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The Central House - VisitingNewEngland small business partnership

The Central House: A True Neighborhood Restaurant in Westborough, Mass.

The Central House is one those local treasures where people come out in crowds to enjoy fantastic comfort foods and drinks in a likeable no frills atmosphere

Central House restaurant, Westborough, Massachusetts
Central House dining room and bar.

Article and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 4/20/2019.

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It's 6:30 p.m. at twilight on a cold spring day where the more dominant soft glowing light seems to come from the window of a South St. home in Westbororough, Mass. A welcoming "Open" sign radiates red lettering from a window on a structure that looks like a big old neighborhood home with its front porch and rocking chair. A sign that validates this isn't a residential home sits to the left near a driveway that looks like it would accommodate a modest number of guests at a house gathering.

Welcome to the Central House, Westborough's oldest tavern and restaurant dating back to pre-prohibition days. It's quite a feat for this restaurant a survive the growing number of downtown restaurants and nearby Route 9 chains in a region that has experienced significant population growth.

Central House restaurant on South Street in Westborough, Mass.
Outside at the Central House.

People come to eat here like they have walked unannounced into a friend's home -- a friend who happens to make really good food while offering some adult beverages to enhance the overall experience. Owner Dan Flood has lived in town virtually his whole life and knows most people who come into his restaurant. He is the friendly guy you would see walking down a Main Street -- the one person you would stop to ask for directions and a good place to eat. If that was the scenario, Flood would modestly recommend turning onto South St. and checking out the Central House.

Dan Flood, owner of The Central House restaurant in  Westborough, Mass.
Central House owner Dan Flood. Dan's late grandmother, Helen, who owned the restaurant with husband Fred, is pictured above the fireplace.

For the first-timer, the thought of either trespassing onto private property or possibly walking into the reincarnation of Moe's Tavern from The Simpsons arises as there are few familiar 21st century cues to let one know this is the place to go for eats and a drink. No small plates, exposed ductwork and brick, artisan or fusion references for food, or a restaurant name with all lower case lettering. Some places purposely create menus that look distressed, while the Central House just lets that happen naturally. Although a piano sits in the wood-paneled, dark green carpeted back room, it's an "All by Myself" scenario for the upright as there's no live pianist. The instrument adds nice ambiance, however, to the quaint room that also includes a dart board, television, white lights, an American flag and pictures with local themes.

Comfortable back room dining spot at The Central House restaurant in Westborough, Mass.
Comfortable back room at the Central House with dart board, television and piano.

There's certainly no grand entrance with fancy awning and faceless 1980s soft rock by one-hit wonders blaring out of a speaker to somehow welcome you. As far as advertising, word-of-mouth reigns as the best form of outreach. It's unlikely you will ever see a TV commercial of the Central House with all that food splashing around into a pan or plate in slow motion. Dan knows that plain, simple and humble best describes the grandest entrance to the real world. No drama, no pretentiousness here!

Front porch at Central House restaurant in Westborough, Mass.
Front porch at the Central House.


Once inside, the Central House feels like one big family outing at your favorite uncle's house in a densely populated, lively neighborhood. There's lots of local talk going on, some of it unfiltered but still suitable for all ages. The food is tasty, the beer is good and the neighborhood ties that bind are all that matters as a microcosm of close-knit Westborough.

"It's like walking into someone's house," said Dan, 32. "People really like the atmosphere, feeling right at home."

Dan's wife Sandi and their four-year-old son Cash
stop by the restaurant and bond with their beloved husband and daddy, respectively -- he's the big guy with the beard and big glasses, and the face of the Central House, as Sandi describes it. Cash looks around wide-eyed at the busy scene, seemingly taking in every bit of information while he and his mom bond with Dan for a big group hug and a kiss on the head before heading back to their home in the neighborhood.

"I am so lucky," said Dan. "I can walk to and from work."

A Look Back at the Central House's Interesting History

In a trendy world of deconstructed food offerings, Flood reconstructed his family restaurant not too long ago in need to save the grand tradition that his grandparents started when bell bottoms were more in style than skinny jeans.

