lanterns bask the rooms in a homey, warm, amber glow. "Country English pubs tend to be very plain inside," Parker tells us. Widow Fletcher's maintains more of a city pub ambiance.
You may have sat at the bar at Widow's and seen your reflection in one of the three mirrors facing you. The one in the middle, with the word "tavern" over it, has a controversial story attached to it. "I bought that mirror years before I even thought about opening a restaurant of my own," Parker says. "It was stored for a long time. When I finally took it out of storage, I wanted to make sure it was watertight." Parker knew that the dampness of England causes moisture to get trapped inside, causing pitting in mirrors, and he decided to fix the mirror to make sure that wouldn't happen. This meant taking it apart by removing the wooden slats in the back. He made quite a discovery when he found the front page of a 1901 Hampshire Chronicle, which was the main newspaper of Hampshire County in Winchester, England - the same area where the famed Widow Fletcher had turned her home into a tavern after her husband's untimely death when he was a Grenadier in the Hampshire English Militia.
Maybe you're reading this article and realizing you haven't been to Widow Fletcher's in a while. Widow Fletcher's is home to a number of great traditions, and some unbelievable gourmet food. It is a haven for a lot of loyal customers, but as Parker points out, "We must keep changing in orderto stay as good as we are." That's why he's made a decision to go smoke free beginning on October 15th. Why, after 22 years of business, has he decided to do this? "I'm in the business to make people comfortable," he explains. "I have to address all the things I can do to make them comfortable." The decision to make the place smoke free was a result of many factors. "There were a lot of good reasons for doing it," Parker says. "The majority of my customers are non-smokers, and it's based on customer demand," he admits.
"It was the responsible thing to do for the comfort of all the patrons."
"We're serving the best food we've ever served; we have the best menu we've ever had, too," he claims. Such a statement coming from a man who's been in the restaurant business his whole life is reassuring; the food and the menu's prove it.
What's great about Widow Fletcher's is that you can go in and try a new twist on an old favorite, or you can sample a unique menu item that you've never tried before. Unusual appetizers like spicy Piccadilly Squares (layers of filo dough stuffed with English sausage, pepperoni and cheese, baked and smothered in Marinara sauce), or the famous Stratford on Crouton (a delicious blend of crabmeat, artichoke and cheese, served hot with slices of crispy baked bread), are great ways to start your meal.
All appetizers are 1/2 price on Sunday through Thursday from 4-7 in the bar. Add to that a hearty serving of their Olde English Chicken Pot Pie, or the Roast Long Island Duckling, or one of the other selections from their unique menu. If you have room for it, Widow Fletcher's features an attractive dessert list that includes choices for the chocolate lover, like the Chocolate Truffle Ganache; or maybe a Caramelized Apple Crisp with French Vanilla Ice cream is more your style.
The month of October features Bavarian Specials to commemorate Octoberfest, and the list has a number of selections of German sausages steamed in Ale, among other things. All dishes are served with braised red cabbage, sauerkraut, and a choice of German Potato Pancakes or fresh mashed potatoes.
Sunday brunch is an event at Widow Fletcher's, with gourmet choices like Grand Marnier French toast, and Salmon Florentine Benedict. We hear they make a mean Bloody Mary, too.
Take a trip into the past at Widow Fletcher's tavern soon. Who knows? If you go in on a rainy, misty night, you just might imagine a vision of a young, beautiful lady behind the bar, dressed in a peasant blouse with puffed sleeves, laughing and playing hostess to a full house of guests. And even if you don't, you'll still experience one of the best meals this side of the English countryside.