Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Greater Boston Area >
Dec 18, 2007 05:55 AM

Sticking up for Harvard Square

Not sure why Harvard Square gets labeled a "culinary wasteland" on this board. As a student who has lived here for 7 years now, I figured I'd explain why I really like it here.

All of these places are within a 10-15 minute walk at most, which doesn't seem too far for anyone interested enough to visit this site.

Burgers - People vary, but it seems safe to say that most really like either Bartley's or O'Sullivan's, if not both like I do. And get a shake at Bartley's - the Godzilla Western Elvis Frappe is my favorite (a whole day's calories in a cup).

Fine Dining - I've had meals at Upstairs and Rialto that were as good as almost anywhere in the city. I haven't been to Craigie Street, but it's right here too. And Chez Henri has always been good to me (plus the bar menu which is obviously well liked).

Sandwiches - Darwin's is pretty good, but I like Oxford Spa even better. And the dueling Cuban's at Montrose Spa and Chez Henri are always tasty (I'm partial to CH).

Pizza - I'm partial to noch's, but that might just be a sentimental thing. And Armando's is pretty good too, if a little inconsistent. Oggi is a nice addition as well.

Bar Food - Charlie's Kitchen is my favorite dive anywhere, and at $5.25 their double chesseburger with fries is quite the bargain (it's gone up a whopping 30 cents in 7 years). Cambridge Common is also good for buffalo tenders and their highly regarded sweet potato fries. And the beer selection at both places is great too.

Ice Cream - Again people differ, but Herrell's and Lizzy's are both pretty good (especially the Charles River Crunch at Lizzy's). And you can still pick up Toscanini in nearby grocery stores. And Berry Line is pretty good for Pinkberry-style fro-yo.

"Date Places" - West Side Lounge and OM both have good food, a fun vibe and great drinks. Cambridge 1 is always reliable. Garden on the Cellar is a little further away, but surprisingly good. Small Plates seems like a nice addition, though I haven't been yet.

Bakeries - Rosie's up on Mass Ave for brownies, Hi Rise for pretty much everything else.

"Ethnic Food" - Some of the Thai and Indian places around the square rightly get some criticism. But Tamarind Bay is pretty good, and the food court in the Porter Exchange is really a hidden gem.

Other favorites - Burdick's for hot chocolate, Formaggio for the best cheese selection in town. Cardullo's for a great chocolate selection and other treats. Brunch at Henrietta's Table. Chinese delivery from Zoe's.

I'm sure there are others I forgot, but hopefully this is helpful for anyone looking to eat well in the neighborhood.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. i agree. i think harvard square has way more options than some other neighborhoods i could mention. compared to boston metro, cambridge in general punches above its weight, in my opinion.

    1. I can see where you're coming from to an extent. There are indeed some good restaurants around Harvard. Bartley's is one of my favorites, and several others mentioned by you are places that I believe are worth going to. [Note that some of them aren't in Harvard Square, though--Armando's (Huron Village), Porter Exchange (Porter Square), O'Sullivan's (Somerville).]

      For those of us who have lived here all our lives, however, many of us lament the transformation of Harvard Square from a funky, offbeat place to a generic outdoor mall with little to offer other than its restaurants. I agree that it isn't really a culinary wasteland, but it is no longer the fun, quirky neighborhood that it used to be, IMO.

      2 Replies
      1. re: hiddenboston

        I'm with hiddenboston on this one: there are plenty of good places to eat in Harvard Square (you don't even mention Flat Patties, which I think squashes both Bartley's and the Charlie's Kitchen burger like a grape), but you do your argument no favors by including so many places that clearly aren't in or in some cases even particularly near Harvard Square. And the issue isn't really the food so much as it is that so much of the uniqueness and charm of the area is gone.

        1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

          fair enough, but that's a different point from what the OP was responding to. i mean i agree that harvard sq is essentially an upscale outdoor shopping mall like they have in the burbs. and i deplore that too. but that's a distinct issue from whether or not it is a "culinary wasteland."

          it's also true that some of the places listed are rather a fair ways apart, and not necessarily "harvard square." but then, so are a lot of places that get lumped into "jamaica plain"--i mean, zon's is over a mile and a half from dogwood, but both are considered "JP." a mile and a half from the harvard square t stop probably gets you to most of the places listed.

