John Palmer Ingalls loves to cook. A broad smile spreads across his face while thinking about the menu at his Andover eatery, Palmers Restaurant & Tavern. “What do I enjoy cooking?” Ingalls asks. “Everything!”
Ingalls is in the kitchen almost daily, making all the soups and doing much of the prep work, but admits that he seldom works the line during meal service these days.
“I fill in when needed, but I’m not as young as I used to be,” says the deeply tanned and fit Swampscott native with a shrug. Ingalls graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in some of Boston’s top restaurants, including the storied Locke-Ober, before opening the original Palmers in Swampscott in the late 1980s. His fine dining menu, well ahead of the trends at the time, caught on quickly, and he moved the restaurant to Andover in 1995 seeking a larger space.
Back then, he recalls, there were only two or three fine dining establishments in Andover. Now the town is teeming with options, offering everything from Mediterranean to oysters, but Palmers continues to succeed, based on a 20-year formula that mixes fine dining and tavern food, thereby ensuring there are dishes at multiple price points.
“I haven’t done anything different through all the years,” Ingalls says modestly. But that’s not quite true. While the main menu is filled with classic New England fare, the hopping bar has always kept pace with trends—from craft beer to wine to martinis, and back to craft beer. And chef Tyler Van Veghten is given free rein to seasonally augment the main menu with challenging dishes.
“[Ingalls has] always been open to putting two crazy items on the menu to see how they do,” says Van Veghten, who previously worked at Loretta in Newburyport. “He’s given me a pretty loose leash.”
This season, one of Van Veghten’s “crazy” menu items is fried shishito peppers served with a black truffle aioli. The delicious Japanese peppers, generally citrusy and mild but occasionally packing a punch, have gained a lot of attention on the culinary scene as a trendy bar snack—and patrons of Palmers have taken to them, albeit not in droves.
“I don’t sell as many as I’d like,” Van Veghten says, adding that getting customers to be more adventurous is his biggest challenge at a restaurant where some patrons prefer their steak and potatoes on separate plates so as not to touch.
“And I bet John would know [those customers] from when he first opened,” Van Veghten says with a laugh. “He’s got something special in Andover,” he adds. “It worked then and it’s still working.”
Indeed, customers and newcomers alike appreciate Palmers’ consistent service and staple menu items like their BONS award-winning clam chowder, the crab cakes, and the fresh ravioli, pappardelle, linguini, and spatzle—all of which are made in-house. Then there’s the shrimp and goat cheese salad, a creative combination of warmed goat cheese rolled in pine nuts and almonds with grilled shrimp, baby greens, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil—a recipe that was developed years ago and remains perennially popular and unchanged.
Another thing that remains unchanged are some key staffers—many have been with the restaurant for a decade or longer. Ingalls is quick to attribute his success to the dedicated team in the kitchen and the dining room, chief among them his son, Aron, who had his own chef’s coat at age 11, when he was helping with prep work and cleaning mussels and mushrooms. Now, at 29, Aron is bar manager, and the senior Ingalls couldn’t imagine running the restaurant without him—especially since the trust he has in his son enables him to pursue his other passion: fishing. John Ingalls takes his boat out on his two days off each week, starting in the spring and going well into November, which behooves his customers, as his catch—from shellfish to striped bass—may just show up on the menu.
“[Aron’s] help has made my life better,” Ingalls says. “Knowing that he cares passionately about the business and can handle it makes things much easier for me.”
Aron showed his mettle when his father signed on to run the restaurant at Warwick Place in Marblehead two years ago. With the senior Ingalls working to get Palmers Marblehead operating smoothly, Aron shouldered considerable responsibility in Andover.
While John Ingalls wouldn’t trade the experience of running two restaurants, managing his 180-seat Andover restaurant has proved to be exactly right for work-life balance. The stress of operating a second establishment was more than Ingalls bargained for, and he is in the process of ending his partnership with that location.
“Money is great, but happiness is more important,” Ingalls says. “I get more happiness from making customers happy than from money.”