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Comfort still king where Harvey ruled

By Stephen Fried
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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SANTA FE — For six years, I have been crisscrossing the country in search of Fred.

That would be Fred Harvey, the demanding London-born immigrant whose family business revolutionized US dining and travel. Harvey’s legendary hospitality empire along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad between Chicago and California sated the comfort-food-starved West.

“A food missionary,’’ as one New York critic called him, on a quest to civilize the United States one meal at a time, Harvey (1835-1901) began in the mid-1870s with modest trackside “eating houses’’ in Kansas. By the 1920s, there were Fred Harvey white tablecloth restaurants — serving amazing fresh food — as well as lunchrooms, dining cars, resort hotels, union stations, and retail stores in 80 cities from the Great Lakes to the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, even at the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The restaurants’ waitresses, the “Harvey Girls’’ — about 100,000 single women hired at the company’s Kansas City, Mo., headquarters and dispatched to disparate Western locales — were America’s sweethearts. Harvey’s cooks were the country’s first foodie heroes.

The trackside Harvey hotels and restaurants were both culinary and architectural landmarks for travelers arriving by rail and, later, by car along Route 66, which followed the Santa Fe tracks. The Harvey signature logo could be seen on products and buildings all over the country, but mostly west of Chicago, where it appeared lighted in red on the outside of Chicago Union Station.

Most Easterners have never heard of Harvey, unless they have seen the 1946 Oscar-winning MGM musical about the Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland or visited the Grand Canyon, where his legend lives on (and longtime employees still refer to themselves as “Fredheads’’). When people first hear of the Harvey saga, they often react much like Melissa Block of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered’’:

“When you read the descriptions of this impeccable level of service and the incredible attention to detail,’’ she said, “where design was everything and everything had to look beautiful . . . it just makes you want to cry because so little of that is left.’’

Don’t cry, Melissa. There’s still plenty of Harvey hospitality and design left to experience in the Southwest. My wife and I have done what we call the “Tour de Fred’’ several times, by car and rail. And like the canyon itself — where his company’s historic hotels still operate at the lip of the Divine Abyss — the trip never gets old.

The main attractions are some of the same places people began discovering at the turn of the last century, as Harvey and the Santa Fe went from serving those who had to travel — for business and relocation — to caring for the first recreational travelers in the Southwest. The tour runs between Santa Fe and Grand Canyon National Park, with a stop in tiny Winslow, Ariz. Winslow is home to La Posada hotel, the last great masterpiece of eccentric architect Mary Colter, the company’s in-house design guru. You can start at either end — flying into or out of Albuquerque or Phoenix — and go by car, train, or some combination.

In Santa Fe, the Harvey hotel on the square, La Fonda — which, like many of the company’s buildings, was designed to look old and weathered even when it was new — was a center of life from the mid-1920s on. (In the 1940s it was the watering hole for the physicists from the Manhattan Project.) While Santa Fe has spawned many great eateries and hotels, since — and the Harveys sold theirs to another family in the 1960s — La Fonda is still the adobe castle looming over the center of town, and Colter’s eclectic public areas still bustle and comfort. The rooms have been modernized, and inventive chef Lane Warner offers a NewMex cuisine that the hotel’s founding Harvey chef, Konrad Allgaier, would appreciate.

After touring downtown, you can enjoy some of the same trips that trainloads of tourists experienced when the Harvey company inaugurated its popular Indian Detours in 1926. Scores of summer rail passengers enjoyed well-guided Harveycar tours of Indian pueblos and ruins all over northern New Mexico and Arizona.

You can drive the High Road to Taos, visit a nearby pueblo or the cave ruins at Bandelier National Monument, or just drive around to gape at the endless big sky. (True Fredheads can visit nearby Las Vegas and its two Harvey heritage locations, the painstakingly restored Montezuma Hotel — now part of United World College — and the down-on-its-luck Castaneda, site of the 1899 Rough Riders reunion.)

