Harwich’s New Ray of Light
With The Seal Pub & Café, Harwich Center flickers with commerce once more.
There is a tangible energy when guests enter The Seal Pub & Café. Its cozy atmosphere, fresh pub-style menu and inventive cocktails ignite instant joy in every visitor.
With its café lights twinkling at the edge of Main Street, this lively hot spot has sparked new life in sleepy Harwich Center. Owners Bob Young, Mike Scott and Josh Winston invested in the historic site at 703 Main Street with the hopes of fulfilling their own dream to utilize their diverse backgrounds and bring a thriving new business to Cape Cod. The trio arrived in Harwich and set out to create something new, something delightful, and something familiar.
Harwichian by birth, Josh Winston’s paternal family dates back to 1627 in the Town of Harwich, about as far back as it goes in the colonial period. His father, Gregg Winston, owns Winstead Inn & Beach Resort, and his grandfather, Eugene H. Winston, owned Young’s Fuel, now the site of United Gas in Harwich Port. “Growing up in Harwich is one of the greatest blessings of my life,” he beams across the shiny new bar, packed with locals, affluent summer residents, and a host of jubilant out-of-towners, gazing at the merriment that surrounds them.
Since its inception on February 7th, 2020 (36 days before the pandemic) The Seal Pub & Café has become a town institution, almost as if it had existed for hundreds of years before. There is a palpable, yet unexplainable sense of warmth that envelopes you as you walk in–something not always found easily on Cape Cod, with its traditional New England formalities. From the bartenders to the baristas to the incredible owners, each and every staff member greets guests with authenticity and excitement, completely transforming the dining experience and turning strangers into friends.
Josh, and his merry band of bartenders are the first sights you see upon entry. The charismatic 44-year-old cut his chops in the larger world of the corporate travel industry, having served as Director of Tourism for The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau for nearly a decade, as well as the Tourism Chief for National Harbor, Maryland–a billion-dollar resort and real estate project, along the Potomac River in Oxon Hill, Maryland. “The time had come to take my worldly experience and apply it to the place I love the most–Harwich. The center of town was at a particularly critical period in its history, and I could see that. It needed life, it needed vitality, and it needed the guiding hand of a native son, who would protect its historic integrity. However, it also needed a team of people who would work hard to develop new commerce in what had become a forgotten corner of Cape Cod.” Winston continues, “I knew what it needed, but I knew my two partners had the expertise in operations and culinary work to bring the business to life.”
Enter Mike Scott, a Nebraskan native, who previously served as Executive Chef for the University of Nebraska, cooking for their top football coaches. “Cape Cod has always been a fascinating place to me. Even as a chef in Nebraska, I learned the proper techniques for filleting Cod fish and steaming lobsters. I knew that with some of that Midwest grit, I could make a culinary imprint here, in a way that is casual, yet also hits the mark for finicky foodies.” He smiles, “Josh, Bob and I met, and became close during our time when we all lived in Fort Lauderdale, when I was working for Cheesecake Factory. I loved working for the big corporations, and had worked for Brinker International, opening restaurants around the country like Romano’s Macaroni Grill, after my time with University of Nebraska. But, at some point you want to fulfill your creative side, and do something that’s truly your own. In the back of my mind, I was thinking how great it would be to move back to Josh’s home town and open a casual restaurant there. I just had to think about how we could make that work, and after many nights of discussion with the guys, Bob began to formulate an idea.”
Bob Young is originally from Guerneville, California, where he owned and operated “Coffee Bazaar,” a small, boutique coffee shop in the Sonoma County wine country. Later, he sold his business and moved to Fort Lauderdale, where in partnership with another friend, opened one of the largest gay men’s nightclubs in the city. “After many years at that nonstop pace, you start to look for a happy medium. That’s what I found when I discovered Harwich with Josh and Mike. New England has a frosty reputation in other parts of the country, but after I saw it for myself, I knew we had to be here. Our four dogs, Gia, Milania, Tanner and Bayou look forward to their daily runs along Red River Beach, and frolicking in Nantucket Sound.”
In 2019, they began making plans and visiting the site that would eventually become The Seal Pub & Café. “It was a bit depressed, and like much of the rest of Harwich Center, you could tell it was at one point a prominent commercial place, but over the years had been zoned out of relevance by big box strip malls in East Harwich, and overshadowed by an avalanche of new businesses in Harwich Port,” says Young.