      2. Harvard Square's problem is not that it doesn't have some good and interesting places to eat, it's problem is that it is drowning in drech. I like most of the places you mentioned, and, as HB mentioned, some of those you mentioned are not in HS but elsewhere.

        There are plenty of places I really like in the Square, but work needs to be done.

        And yes, like a big fat grape under hobnailed boots on a fat man, Flat Patties crushes them all.

        1. You’ve made quite an effort here and that’s admirable. Onto your food observations:
          I like Bartley’s, but the burger at O’Sullivan’s is a softball-shaped hunk of meat served on a rapidly disintegrating bun. Service is sweet and I’ve become quite fond of their steak tips, but their burger – no thanks.
          Upstairs on the Square does serve a very nice brunch as well as a lovely tea service, but their dinner options are less than inspiring. On a recent visit there, my friend’s salad was composed mostly of over-sugared cherries and sour butternut squash. She was not amused.
          Chez Henri’s bar has been good to me too.
          Craigie Street Bistrot is my go-to for higher-end dining in Harvard. A girl can’t eat there every night though.
          For sandwiches, don’t forget about Hi-Rise in Harvard.
          I like the Sicilian at Pinocchio’s too. Armando’s is not in Harvard Square, but I like their plain slices.
          Charlie’s Kitchen is a pretty great dive, I agree, but not really a destination for anyone not within 2 miles of Harvard Square. Cambridge Common is really inconsistent for me – sometimes I’ve found hairs and unidentified objects in my food. I like to stick with things that go into the fryolator (fries, tatertots) and/or the beer.
          Cambridge 1 is reliable, but again, not something I’d go out of my way for.
          Rosie’s baked goods are often rock hard. Also, they’re in Porter Square, not Harvard. I’d rather go to Burdick’s. In fact, I mostly want to go to Burdick’s all the time. Especially at this time of year.
          All of the Thai, Indian, Korean/Japanese places I’ve been to at Harvard have been mediocre, good at best. They’re ok if that’s the only option you’ve got, but again, not something to go out of your way for.
          Casablanca is consistently good.
          Zoe’s is in Porter. Formaggio is in Huron Village. Porter Exchange Mall is in Porter. I like ‘em all a lot.
          You’re right: you’re not going to starve in Harvard, but it’s not someplace I’d steer folks to for great chow. There are far better neighborhoods in Boston/Cambridgeville to go chowing in.

          37 Replies
          1. re: gini

            I've really come to enjoy sitting at the bar or in the lounge area at Monday Club Bar (downstairs at Upstairs on the Square). Their burger has become one of my favorites and I just love the tomato soup / grilled cheese combo - especially when the weather's like this.

            Also, I discovered Pinnochio's only about two months ago and thank goodness or else I'd be twice my size had I been going there these last seven years!

            1. re: heathermb

              Thanks for the tip on the Monday Club Bar - I haven't been there yet and their burger and sandwich sounds just up my ally!

              1. re: gini

                As with so much about Boston, talking about Harvard Square requires qualifications and context. No, it's not what it use to be...but what is, in terms of lifestyle amenities. That caveat notwithstanding beside the point, Harvard Square is the only piece of Boston that consistently provides the sense of energy, fun, and excitement that even comes close to what we love about our favorite global cities. The restaurants? They may not measure up to New York or London, but the prospect of oysters and a salad at the bar at Harvest or the steak and eggs at Om will do us quite nicely of an evening.

                1. re: terrycatch

                  "Harvard Square is the only piece of Boston that consistently provides the sense of energy, fun, and excitement that even comes close to what we love about our favorite global cities."

                  Seriously? Only Harvard Square accomplishes this?

                  1. re: gini

                    Well, if Davis Square is the Paris of Massachusetts, then....

                    Second above on the Monday Club Bar at Upstairs on the Sq.

