Seventh in a weekly series profiling the chefs and restaurateurs of Brookline.
When Deborah Hansen opened Taberna de Haro just over 12 years ago, she says Brookline diners were surprisingly accepting of a menu that featured frog legs and stuffed squid prominently on its menu.
What's gotten easier, she said, is explaining the foreign concept of tapas, the small Spanish dishes that are intended, according to Hansen, to be "enjoyed with friends on the way to something else."
"In the beginning, we had to do a little more explaining," she said. "Now they come in with higher expectations and more information about what it is."
Located in St. Mary's Station on Beacon Street, Taberna de Haro serves up more than 50 tapas, raciones (dishes big enough to share) and full entrees, as well as some 235 wines from Spain. And for the last three years, Hansen has also offered a rotating weekly menu of specials, each paired with a glass of wine normally available only by the bottle.
Hansen has now spent more time running the restaurant than she did living in Spain, a country that drew her back again and again for a total of eight years. A native of Burlington, she first visited Spain for a six-week study abroad trip as an undergraduate in 1983 and was "completely smitten." She returned again to while getting her masters at New York University, but eventually came home and moved briefly to South American with her husband.
Then in 1992, the couple moved back to Madrid and opened up a restaurants specializing in higher-end American cuisine. But while her staff served up American favorites in the dining room, Hansen was in her kitchen talking to the chefs about their native cuisine and sharing the meals they would cook for the staff. And when not in the restaurant, she would wander the country and try new foods.
"I made a profession of eating and drinking in Spain, and taking it all in," she said.
Hansen sold the American-style restaurant after five years and returned to the U.S., immediately beginning work on a restaurant the would mimic the taverns she found in Madrid, a centrally located capital that draws on the cuisines and cultures of Spain's many regions. As Hansen remembers it, Brookline took quickly to the authentic Spanish flavors she had brought back with her.
"I have a very progressive clientele in Brookline that I'm just enamored with," she said. "They're worldly, and they know what's good."
In its first decade in Brookline, little changed at Taberna de Haro. But about three years ago, Hansen bought out her husband's interest in the restaurant and started making changes, adding the weekly specials and ramping up the wine selection from around 130 to closer to 235.
Hansen said she now has many regulars who have become accustomed to treating tapas as a snack and not a meal. Now 46 with two teenage daughters, she said she still loves to spend time talking with diners about her many wines to find a vintage they'll love, and has even toyed with the idea of one day opening a second tapas place, this time focusing on Spain's more modern cuisine.
"I'm not burned out yet," she said. "I'm in the prime of my career, and I'm thrilled."