When the first Harvester restaurant – The George in Morden, South London – opened in 1983, its offering of grilled meats, an unlimited salad bar and unlimited bread rolls was a world away from the basket meals that were de rigeur at that time.
Now, 40 years on, some of those original and retro touches still remain. The salad bar is still a major selling point. The decor is pretty old-school. The ice cream sundaes are still served with an ice cream cone poking jauntily out of the top.
There are plenty more modern touches too, though: bottled sauces available to buy and take home, an unlimited soft drinks machine that allows you to customise your beverage in a number of ways, and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.
I’ve got to admit, I was pleasantly surprised, on the whole, by our visit to Bybrook Barn – the Harvester restaurant in Ashford, Kent – last week. We were there for a family meal and had booked for 5.45pm: a late one for the five-year-old. We were able to order his meal before the remaining five of us had decided, though, and he went for classic comfort foods: chicken breast strips with mash and baked beans. All kids’ meals come with unlimited salad bar visits, which he was highly excited about, and also include an activity pack, which kept him entertained while he was waiting for his food.
Drinks arrived pretty quickly after ordering…well, all of the drinks except mine. I’d decided to go for unlimited soft drinks (around the £3 mark) meaning that all I needed was a glass. That glass didn’t arrive – and when I asked for it, it still took a while to turn up. The machine itself was decent, though: a choice of eight different drinks, from R Whites Lemonade to Pepsi, Pepsi Max and Diet Pepsi, which you could serve yourself as they were or with the addition of lime, cherry, vanilla or strawberry syrup.
We all ordered from the evening set menu (also available on Sundays), impressively priced at two courses for £17.99 or three for £19.99. It also includes unlimited salad and bread rolls, making it incredible value for money.
As well as the more basic salad ingredients, the salad bar features things like spicy coleslaw, buckwheat & broad bean salad and pasta salad – and more bizarre choices, like pineapple chunks. There were five different sauces to choose from, as well as a separate station featuring bread rolls, oil and vinegar and salad toppers like olives, bacon-style bits and crispy onions.
The salad bar was being replenished regularly while we were there, it’s just a shame that the area around the sauces wasn’t cleaned at all: with spillage from the ladles in the enormous sauce jars, it looked pretty unappealing.
The first bowl of salad collected, I sat down to find my starter wasn’t far behind. The crispy calamari strips were certainly nice and crisp, the squid inside nice and sweet and delicious dunked in the sweet chilli sauce. A pleasant surprise.
The slaw and flatbread that came with my halloumi skewer main were pretty average, the former with too much mayo, the latter a little over-crisped. The chips were decent, though, and the kebab itself was delicious. Harvester is generous with the halloumi and it was cooked well, although it would’ve been nice if every single edge had been crisped up. The padron peppers were nicely charred, and the hot honey (one of a choice of seven sauces) was the perfect pairing.
I was too full to order a third course – the amount of food for £17.99 (with the salad and bread included) was insane. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality, too: my only real issues were how messy parts of the salad bar were, the time it took to receive the glass for my drink, and how long it took the staff to clear the tables of groups who had finished their meals and left. For a family meal with people with different palates and dietary requirements, at a reasonable price, I wouldn’t rule Harvester out.