Flash forward to February 2020, the trio officially opened its doors to the public in the heart of Harwich Center. The restaurant had a massive opening, but just a few weeks later, the global pandemic began. “We had just moved up here, and it was my first winter on the Cape. I realized this could be an opportunity. It changed traffic patterns for people, so we were getting looked at by an audience who probably wouldn’t have looked at us before. We never closed down once during the entire pandemic. We adhered to restrictions, but we always stayed open. The Café’s takeout business and the outdoor deck carried us through those months,” Young shares. The idea to begin brunch service stemmed from a need for more breakfast options on the Cape. The casual morning fare including breakfast sandwiches, coffees, and homemade pastries have propelled the business forward and provided a staple morning gathering spot in town. “On the cafe side, we have a talented team of bakers who make our Harwich cranberry lemon scones and cinnamon buns daily. I also bake a cream cheese frosted carrot cake each day, as well as a themed cheesecake, ranging from chocolate raspberry, to lemon curd in the summer, and pumpkin spice, as we head into the fall,” Scott shares.
When the pub side of the establishment comes alive, the lunch and dinner menus offer American classics with a fresh, local twist. “Our menu is largely comprised of homemade recipes, including: our piping hot French onion soup, our blackened chicken sliders, and our fresh salads, sourced from local Massachusetts farms,” Scott says.
As life gets busier in Harwich, the Seal Pub invites visitors to town from its convenient location at the edge of Main Street. “We’ve fallen in love with our location,” Scott says. “At the true center of Harwich, we are witness to the daily comings and goings of people in town. We can sense the building of busy weekends, as we’re witness to the influx of traffic coming in on Pleasant Lake Avenue and Main Street. We love that Harwich Center is so walkable, and Bob was active last year in securing the town, a Massachusetts DOT grant that was the first phase of a sidewalk redevelopment plan, which aims to not only bring Harwich Center sidewalks up to date, but beautify them at the same time,” he continues.
Of course, with a group of charismatic owners and a prime location, their frequent live entertainment and events are no surprise. “We love to have fun, and we take our cues from the community. We had a fabulously successful event in January, called The G.I. Jive. It was born out of a request from our patrons to do some kind of a fundraiser for Cape Cod veterans, and as we developed the event, it spurred legs of its own, and real buy-in from our customers,” Winston describes. “We ended up with a 1940’s themed big band party, which included professional vintage hair and makeup people, who came to dress attendees in period costumes and hairstyles. It was a way to honor our many Harwich men and women, who fought in WWII, and also as a means to raise money for the Cape & Islands Veterans Outreach Center. It has been one of our most successful events to date, and has been part of a parade of out-of-the-box parties, such as our ‘Free Britney Night’ and our ‘Six Nations Rugby’ watch parties, amongst others. Through music, we’ve worked really hard to develop a vibe that speaks to individuals of all generations, and evokes some of life’s happiest times. We have a strong social media presence as well, which heralds the coming of new events.”
As we soak in the bustle of the summer 2022 season, The Seal Pub is introducing new menu items, cocktails, and events. “We’re rolling out an enhanced brunch menu, including Chef Mike’s Eggs Benedict Puerto Vallarta and his Omaha Ham & Egg Scramble,” says Winston. The restaurant has also been working with national alcohol brands, including Absolut on a Ruby Red Grapefruit Martini, which is targeted at the brunch crowd, and Bayou Rum, a Louisiana Small Batch Rum, which is used in various Summer Punches.
“As for events, we will be host to Harwich Pride, on Saturday, June 25th, which will serve as the major Pride Party for the Lower Cape. On the sports front, we are sponsoring The Harwich Cup on Saturday, July 23th, which is a tournament played here at Brooks Park and includes Rugby teams from across Massachusetts, on the home turf of our locally sponsored Cape Cod Rugby Team, The Cape Cod Cutthroats,” he continues.
Thanks to the commitment and enthusiastic personalities of owners Bob Young, Mike Scott and Josh Winston, The Seal Pub & Café has definitely become something delightful and familiar in town. With its infectious energy, fresh creations, and one-of-a-kind entertainment, The Seal will only continue to illuminate Harwich Center as its light touches more of the Cape community.
Brenna Collins is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.