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May 18, 2013 05:54 AM

The Harvard Experience

I'm taking my son up to Harvard to do a tour, and I thought it would be nice to have dinner somewhere around Harvard Square so that he can get a real sense of what the place feels like. I know nothing about Cambridge, and would love any suggestions for places to eat -- from fine dining, to hang outs -- as long as the food is good and the atmosphere is fun.


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  1. Russell House Tavern or Upstairs on the Square for hang out and fine dining respectively. Bartley's Burger House for dive although I personally don't think it lives up to the hype. Have a fun trip!!

    1. Burdick's is a great "sweet" shoppe that has wonderful hot chocolate. Get some and drink it outside as you watch a broad spectrum of the human race walk by.

      2 Replies
      1. re: catsmeow

        I've been to the Burdick's in Walpole, NH where they have a really nice dinner menu. And of course, the chocolate mice! My son is a chocoholic (every meal ends with a dark chocolate feve), so we will certainly stop there. Thanks for the heads up!

        1. re: roxlet

          Just an fyi, Burdick's in Cambridge is a bit different from the one in Walpole. No restaurant per se, rather it focuses more on the chocolates and the hot beverages and the sweets. Kind of like the chocolate store section in Walpole without the dining room.

      2. The Border Cafe is very popular among student aged population. I'm not a fan, but it'd give you a certain view into local life.
        Charlie's Kitchen in the same vein, which I like better.
        Crema Cafe. Cambridge 1. Algiers Cafe. Tamarind Bay. Pinocchio's. Russell House Tavern. Bartley's. All these aregood
        to very good at what they do and are very popular local flavor places.

        32 Replies
        1. re: jajjguy

          Skip the Border. I'd take a prospective student to Charlie's where they will be hanging out and also to grendels. Not known for food. But still. If you want a nicer meal hit Russell House. Love it there!

          1. re: yumyum

            Would Charlie's be a good spot for lunch if we did Russell house the previous night for dinner?

            1. re: roxlet

              Charlie's is your basic student dive bar. I wouldn't bother with it. Ditto for the perpetually-overrated Bartley's.

              Otto and Pinocchio offer very different but equally enjoyable slices.

              A big part of the issue is that Harvard Square has gotten so overrun with bank branches and chain stores that you can give him "a real sense of what the place feels like" by dropping him off at your local mall and then paying someone to go up with a clipboard and hector him to make a donation to a charity that won't actually see a dime of the money.

                1. re: roxlet

                  Sorry about that. I actually spend a fair amount of time in Harvard Square myself, and there are certainly things I love about it -- various record and book stores, Bob Slate Stationers, LaFlamme's Barber Shop -- but as a whole, it's just not at all what it used to be. There's a handful of quick cheap lunch options that I frequent regularly, being within walking distance, but not much to recommend as a specific destination.

                  1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                    You are so SADLY right...

                    I am so sad at what it's become...

                    But count me in as a huge Charlie's fan!

                    1. re: C. Hamster

                      It's a great place for a beer and I would argue that the jukebox at Charlie's is the superlative jukebox in all of Massachusetts, not that there's a lot of competition there anymore. But what on the menu is any good? This is a serious question: I'd be happy to stop in more often if there was hidden greatness on the menu, but I don't recall ever having anything better than meh there.

                      Although now that I think of it, it occurs to me that the last time I went to Charlie's, it was with my father-in-law, so that was 2004 or before, so things may have changed.

                      1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                        The food is more or less the same as it has been for at least 15 years. They occasionally have interesting specials but they're always variations on the same themes. I don't mind eating there but I usually try to eat elsewhere if I'm going to be hanging out there.

                        1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                          Where are you staying?

                          The food Charlie's is below average IMO, and the place is generally a bit gross and dirty to boot. It's fine for a drink, but I'm definitely not eating there. Charlie's qualifies as a dive, whereas Bartleys does not despite a comment earlier in the thread.

                          I would do Russell House for dinner, and Bartley's for lunch the next day to get a good feel for the current Square. Bartleys has both its fans and detractors here, but it is unquestionably a unique local atmosphere.

                          We have enjoyed some nice casual meals at the Boathouse recently.

                          A friend who has a nephew at Harvard asked us to pick up gift cards to Russell House, Wagamama and Pinocchio's for Christmas (as we live in the neighborhood and could do a quick errand). That's just one point of reference of what an actual student wanted to eat.

                          1. re: Gabatta

                            We're staying at the Hotel Marlowe, which is some distance away, but it's where my son and husband always stay for squash tournaments at Harvard. We'll have to drive into the center and park, so it doesn't matter where the restaurant is, as long as it's near the University. Usually, when they go for tournaments, they go right back to the hotel after matches to shower and for my son to do school work, so they often eat at the hotel. I want to give him a different experience.

                            1. re: roxlet

                              Squash tournaments suggest, with only a friendly wink and the barest hint of a smirk, that you might be able to find a friend to take you to the Harvard Faculty Club. You can find better food in the square, but it's a particular and interesting social experience - both to hang with the Crimsons and to browse the 1950s-era photos of dorm rooms ("Chip fit his scull inside the room, can you believe it? Had to replace his bed with a hammock, though. What a cad!")

                              1. re: enhF94

                                We could certainly do that, but since my husband is a Yalie, we have had lots of experience with bad club food, lol!

                                1. re: roxlet

                                  "Toooooo the tables down at Mory's... wherever that may be..." :D

                                    1. re: enhF94

                                      I may be the only one here who got that sly reference!

                                          1. re: nsenada

                                            technically Lehrer, due to the 2nd half of the quote, but he was riffing on The Whiffenpoofs Song.