                    1. re: sifsw

                      Qualified third for the Monday Club Bar.

                      The innovative appetizers and desserts are particularly excellent. The entrees, while often better than the Soiree dining room upstairs, have tended to impress me less than their bookends.

                      1. re: sifsw

                        Actually Somerville is the "Paris of New England".

                        I've been trying to find the actual quotation, but I kid you not. Me, I've always felt that way.

                        1. re: yumyum

                          Yeah, but what part of Paris? (chortle) Somerville wasn't always a funky destination spot, of course. I still remember the famous Billy Bulger quote from long ago, "Will everyone in Somerville please come out with your hands up."

                          I've always loved Somerville, though, warts and all. And they have about as many good restaurants as Cambridge does, IMO.

                          1. re: hiddenboston

                            Believe me, I remember when Mike's and the Mount Vernon were pretty much the only game in town. I was young and appalled. But now I am older and as I've matured, so has the Ville's dining scene.

                            *Somerville is for Lovers*

                            1. re: yumyum

                              Ah, Somerville IS for lovers--see it is Paris.
                              There have been a few attributions to the Utne Reader as first calling Davis Square "the Paris of the 90's." That's when I first moved there and recall the men drunk with love, falling out of the doorway of Sligo on a snowy winter morning....One year, ArtBeat constructed an Eiffel Tower in the square. Those were back in the days when Rudy's was the fanciest food in the neighborhood.

                              1. re: sifsw

                                Utne Reader ... nice one -- I read that article too. But I believe they were referring to another citation. Damn you, google, damn you!

                                Don't forget the romance of being serenaded early in the morning by the sound of the plows after a snow emergency. Do I sound bitter?

                                1. re: yumyum

                                  Oh, caught in my googling! I too curse it today. I thought for sure I'd beat you to the true source, even though I've tried before to find it unsuccessfully. Caught in my Utne pretension.

                                  In summer, the lilting sounds of the parking ticket nymphs and those who gently call out, trying to evade their charms. The youthful exuberance that cascades from the Joshua Tree in the wee hours...

                                  What was the diner that used to be where Diva is? I never went there, nor knew anyone who did, and so wondered if it was a lost treasure or scary or somewhere in between.

                            2. re: hiddenboston

                              > And they have about as many good restaurants as Cambridge does, IMO.

                              Good restaurants, perhaps. Good, upscale restaurants? Not yet anyway. Nothing against Gargoyles and EVOO, but to me, they can't hold a candle to Cambridge's top tier (Salts, Craigie Street), or even its excellent second tier (Blue Room, Chez Henri). Give it time though...

                              1. re: finlero

                                Agree, but I believe the Harvard clientèle (prof's + rich parents + visiting dignitaries = $$$) support the upper tier better than our Tufts analog does. Plus, for upscale, we Somerville folks just drive to Cambridge.

                            3. re: yumyum

                              When Allstonian and I were doing the Somerville Christmas Lights tour on Saturday, our trolley guide (Jon Bernhardt, a WMBR cohort of Chowhound's own Joanie) mentioned another nickname I love: "Somerville: The Cambridge of Medford."

                              1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                To Barny: I really wanted to take my nephew and niece on that tour w/ Bernsy (my fundraising nemesis) but they were out of town that weekend. We would have been stuck at JP Licks probably for food after, but it sounded like fun. I'll just keep driving by that infamous lit up monstrosity on the J Way.

                                1. re: Joanie

                                  That place (Dominic Luberto's house in JP) is the talk of the town today, BTW. Some argument about police details needed there or whatever. I personally like the house on the Lynn Fells Parkway better.

                                  Back to Harvard Square: Am I getting the impression that a number of people like Flat Patties better than Mr. Bartley's? I'm hoping to go to FP in a few weeks, but might need to get there sooner if this is indeed the case. I'm really jonesing for a burger these days...

