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Bluegrass Jam helps Willow Brook hit the right notes

By Rod Lee

The “Bluegrass Jam” for which Willow Brook Restaurant on Hastings St. (Rt. 16) in Mendon is justly celebrated began to happen within a year or so of the establishment’s opening in November of 2009 and is still going as strong as a Bill Monroe or Hank Williams tune that lingers on the ears.

But don’t think for a minute that there is anything one-dimensional about the Hackenson family’s Tuesday-through-Sunday operation (the restaurant is closed on Mondays).

In fact, the pickers and warblers appear only on the first Thursday from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., arranging themselves in a fan-shaped ensemble at the back of a room off the bar and hardly without introduction launching into such favorites as “I Saw the Light,” “Wabash Cannonball” and “Rocky Top.” That it is officially a “Jam”—as made apparent by the announcement on the sandwich board that is placed out front—means that musicians are liable to drop in at any point during the proceedings, pick up a fiddle or a guitar and join in. It is not unusual to see up to a dozen people participating in what becomes a free-wheeling three-hour show.

This is exactly what happened the evening of February 2nd when the night started with six people and grew to eleven after a short break between sets. Called “Mendon County,” the group covered a number of classics including “Take a Little Piece of My Heart” as an opening number, “Walking after Midnight” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” There was even some yodeling thrown in.

Without question, Willow Brook’s Sharon Hackenson said, the Bluegrass Jam has been a boon to the restaurant’s appeal. “We hadn’t been in business long when someone came by and asked if we were interested in hosting” such an event, she said. “It brings in so many people. It’s loud but it’s fun, a knee-slapping good time.”

That Ms. Hackenson, her husband Steve and their children can say business is “great” can be attributed, however, to the rest of what they put on the table. Besides casual dining six days a week Willow Brook offers a Sunday breakfast buffet (9:00 to 11:30), an Early Bird menu (4:00 to 6:00) every day and an ice-cream counter that is operational year-round with thirty-two flavors of Richardson’s.

Always with any venture of the sort there will be mixed reviews but as Ms. Hackenson points out “comment cards” returned by customers are “95% positive.” A wide-ranging menu is apt to have patrons applauding the turkey dinner that “reminds me of a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal,” the Yankee pot roast, the turkey croquettes described as “divine,” the scallop roll, the Indian pudding or the steak tips.

Willow Brook’s forte is American comfort food.

Another reason for the restaurant’s success is “we do a lot of functions; bereavements, baby showers, bridal showers, weddings” and private parties, Ms. Hackenson said. “Paint Night,” crafts get-togethers and a “Talk like a Pirate” event in the Boat Room are staple ingredients that keep the place humming.

Being able to accommodate up to 100 people for such gatherings is an asset. The “Boat Room” alone can handle up to 32 people.

Situated on the site of the former Lowell’s which was one of the Blackstone Valley’s most popular eateries, Willow Brook is a more than a worthy successor. The atmosphere is inviting, even when the Bluegrass Jam isn’t happening.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.