To the extent I’m a regular anywhere, I’m one at Lookout Farm in South Natick. In recent years I’ve run around the orchard on Thursday nights with a group that congregates after in the Taproom. And our neighborhood has quarterly-or-so meet-ups at the country-chic spot, sometimes entertained by a neighbor’s band.
So when the COVID-19 crisis hit, Lookout Farm was one of those places I missed. It wasn’t clear when we’d have a chance to visit again given that social distancing rules marked a temporary end to dine-in services (their curbside market shop is up and running).
Now farm management has faced head-on the challenges of running its Taproom and other venues profitably. All it took was a spare field that the farm just happened to have, and a little creative thinking to get The Lookout up and running. The new open-air dining venue sits further back on its 180-acre property than the Taproom. Dozens of picnic tables have been plunked down in a mown field that now serves as the dining room, and what a beautiful dining room it is. Surrounded by up-and-coming summer crops, there’s a view of the iconic red barn. Across the field are rows and rows of over 50,000 espaliered fruit trees over which grape vines are trained on seemingly endless arbors.
Natick town officials quickly approved the outdoor-dining plan, and The Lookout opened on Friday, June 12. We decided to let them work out any kinks that day, and reserved a spot online for our family of four on Saturday, June 13. The reservation system is handled through OpenTable, and works pretty well, though it’s hard to get a view at a glance of which time slots are available (the farm’s website says The Lookout is open Thursday-Sunday, but that’s not entirely clear in the online reservation system. Note: The schedule has since changed since we posted this review, as shown below.).
While I’d been to the farm many times, I still couldn’t quite visualize what we were in for. Though I had prepared enough to know that we’d need to wear masks, tables would be separated more than usual, we’d need to order our food and drinks via our phones once we got there, and that there was some sort of walking path for taking a post-dinner constitutional.
We drove past the Taproom parking lot and followed signs to a grassy parking area. The Lookout staff, operating at friendliness as high-peak as the June strawberries available at the farm’s market shop right now, gave us a quick rundown of the rules and directed us to a check-in kiosk. We were then escorted to a reddish picnic table under a white tent. A good dinner crowd had already convened, with a mix of friend groups, families, and some familiar faces to us. The tables, including some small, rather romantic-looking set-ups, look out over the farmland. Some tables have umbrellas. All are spread across a large area with wide paths in between tables. The set-up works well during nice weather, and the tented area should still be fun even in a bit of drizzle.
Our server handed us paper menus to help us avoid scrolling hell on our phone, which we’d use to make our selections and put in our contact and payment info. That all worked smoothly, and I was ready to place our order when one of our boys learned his brother would not be sharing his fries. I wasn’t able to backtrack at that point and add anything to our order, so had to put that order through and do a new order for the fries. That turned out to be no big deal.
Our drinks, including tasty Super Yellow American Pilsner ($7), and a bottled Raspberry Lime Rickey, arrived first. The farm is known for is excellent cider selection, and our neighbors, seated a few tables away, raved about their choice of strawberry.
Shortly after our drinks came, our meals arrived, each in individual brown boxes accompanied by disposable plastic utensils.
Welcome new menu
We divided and conquered the menu, which has been orchestrated by executive chef Jason Gorman. The menu has been greatly expanded beyond the flatbreads, cheese plate and chicken tenders that Taproom patrons have come to know, a welcome change.
One of our sons was satisfied with his hearty Impossible Burger ($16) . Our other son made incredibly quick work of a juicy Honey Butter Fried Chicken Sandwich, a good deal for $15 considering its fresh brioche bun and 2 layers of chicken. Having just finished a 12-mile run, he probably could have wolfed down another one or two. My wife predictably went for the lobster roll ($22), her first of what will be many in the coming months. Big spender that I am, I chose the $22 stout grilled beef tips, which had just the right amount of flavor and tenderness. Broccolini made for a nice side, but I foisted the potato salad onto my wife due to my mayo aversion. She gave it thumbs up. The overall bill was a tad hefty, especially with two orders of $7 fries, but we, and probably other diners heading back out to restaurants, are willing enough to tolerate slightly higher prices as these local businesses look to make up for lost time.
The new COVID-19 era dining experience didn’t feel entirely unusual, though not having a server swing by every so often to ask if things were OK or if we wanted another drink takes some getting used to. Up-selling is a thing in the restaurant business, a time-honored way of increasing the total of the tab. My wife commented that under normal circumstances she probably would have ordered a beer when the food order arrived. But the food gets sent out by a runner, and the runner ran away, as was her job. The waitstaff doesn’t make regular appearances, because part of the point of this exercise is to remain distance. Not wanting to send me back to my phone to place a beer order when my food was piping hot and in front of me, she shrugged and decided ordering the beer wasn’t worth the trouble.
We get that things are going to be different out there in restaurant world and have already been thinking of ways to better communicate what it is that we’d like. No surprise that things aren’t exactly what they used to be.
Roaming the orchards
After dinner, we took the staff’s suggestion to take a 1/2 mile stroll in the orchards. In hindsight we’d wished we’d known about the option to order a beverage from the nearby kiosk to take with us on our walk. Learn from our mistake. Good people, know that you’re actually allowed to roam the fruit orchids with drink in hand. It’s almost like we aren’t in Massachusetts anymore. The walking paths are widely spaced and one-way, a la grocery store aisles, and we stopped to chat briefly with friends walking in the opposite direction. The grapevines overhead, the brick path underfoot, blue sky above, and a gentle breeze coming up from across the fields made the night feel something close to magical. For months now we’ve been doing take-out once a week and counting that as “special.” You know what’s really special? Not cleaning up after take-out night. True I didn’t have to cook it, but take-out night isn’t effortless. Spare us dinnertime effort once a week, tell me I don’t have to lift a finger to clean up the kitchen, and I’m happy for days and days.
“I thought the physical set-up was good,” my neighbor texted the next morning. “Tables far apart and open air. I felt safe…wow, I give then a ton of credit for making a go of this and pulling it off. And the french fries were excellent!”
Down the road we can foresee the farm adding some outdoor entertainment, making this an even livelier venue.. For now, The Lookout should be a popular place to take a break from home cooking, and should help the farm sell a few more cider donuts, strawberries, and other curbside pickup items as we phase toward the new normal.
Tuesday – Friday Lunch Menu 12:00pm – 3pm | Dinner Menu 3-8:30pm
Saturday and Sunday 12:00pm – 8:30pm Full Menu All Day.
Last seating 7:15 | Kitchen closes at 7:45pm | Last call 8pm | Walking Path Closes 8pm.
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