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Dec 4, 2009 05:32 PM

burgers at upstairs on the square...bad?

So my wife and I found ourselves in harvard square a few days ago, which doesn't happen too often. Dinner time, and I thought I remembered Upstairs on the Square as a contender for somebody's favorite burger in that infinitely long thread that's still, I think, going on. Sounded good.

First of all, I was a little surprised by the decor and, err, cleanliness at a place at that price point. On the one hand, I'm usually in favor of eclectic design, but there's a point at which you cross into junky, which is definitely happening in the bar side of the restaurant. Plastic bags taped over the air conditioner, a decade's worth of dust stuck to the chandeliers, a seriously amateur faux paint job above the bar. The "fine dining" room next door looked more cleaned up, but I didn't take a close look. The christmas tree was lovely, though.

Wife and I sat at the bar and both ordered the burger. The staff was very nice, the wine pours were generous if a little overpriced. In the moments when the kitchen door would swing open, it looked a little dank and chaotic. The burgers here are on the expensive side, $15, and with niman ranch beef, so I was really hoping for something good. Alas, both of our medium rare burgers were served medium well and over salted. The buns were potato rolls which, while flavorful, were overwhelmingly dense. Every bite felt like one more lead weight dropping down. At one point we were asked if we wanted ketchup, and we said sure, only to listen to somebody squeezing it out into cups just around the corner. It really made me feel like we were eating next to the bathroom. The fries were pretty good.

At the end of the night, two glasses of wine, two burgers, tip came to about $70. I'm willing to pay that if the night is memorable in a good way, but this was memorable in a bad way.

I'm curious if anyone else has had this same experience, or if we just sat at the wrong seat at the bar.

Any recommendations for where we should have gone on a night like this instead?

Upstairs On the Square
91 Winthrop Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

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  1. for a burger in cambridge i'd recommend the bar at craigie on main or garden at the cellar. burger at craigie is great, but i like the fries at garden better. not a huge fan of potato sticks. cocktails and atmosphere is better at craigie though.

    1. The burger situation in the Square is a bit interesting, but first, let me comment on your experience at Upstairs.

      I suggest trying it again. Sounds like you had seats that put you right near the kitchen. There are plenty of other, nicer, seats, especially in the Zebra room. (The "fine dining" part of the restaurant is upstairs. The Zebra room is contiguous with the bar area and serves the same menu.) As for cleanliness, you are right. Somehow the carpets have become too dirty and should have been replaced a couple of years ago. The service staff for than makes up for that, in my opinion, but I do wish they would do better with the carpets. The tables are immaculate.

      Now, about the "Burger Situation", with apologies to Pulp Fiction....

      There are four noteworthy burger places in the Square: Charlies, Bartley's (B), Flat Patties (F) and Upstairs (U). Putting aside Charlie's for the moment, the other three are all very different. I personally find all of them great. In order of patty thickness (high to low) it goes B-U-F. I think all of them grind their own beef.

      The roll at Upstairs is fantastic, but I see what you mean by heavy. The solution is simple, take off the top part of the bun and use a fork and knife to eat the burger. Then nibble on the top bun. The bacon served with the burger is top-notch. I think they were able to put together a nice combination of flavors which speaks more to the fine dining palate than any other burger I have had. But don't forget, it is still just a burger. One should not expect more than that. One thing they consistently do is overcook. If you want rare, make it "the cool side of rare", for example.

      Moving on to Bartley's, the burgers are better than than decor. The patties are done along the lines of a very thick fried burger with a very light roll. At Bartley's it is about the beef-beef-beef. There is little balance, but it does give one the opportunity to really load up the burger with other strong flavors, as their extensive menu suggests. Go for the yuppie burger!

      Flat Patties, like the name says, does theirs along the lines of In and Out Burger, with a flat patty, quickly cooked. The beef is fantastic there and the standard presentation, with their "special sauce", is just the ticket. Order two. But, be prepared for a food court atmosphere. No wine list there (nor at Bartley's).

      As for Charlie's, this is a mid grade flat burger with beef patties probably from some mass market distributor, but a great old Cambridge atmosphere, reasonable prices and a great Juke box. Don't bother ordering the burger unless you are drinking beer with it.

      Sounds to me like you would have been happier at Upstairs if you ordered one of their "classier" dishes and sat in the Zebra room. Try it again.

      1 Reply
      1. re: shokudou

        Fair enough. True, the roll itself is very good, but I think when combined with a thick patty, it's too much to chew in one bite. I concur with the bacon quality. My own burger preference in the square is at the bar at Casablanca (which we couldn't go to that night for other reasons). If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend.

        My reaction to Upstairs was partly about the burger, but partly about my sense that they didn't seem to have their act together. Then again, Tuesdays are often off nights, so perhaps I'll give it another try.

      2. Your experience is inline with mine. I have never had a good visit at Upstairs on the Square and it is firmly in my "avoid" category. Hounds here have mixed opinions: some love the place, some cite uneven and inconsistent performance, some outright dislike it as I do. When I've visited, it is never one thing, but a little bit of everything: Odd service, off-executed dishes, screwy wine service, just a general sense of not firing on all cylinders, and not caring that that is the case. I'm forgiving if the food is good, but it isn't.

        For a burger, I'd hit up Craigie on Main (Central Square) or Garden at the Cellar (between Harvard and Central squares), as mgcmonkey suggests. Indeed, I'd hit up Craigie on Main for a hamburger, or anything else, anytime.

        Sticking to Harvard Square, you have Flat Patties in The Garage, which serves up a thin west coast-style gridded burger. Although a bit of a tourist trap, and with an odd refusal to season the hamburger meat (or anything else), Bartley's serves a good hamburger and great frappes. They also do a perfect-as-ordered medium rare.

        For something else, just outside the square, you have Ten Tables (new American) and Chez Henri (cuban-influenced bistro). Neither (usually) offer hamburgers, but they are both good spots. The bar at Chez Henri is a board favorite, offering good drinks and an excellent rendition of a cuban sandwich.

        1 Reply
        1. re: rlove

          rlove -- I wanted to chime in on the Upstairs inconsistencies after my experience Saturday night. I've long been in the "Hounds love it" camp, but that could very well be for sentimental reasons and not about the food. I typically go once or twice a year and usually for a girlie lunch or a special occasion where the room and service are as important as the grub. I admit I am a sucker for the Christmas tree and holiday decorations.

          That said, I loved my meal on Saturday but my DC was not as impressed. This was purely ordering but it gets to the inconsistency question. I got the lamb meatballs in an orange-spiked tomato sauce with grilled bread to dip. A remarkable dish, especially with a farm egg mixed in. I also had a half order of pappardelle with "Long Island duck ragout". Silky pasta very lightly dressed with the duck, and a perfect portion for me. Friend had the autumn squash pizette which was tiny and boring. She must have had something else but it was clearly forgettable. We both had some very good wine (they are getting rid of some '05 Bordeaux for bargain bin prices at the moment) and the service was perfect. But if you asked me to grade my meal and her to, we would have given it very different marks, I'm sure.

          None of that has anything to do with a burger but it's what I got.

        2. Had the burger there on Friday for lunch. The bun had visible mold on it. I pointed it out to the waiter and no less than four people showed up at the table to apologize, and they obviously didn't charge me for it. I have had good meals there, too. I bring this up only in that I think it represents 'inconsistency' others have mentioned. BC