While the Central House dates back to the early 20th century under 60 years of ownership from the Moynihan family, the most vivid memories, good and bad, can be remembered from the 1970s. Although run by two women, it is ironic that no women were allowed in the bar room. There was no ladies room, either. That all changed when husband and wife Fred and Helen Van Dam moved from Roslindale, Mass. (a Boston neighborhood) to run the restaurant.

Fred and Helen VanDam,  former owners on the Central House in Westborough, Mass.  They bought the restaurant in 1974 and had a great run.
Fred and Helen grace the cover of a 1981 article on t
he Central House in the former Westboro Compass newspaper.

Dan said that Fred was brash and a know-it-all while Helen had a heart-of-gold, and was nurturing and giving but as "tough as nails." It would have been interesting to hear the conversation after Fred bought the restaurant for a price of $38K without telling her until they arrived in Westborough.

"Fred passed away before I was born," said Dan. "He was known as argumentative and stubborn. You could show him a book to prove he was wrong about something and he would say the book was wrong. Helen was a sweetheart but tough."

Strong personalities aside, Fred and Helen transformed the restaurant into proper shape. First, they opened the doors to women and installed a ladies room.

"Helen said if it was good enough for them, it was good for everyone else," said Dan.

Ladies room sign at The Central House in Westborough, Mass.
Ladies were once not welcome at the Central House as recent as the early 70s. Fred and Helen changed all that when taking over the restaurant.

Helen became the darling of the community, best known for her home style cooking, generosity and concern for others. Dan's mom and dad, Anne-Marie (Helen and Fred's daughter) and father Jonathan, also worked at the restaurant for several years. In addition to operating an increasingly popular restaurant, the Van Dams operated a boarding house above the main floor dining room and bar.

"There was a local guy named Beetle Bailey and my grandma and grandpa gave him a place to live," said Dan. "He wasn't the brightest guy and had this stutter. My grandma said he had to get a job to pay the rent and he said 'No one will hire me.' My grandma did something about that, getting him a job at the Westborough DPW. With that opportunity, he did really well and turned out to be one of the best workers ever. That's the kind of person she was, always thinking of others."

Helen died when Dan was a sophomore in college. Dan was heartbroken, but continued at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., graduating with a degree in hotel and hospitality management. Dan hadn't thought about running his grandparents' restaurant, but had a unique opportunity to return to his hometown and its hometown restaurant. The liquor license had Helen's name on it.

"I was the only one in the family with, let's just say, the qualifications to have my name on the liquor license," said Dan. "The place had become kind of 'divey.' The food was inconsistent. Something had to be done."

Dan basically began turning things around, taking any frozen foods out of the establishment, cooking fresh, and eventually opening the kitchen every night of the week. The luster that his grandparents established came back as a family-friendly restaurant with lots of heart in the heart of downtown Westborough, Mass. Now up to 300 customers frequent the Central House on a Friday with the other days often not too far behind in numbers.

"This is where I met him," said wife, Sandi. "I saw this place at the beginning and I see it now. There's locals, newbies and family. He has done a great job bringing it all together. I am very proud of him."

Love at First Bite

Pulled pork sandwich with fries from The Central House in Westborough, Mass.
Pulled pork sandwich with seasoned fries.

Dan might not know it but the food at his homey restaurant often surpasses the quality at higher profile places that specialize in certain types of cuisine.  Love BBQ? The pulled pork sandwich is moist, flavorful and abundant -- just as good as the versions that keep showing up locally on those TV food shows. Enjoy fish and chips?  Many of the coastal Maine restaurants and local Irish pubs in the Boston area do a superb job at making this regional favorite, but most absolutely have nothing on the Central House's crispy, fresh serving. Additionally, Dan and company offer their fish and chips at a lower price than many of the most highly-regarded restaurants serving this dish.

Fish and chips from Central House in Westborough, Mass.
Fish and chips from the Central House.

Debbie Curtis Merchant is a big fan of the Central House.

"My husband Jeff and I usually go to the Central House on Fridays for fish and chips," said Debbie. "We love the food and the atmosphere, as well as the servers. My husband is from Westborough, so he knows many of the customers as well. Great place! We've gone at other times and enjoyed their delicious burgers, as well. We have gone when our house was for sale nearby, and if there were still realtors at the house after work, we'd just look at each other and say, 'ok, Central House'."