                                  1. re: hiddenboston

                                    I definitely far prefer Flat Patties to Bartley's, but that should be clarified on two points: I genuinely dislike Bartley's, because I find the burgers greasy and the toppings overkill. Also, the main thing about Flat Patties that I love is that as a native Texan, I have a specific idea of what constitutes a right, just and proper burger: a wide, flat patty on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and, crucially, mustard instead of mayo, ketchup or any kind of secret sauce. Flat Patties is one of the very few places in town where I can get that, and it's the one that comes closest to my own Platonic ideal of burgerdom.

                                    1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                      Ohhh, if only I didn't have two Christmas parties to go to later today.....maybe I'll hit Flat Patties over the weekend. Thanks for the info!

                                    2. re: hiddenboston

                                      NO -- you are not getting this impression!!! Bartley's and Flat Patties are two different animals. I recently tried and like FP's but I *really* like Bartley's ... however it's not fair to say that "people" prefer one over the other. Some people do, but others prefer Bartleys -- "you can't beat their meat."

                                  2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                    I LOVE that Illuminations tour of my hood. So glad you guys came along and enjoyed it too. Oh, and yeah, a lot of people know Joanie. :-)

                              2. re: gini

                                What about Jamaica Plain, Davis Square, the North End, the South End, Allston, etc.? I'd consider those all at least as interesting as Harvard Square.

                                1. re: hiddenboston

                                  as i noted above, from one end of Jamaica Plain to the other is a little over 1.5 miles. that, coincidentally, is about the distance between harvard square and davis square. so if we're comparing apples to apples, davis, porter et seq should be included in "harvard square"--if hyde square, jackson square, forest hills, stony brook are all part of "JP."

                                  and no matter how you slice it, the chow is waaaay thicker on the ground in cambridge/harvard square whatever than it is in JP. not even close, in my opinion.

                                  anyway, the point wasn't that h.sq. is the "most interesting" neighborhood (whatever that means) for boston chowhounds. it was only that it's not nearly as bad as it is often made out to be.

                                  1. re: autopi

                                    But in order to consider wrapping those parts of Somerville and Cambridge into a Harvard Square dining discussion, any discussions about dining in the South End of Boston would need to include the North End, Back Bay, Chinatown, Beacon Hill, the Financial District, and Faneuil Hall. Plus, it's possible that Davis Square folks would probably consider Harvard Square to be part of the Davis Square area rather than the other way around.

                                    This all gets very confusing. Maybe we should talk about restaurants in Forge Village, Lanesville, or Brant Rock instead. ;-b

                                    1. re: hiddenboston

                                      you make a good point. it just shows the relative uselessness of neighborhood by neighborhood comparisons since sizes vary so wildly. (perhaps the outlier here is jp, which is very, very large in comparison to all the other neighborhoods. comparing the north end to harvard square to chinatown etc. is probably not too far off.)

                                    2. re: autopi

                                      "and no matter how you slice it, the chow is waaaay thicker on the ground in cambridge/harvard square whatever than it is in JP. not even close, in my opinion."

                                      If you want to talk thickness on the ground, though, Brighton Ave between Packards Corner and Union Square Allston -- a distance of a little over half a mile -- knocks Harvard Square into a cocked hat.

                                      1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                        that may be, but that's not the point. the point is that harvard square is not as bad as some make it out to be. the point is not that harvard square is the best chow destination in the city.

                                  2. re: gini

                                    Yah, seriously has Terrycatch been to the South End lately?

                                    1. re: StriperGuy

                                      Frequently. I'll take HS in comparison.

                                  3. re: terrycatch

                                    Tourists and students make for "energy, fun and excitement"?

                                    1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                      They tend to be more active than the suburban soccer moms. ;)

                                      But back to the OP, point well taken as to how good we've got comparatively. I often forget that I am in easy walking distance to such great varieties of chow.

                                      Enjoyed a small Burdick's dark hot chocolate the other cold night, but is it me or did they start making it sweeter than in the past? I seem to remember past cups being almost bitter and grainy with chocolate (which I loved). Has anyone else noticed this?

                                      1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                        I've only been to Burdick once since they remodeled, and while I didn't notice a difference in the taste of the hot chocolate, I did notice that the whole place was a disorganized zoo. Everyone on staff appeared to be making a sincere effort to do as best as they could, but there were simply too many orders and not enough time. The extra tables and dearth of ceramic cups have removed a lot of the dignity and refinement of the place. It used to be bustling; now it's just crazy.