                                            ObFood: At Mory's, you can still get Welsh Rarebit, Buck, and Golden Buck. (Golden buck is rarebit with a poached egg on top.)

                                            1. re: enhF94

                                              When my husband last ate there in March, he said that the food was, if possible, worse than ever, lol! But he goes to support the institution rather than have a good meal!

                                          2. re: Steve L

                                            Yup. You'd be surprised how few people have any idea who Tom Lehrer was (or the Whiffenpoofs, for that matter).

                                            "Ivy covered professors, in ivy covered halls."

                                            1. re: kimfair1

                                              My favorite is The Vatican Rag. Love Tom Lehrer.

                        2. re: roxlet

                          well, as mark twain said, wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds.

                          half of harvard square is a mall, the other half is more quirky.

                          i like rialto, a very good italian restaurant; there are still good new and used books stores in the square. I could get a burger at Mr. Bartley's under duress.

                          And both Porter Square and Central Square have very interesting places to eat. Try Rod Dee or Rendezvous or Craigie on Main

                          All is not lost.

                          I bet Cambridge is 1968 Berkley in comparison to present day Palo Atlo.

                        3. re: Jenny Ondioline

                          I whole heartedly agree with Bartley's being overrated. For a great burger, I say, go to Flat Patties nearby.

                          1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                            I'm not a huge Charlie's fan, but most of the people I know who go there are Kennedy School people and Cambridge City Goverment 20-somethings, so maybe not *quite* a "basic student dive bar."

                            It's also staffed with people who care about doing a good job (if not necessarily making everyone feel welcome).

                            1. re: enhF94

                              I'm in my late 30s and hang out there upstairs with some regularity and I don't usually feel *that* old. I think you're right that its mor grad students and late 20/early 30 somethings

                            2. re: Jenny Ondioline

                              Otto is a west coast import. Pinocchio's is 100% homegrown.

                                1. re: Chef Bwana

                                  Perhaps you're confusing Portland ME with Portland OR?

                                  1. re: roxlet

                                    I actually like Charlie's. The make a great steak and cheese. They attract a diverse crowd, and yes, it is a dive. Also, Russell House Tavern is one of my favorites. We generally sit at the bar and enjoy the brunch menu.

                              1. Actual students also go to John Harvard's Brew House and Veggie Planet; I've always enjoyed the food at VP.

                                12 Replies
                                1. re: cassis

                                  YES, this is the most student-y I've heard yet.

                                  1. re: cassis

                                    Also Clover. Very casual vegetarian/vegan with real cream for your hipster pourover coffee. And a local beer.

                                    1. re: Aromatherapy

                                      What about the old Algiers coffeehouse? Haven't been in years but one of the few remaining classic places. My first exposure to turkish coffee in the mid 80s. They used to have a really nice moujaddara too.

                                        1. re: jajjguy

                                          It's very pricey for what it is.

                                          1. re: femmevox

                                            Really? Prices seem in line with other mid-eastern places and coffee shops in general. Particularly in Harvard Square!

                                            1. re: Science Chick

                                              Algiers is very expensive --- maybe for coffee and tea only a little more than most places, but food prices are ridiculous. It's also beautiful inside, especially on the second floor.

                                              1. re: lipoff

                                                I haven't been there in years...since it was the charming little hole in the basement. But looking at the online menu I'm seeing prices for sandwiches in the $7-9 range. Seems only a little more expensive that Cafe Barada, which I think is appropriate for the HS location.

                                        2. re: Science Chick

                                          Yes - Algiers is a nice museaum piece. Dare I ask if Pamplona still exists?

                                          1. re: nsenada

                                            It was closed for several months around 2005, but it reopened and has remained its usual self.

                                            1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                              I always feel like I'm the only one there - my husband does business meetings there so he's not disturbed. Overpriced and sort of sad. It will NOT make him eager to go to Harvard. Cafe Crema has a much livelier vibe (and better food)

                                              1. re: LauraBear

                                                To each their own, I guess. Cafe Crema has some good offerings, but it's always so crowded it's just plain annoying. In and out for some takeout pastries is as much as I can handle there.

                                    2. I made a reservation at Russell House just to be assured of a spot, and I will continue perusing some other menus in case I find one that looks better for dinner, and looking for a spot for lunch. Thanks for all these ideas!

                                      9 Replies
                                      1. re: roxlet

                                        I like the downstairs bar significantly better then the upstairs bar. Also, ask the bartender what the secret burger of the week is. This is one of my favorite places to eat in the Sq.

                                        1. re: beetlebug

                                          Definitely sit downstairs, preferably at the bar. Most complaints that I've heard about Russell House have been on the upstairs room.

                                          1. re: beetlebug

                                            Thanks for the heads up on dining downstairs. Is it only bar seating downstairs, or do they have tables too? My son is a minor, and there are places that don't allow minors at the bar.

                                            1. re: roxlet

                                              There is a beautiful bar as well as tables. Your son, should be able to sit at the bar though. Bypass the upstairs hostess and go right downstairs.

                                          2. re: roxlet

                                            look into Shay's, its a pub, homey, and a great burger, actually everything there is great but the menu is small, nice outdoor patio also

                                            1. re: momoftwo

                                              Sounds like a nice spot for lunch -- particularly if it's a nice day!

                                              1. re: roxlet

                                                Yes but if it is a nice day you will never find a seat.

                                                1. re: David_A

                                                  They are huge soccer fans - great place to watch the World Cup matches.

                                                  1. re: David_A

                                                    We always get a seat. It moves - if you want a seat, and willing to wait (a few minutes max) - you can get one. People are also generous about sliding over and making room.