Fish chowder from the Central House in Westborough, Mass.
Fish Chowder from the Central House.

Fridays offer the greatest food selection including the fish and chips, prime rib, scallops and clam rolls, fish sandwich, homemade fish chowder and scallop and clam plates. In addition to the pulled pork sandwich and burgers, the regular menu features a grilled hot dog on a grilled butter bun, grilled cheese, pastrami and Swiss sandwich and chicken salad.

Central House in Westborough, Mass., offers prime rib on Friday nights.
Prime rib with asparagus and mashed potatoes from the Central House. Photo source:
Central House Facebook Fan Page.

Central House appetizers include chicken wings, boneless chicken tenders and broccoli bites, as well as a mixed green salad with onion, cucumber, tomato, walnuts and house-made champagne vinaigrette (optional to add chicken or chicken salad for an extra charge).

"We are not reinventing the wheel," said Dan, of the food at the Central House. "We just take the two or three extra steps. Like the turkey which is really good in the turkey club. We buy the fresh breast, then brine it. The breaded wings used to be frozen, now we brine it and slow cook it. The people in the back like to cook. We liked to be challenged. If I have an idea, we like to give it a try and cook it."

The Central House also features a Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.- 1 p.m., offering breakfast sandwiches, French Toast, pancakes, Eggs Benedict, and eggs any style with home fries and bacon or sausage with choice of toast. A full bar is available.

Speaking of the bar, the Central House, as expected, offers a good variety of beers on tap, red and white wines, Irish whiskey, vodka and signature cocktails.


The Central House in Westborough, Mass., offers a nice selection of beer on tap.
Cold Harbor beer on tap. Photo source: Central House Facebook Fan Page.

Conclusion

Full house at The Central House in Westborough, Mass.
Enjoying the classic neighborhood atmosphere at the Central House.

Let's face it, true neighborhood restaurants aren't easy to find. Many have not been able to survive the chains.  Others have focused more on avocado toast and brie than burgers and wings, as well as charging a few more dollars for basic comfort foods -- the price hikes somehow justified by fancy adjectives on the menu. Here in the real world, the locals know better sensing the difference between authentic and phony.

The Central House is as authentic as they get. The food and drink are outstanding and the price point in line with a middle-class budget. A nice group of people work here and are familiar faces to the community. They also host local bands and acoustic acts on Saturday night. It's a place where a burger looks like a burger and a cup of chowder looks like a cup of chowder -- nothing dressed up here to the point of altering the innate greatness of good old-fashioned comfort food.
Dining out at the Central House is ultimately like a trip back in time when it was perfectly fine to serve familiar-looking foods, as well as having paneled wood walls and dark green rugs to create the ambiance. It's not only a great old school destination for locals, but also travelers --  located in the western Boston and eastern Worcester suburbs and just minutes away from the intersection of Routes 495 and 90 (the Mass Turnpike).

While a constantly trending world looking for the flavor of the week left many local neighborhood restaurants for the buttoned-up bistros and more elitist, expensive environs to eat, much of the real world remained steadfast holding onto where they liked to eat in the first place. Madison Ave. and media with vested interests promoted those with high advertising budgets and expensive food, or on the other end, corporate-designed restaurants made to look like neighborhood restaurants. 

While it's great to have choices on where to eat -- and there's more options now than ever --
sometimes the best change is, as has often been said, no change at all. Dan Flood knows that and so do his customers.

"People keep coming back here," said Dan. "There's nothing corporate here. It's real. I feel that we don't have to be overly creative. 
  We serve what the people like. I don't think you'll run into many in the industry like me. Instead of thinking about the next big thing to create, I say there's nothing wrong with what we are serving now. These foods have been favorites for a long time. We enjoy these foods and so do our customers."

The Central House is located at 44 South St., Westborough, MA. Tel.  508-366-2088. email: dflood@gmail.com.
Log onto the Central House Web Site and Facebook Fan Page for more information.

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Why the Central House in Westborough, Mass., is one of the best neighborhood restaurants in the Boston to Worcester area.



Related article:
The Abbey in Providence, R.I., is known for its burgers and beer

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