                                        Anyway, Bob, if you went at a busy time (as did I), it wouldn't surprise me at all if their quality control was a little lax, ergo causing the chocolate to be sweeter than it should have been.

                                      2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                        Whoever they are...there is more street life here long into the evening than the other Boston locales mentioned. In one observer's/participant's experience.

                                  4. re: heathermb

                                    I dine at the bar there a lot too. I find their salad apps to be a perfect snack. they are good to single diners at the bar, too.

                                  5. re: gini

                                    Where is the Hi-Rise in Harvard? I remember seeing a sign when I took a CCAE class but didn't see the actual storefront.

                                    1. re: Aphex

                                      A few doors up from Burdick.

                                      Hi-Rise Bread Company
                                      56 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA

                                      1. re: finlero

                                        In fact, it's in the cafe space in the front end of the second CCAE building. (i.e., not the building next to the Brattle Theatre, but Blacksmith House or whatever it's called, down between Burdick's and the Loeb.)

                                  6. Anyone have any updates on the old Greenhouse space? Another production from the Miracle of Science group, innit?

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: digga

                                      I have no idea but all I want for X-mas is Greenhouse out of there and something decent.

                                      As for the OP, there are some decent HS spots but I think it could be much better. The restaurants are shooting fish in a bucket and they know they can get by with overpriced, mediocre food. I moved here from the bay area and read HS described as Berkeley-esq, which may describe my disappointment.

                                      1. re: figg

                                        I'm not saying it's NYC or Paris, all I'm saying is I can't really understand when people say "woe is me, I have to meet friends/relatives/coworkers in Harvard Square - too bad the place is worthless." Which happens a lot on this site.

                                        I can't really comment on the overall feel of the place, since I've only been here during the overly commercial days. But I think the food is quite good. Great call on Harvest, by the way. A favorite of mine that I somehow forgot.

                                        And I know some of the places I mentioned are not technically in the square. But they are only a short walk away. And they seem worth mentioning to those who insist they can't find anything else worthwhile.

                                        Clearly there are other great areas in the city. I recently posted my little roundup of JP lunch spots. But I also think Harvard Square deserves better.

                                        1. re: LAinBoston

                                          Good point. As is so often the case, the truth is usually in between. Harvard is no longer the interesting, exciting place it used to be, but there really are some good restaurants in the neighborhood. I am looking to do a food trip in Harvard over the coming weeks with one or two other folks, and we have what I think is an impressive list of places from which to sample, including Flat Patties, Pinocchio's, Cambridge 1, Mr. Bartley's, and, just outside of the Square, Chez Henri.

                                          1. re: hiddenboston

                                            I'd also recommend--on the other side of the square--Garden at the Cellar. Have only been there a couple of times, but really enjoyed it.

                                          2. re: LAinBoston

                                            I lived near the square for a long time and you just get sick of what's available there - and I'm saying in the immediate square, for argument's sake.

                                            There are good cheap eats to be had - Bartley's or Pinocchio's for example - and great fine dining (Harvest, Upstairs on the Square), but I think there is a lack of good low/mid-priced, sit-down and relax for a quick bite type restaurants, esp. if you have picky eaters in the crew (no Tamarind Bay, for example).

                                            There are a lot of restaurants in the square that are in this price-point, but food is just not worth the calories, IMHO: Bertucci's, Fire & Ice, Redline, all the Thai places, Grafton Street, Z Square, etc. Maybe Cambridge 1 is the only middle of the road place (price-wise) that has solid food?

                                            Most often I would end up having a grilled cheese at Shay's (because, of course, I'm drinking pints in Harvard Square!), pho at Le's (even though I think it has gone way downhill), or a snack at the bar at Harvest or Upstairs on the Square (spending more than I wish sometimes). Or I head out to Chez Henri, Cambridge Common, Forest Cafe, which I don't consider Harvard Square, especially not in the winter when that walk can suck.