From Santa Fe drive toward Arizona, or take the new light rail line to Albuquerque, where you catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which follows the same tracks west as the old Santa Fe. Either way, try to arrive in time for late supper at La Posada.

Built in 1930, La Posada is the last of the great trackside hotels where you can still experience what made Harvey service so beloved. You literally walk off the train into the lobby of the boho-luxe hotel with a four-star restaurant. Imagine how wonderful it must have been for travelers on dusty, hot trains to enter Harvey’s eating houses that, in the words of historian Lucius Beebe, “made the desert bloom with vintage claret and quail in aspic.’’

A Los Angeles couple, Allen Affeldt and Tina Mion, saved La Posada. They have reclaimed and revived most of the original public spaces and rooms (named for famous guests, including Charles Lindbergh, Harry Truman, and Albert Einstein), and recently added an auto-friendly entrance.

La Posada’s restaurant, The Turquoise Room, is run by owner-chef John Sharpe, a transplanted Briton. His menu of modern Southwestern classics includes Harvey-inspired recipes like boneless fried chicken Castaneda with mashed peas and apple-nutmeg pie. If you’re feeling adventurous between meals, drive to nearby Petrified Forest National Park (where, at the north entrance, the gift shop has the only big, lighted Fred Harvey signature logo sign still in use).

From Winslow you can drive directly to the Grand Canyon. By rail, take the evening Amtrak train to Williams and stay in the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. The next morning, take the historic train to the South Rim as visitors have since 1901. (Even drivers should consider the train — a delightful alternative, especially for day-trippers.)

El Tovar, the first of the Harvey hotels at the canyon, opened in 1905 and is still the best reason to stay on the South Rim. The center of life in Grand Canyon Village, it was considered the crowning achievement of the chain, although Harvey didn’t live to see it. (His son Ford, unsung but equally savvy, ran the company until 1928, and the chain remained in family hands until the late 1960s, when it was acquired by the company that became Xanterra, a major national park concessionaire.)

The canyon is the only part of this trip that is difficult to book in season if you want to stay in one of the original Harvey hotels: El Tovar or the smaller Bright Angel Lodge next door or Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon. Most of the rooms in these hotels are reserved over a year in advance.

While at the canyon, make sure you see more than the views within walking distance of El Tovar. At the very least, visit Colter’s two more remote canyon masterpieces, Hermit’s Rest (seven miles west), and the Desert View Watchtower (25 miles east). And eat at El Tovar — especially breakfast, for which you don’t need a reservation.

For now, our Tour de Fred runs between Santa Fe and Grand Canyon. But there’s still hope that one day the trip will be extended. The Castaneda in Las Vegas — recently used as a set on “No Country for Old Men’’ — has been for sale for years (only $1.9 million). The couple that redid La Posada is slowly restoring the El Garces, the Mission-style Harvey hotel in Needles, Calif. And while it is currently only used for private parties and as a film location, Colter’s stunning restaurant building in Los Angeles Union Station sits in move-in condition, awaiting a newly inspired Fredhead.

Stephen Fried, author of “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West,’’ can be reached at www.stephenfried.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

La Fonda 100 East San Francisco St.

Santa Fe

505-982-5511

www.lafondasantafe.com

Rooms $285-$430.

La Posada 303 East Second St.

Winslow, Ariz.

928-289-4366

www.laposada.org

Rooms $99-$169.

El Tovar Highway 64 South Rim

Grand Canyon Village

928-638-2631

www.grandcanyonlodges.com

Rooms $174-$426.

Grand Canyon Railway Hotel 233 North Grand Canyon Blvd.

Williams, Ariz.

303-843-8724

www.thetrain.com

Rooms $169-$279.

Where to eat

La Plazuela at La Fonda

505-995-2334

$14-$34

The Turquoise Room at La Posada

928-289-2888

www.theturquoiseroom.net

$16-$31

El Tovar dining room 928-638-2631, ext. 6432

Grand Canyon

www.xanterra.com

Reservations taken up to six months in advance if you have a room, 30 days if you don’t.

$17.70-$33.40