Mark DeLap/Guernsey Gazette
HARTVILLE – It’s fine dining at its best and well worth the drive. From Nebraska. Or South Dakota. Or Colorado. Or one of the many other states people come from to experience this unique five-star handmade cuisine.
“It was incredible,” said Jessica Dudgeon who resides in Russell Springs, Ky. “And with the beauty of the area and the quaintness of the establishment, it was perfect. And… are all the people in Wyoming this friendly?”
Dudgeon, like most of the patrons who come to experience this out of the way gem, walked away stuffed, raving about the meal and carrying a doggy bag.
Scott and Christy Harmon who purchased the establishment from Scott’s sister and brother-in-law, have owned the business for almost seven years. The couple both grew up in Los Angeles and lived there most of their lives.
The move from one of the biggest cities in the world to one of the smallest was a dream come true for Scott. At the same time, it took some getting used to for Christy.
“He loved it, but it took me a little while,” she said. “Winter is entirely different here than it is in California. I didn’t know snow and cold, and I mean, this is a hearty place.”
Add to the change in climate the fact neither one had any experience in the restaurant business.
“I can remember as a child, we would take family vacations every summer to Jarbridge, Nevada,” Scott said. “It was a small town where everybody knew one another. We used to cook out and enjoy our family and it was always a dream to live in a town like that.”
The couple packed up, lock, stock and barrel and made the move. With that move there was the risky endeavor of running a fine-dining restaurant. In a town of fewer than 100 and where the closest big city is Casper, which is 130 miles away. The first question would be, “why?”
“We just figured we wanted to move out of California and my brother-in-law and sister had this place up for sale,” Scott said. “We came out and looked at it, and six months later, here we were.”
The previous owners, who transformed it from a burger joint to a steak house, began to gain popularity with the local clientele who really had no experience with fine dining establishments in the area. Due to health issues, a change needed to be made and that change came by way of the L.A. Harmons two years after it was initially put up for sale.
“My sister lives 10 miles up the road,” he said.
The business didn’t sell because, as Christy said with a laugh, “Buy a business in the town of 62 people. It is considered kind of risky. They tried to talk us out of it because it’s a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.”
According to Scott, his sister and brother-in-law had tried to talk the siblings out of the purchase “a whole bunch of times.” He also mentioned it most likely wouldn’t have been a good thing for relatives to be involved in business dealings.
“What if it didn’t work?” Scott said. “And then they’d feel guilty and we’d be mad at them. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but we figured, what the heck, it’s semi-retirement. It’s only four days a week, right? But four days a week in a restaurant still turns into a 60, 70-hour week. Even if you’re only open 20.”
Although the establishment is open only Thursday through Sunday from 5 -10 p.m., the couple rarely has that retirement time off they had dreamed about. There are the other chores associated with owning a restaurant. Things like the books, ordering, payroll and upkeep and maintenance, which they also do themselves.
“We do repairs, cleaning, cleaning and cleaning,” Christy said in that dry sense of humor that helps when things are sometimes challenging.
“Also, 9:30 after feeding 70 people it’s a long day,” Scott added.
When the coronavirus hit and the Wyoming Department of Health mandated that all restaurants close, their venture got to be a little more of a risky business. The couple adapted and with quick thinking, began to think outside of the dining room.
“We started selling groceries and whatever we could get our hands on,” Scott said, and then Christy chimed in and augmented his statement, “Selling groceries, a little bit of take-out Saturdays and Sundays and breakfast burritos.”
Without missing a beat, Scott added, “I make the best breakfast burritos.”
The couple sold things on social media and by word of mouth. To their credit, it was difficult, but they never laid off their seven employees. They also credit their many loyal customers who have grown right along with the reputation of the successful business. They also have repeat customers coming from as far away as Casper, Scottsbluff, Cheyenne, Denver and Colorado Springs.
The coronavirus took a toll on every small business owner. Although it wounded this great establishment, they couple stuck together, laced up their bootstrings and not only made it through, but also stayed strong for a community in crisis.
The couple speak in perfect and fluent “Harmon” and are seamless in their conversation to others. The dream of the Harmon empire began for each of them in middle age.
“We didn’t meet until we were in our forties, although we grew up five miles from each other all our lives,” Scott said. “We grew up in Glendale about three miles from the Rose Bowl.”
When anyone relocates to the area and asks where to go for fine food and great steaks, the answer, more often than not is, “Miners in Hartville.” All to the credit of a couple that had never run a restaurant.
When asked who does the cooking, Scott’s smile goes ear to ear without him saying a word. Looking and acting more like a salty sea captain, you would never expect him to be the chef of steaks so tasty and mouthwatering. He has two secrets he adds to what he knows about cuisine.
One, he is a perfectionist in everything from how to cut the lettuce to being able to add the “holy trinity of celery, onion and garlic” to his homemade soups.
Two, he is somewhat a prodigy when it comes to steak and preparing it.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist, I guess,” he said. “Everything has to be just right. I can’t take all the credit, though, we buy the best beef that we can. We buy only black angus prime, and the aging has to be right. I won’t touch a steak unless it has aged at least 35 days. And then I do my own additional aging and I can guarantee they are well aged.”
Taking also into consideration the area this business is in, they are competitive with their prices. Perhaps even 50% less than most bigger cities, and you get the entire meal with no add-on costs, with the exception of dessert and drinks.
The chef’s mentor was his grandfather who taught him how to cook.
“He didn’t own a place, but he was very particular about his meat and he always wanted me to help him cook,” he said. “Especially when he got older, and we did an awful lot of grilling. And then when the kids were in high school, they all wanted to start at our house so I could cook for them. Never know what high school kids are going to do, so it’s always good to send them out with a full belly.”
Although Christy half-jokes about the challenges of working together to run a business with a spouse, this couple makes it work. They have that uncanny ability to give you a fine dining experience with food that tastes as if it were prepared by the finest culinary chefs in the world, and yet they move in and out of the kitchen mingling and talking with guests, making sure things are perfect and it reminds you of eating at home with family.
Add to the taste of good food and friendly hosts, the ambiance of the Old Wyoming West complete with an 1800s jailhouse off the outside eating area and the fact that you are surrounded by legendary Wyoming hills.
One more item of significance is the fact that the huge ornately carved German-made bar, built in 1862 by four German brew masters, is the oldest bar in the state of Wyoming.
The word has gotten around and people are usually wall-to-wall. It may be one of the best kept secrets in the west, located in southeastern Wyoming along the east slope of the Laramie Range which is the front range of the Rockies.
“You don’t need reservations,” Scott said, “But if you don’t you may not get a table.”
And not getting a table at this iconic restaurant would be tragic.