A Glutton's Guide to Harvard Square & Environs
If you live on campus, the $30 a week you pay for board entitles you to 21 meals. But from the looks of it, not too many Harvard students actually take advantage of this privilege. Maybe students don't think the food is that good, or maybe they are always finding a reason to go out and celebrate. Or, unlikely as it sounds, maybe students find the eating spots in and around the Square so enticing they just can't stay away.
For whatever reason, the restaurants in the Square get more and more crowded even though their numbers keep increasing. So we hardly feel guilty of undermining Harvard's Food Services by presenting this guide to the best and the worst eating spots we've discovered in the area. The lists are not complete and you may disagree with some of our assessments. But at least we've given you a little food for thought, so to speak.
House grills are not of much interest to anyone but the people who live in the Houses. But almost every House has one; they're convenient, they're cheap, and they almost all have some specialty that is pretty good.
The grills generally offer sandwiches, frappes, ice cream, hamburgers, and munchies--though their offerings vary from House to House. More than one grill will sell you beer. Some carry yogurt and some minor health foods.
Practically nobody has been poisoned by the food served up on a House grill. Each House Committee offers a grill franchise to House entrepreneurs, and whoever wins the franchise runs the thing for the next year or so. As a result the service varies, the cooking varies, and the hours vary--though it is safe to say that House grills are generally open late in the evenings and tend to close when the local entrepreneur decides to go to a basketball game.
114 Mt. Auburn St.
Cronin's Restaurant is, according to its menu, "situated in historic Harvard Square on Mt. Auburn, the Poets Walk, where Longfellow, Lowell, Eliot, and Thoreau inspired a young America to excel in the arts, and glorify its beauties as it winds its way along the Picturesque Charles to Hell's Half-Acre."
In fact, Cronin's sits in neon splendor on the other side of the tracks from the pretentious row of watering holes and cookshacks that stand cheek-and-jowl on the north side of the street. About two years ago, the waitresses struck Cronin's and the restaurant that had always fashioned itself a hang-out for the good old college boys found itself deserted by a politically-conscious student body that sympathized with the workers. The waitresses have since returned, but the students haven't, even though Cronin's remains perhaps the best restaurant around for a good and cheap Square meal.
Everything at Cronin's, including the prices, is out of date. The large dining room is a forest of high wooden booths with seats upholstered in aging red leather and lamp-lit wooden tables. The menu is a tattered coincidence of paper clips and mimeographed leaves, and nothing in it costs more than four dollars. The hot meat sandwiches are the only items that could be considered expensive, but such classic fare as liver-and-onions (quite fine) runs for under two bucks. You can eat a full meal, drink a bottle of beer from the bar next door, and leave a handsome tip for three dollars. In short, Cronin's is an unassuming place. A juke box in the corner leaves you subject to the abuses of other people's tastes, but this is no place to be an elitist. A chief virtue of the establishment, perhaps unfortunately for the management, is its emptiness. If you ever want to have a conversation ove a late meal, don't forget to check out Cronin's. Open till 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, midnight the rest of the week.
1105 Mass Ave
After only a few months of doing business in the Square, Chez Michel has expanded in size and readied itself to serve the hoards of hungry Harvardians who wonder why the area cannot support a restaurant that offers reasonably tasty meals at reasonably decent prices. The new eatery, which specializes in light luncheon-type meals, isn't exactly what the doctor ordered, but considering the paucity of good and moderately priced feeding places, Chez Michel is hardly bad.
The only thing that's French about the restaurant, located across the intersection of Arrow St. and Mass Ave, is its name. The menu is supposedly international in orientation, but Michel's fare is pretty standard for the Square. Salads and omelettes share the spotlight with burgers and sandwiches--all adequately prepared, but none spectacular. Portions are relatively small, but some dishes are accompanied by a salad and French bread, so if you order right you can eat your fill.
The nicest thing about Chez Michel is the variety of dishes that they whip up. If you don't know exactly what sort of food you're hungry for, you can go to Michel's and be assured that you'll find something that will please the palate. Meals run from $1.50 to more than $3, and if you can bear occasional blandness and are fed up with the greasy spoons, the restaurant may merit a visit.
Prospect and Broadway Streets
A prime successor to light bulbs as Harvard's culinary fad has emerged: Szechuan-Hunan-style Chinese food. The Su-Shiang Restaurant is well on its way to transforming this import from Southwestern China from a fad to a gourmet tradition of its own.
If Su-Shiang can be translated into English, an educated guess would be that it means "spicy." The food there is quite unlike what you've ever eaten at conventional Chinese restaurants that serve their dishes Cantonese-style. Don't be surprised if you're forced to ask the waiter to fill your glass with water four of five times, for Su-Shiang's spicy dishes (designated by a star on the menu) give your taste buds and esophagus a real workout.
It's not that the chef at the Su-Shiang gets a sadistic thrill out of seeing his customers repeatedly reach for their water glasses, but rather that authentic Szechuan-Hunan-style food does not have that bland taste that characterizes so many Chinese-American dishes. For the less-than-ambitious, Su-Shiang's menu also offers a multitude of seafood, poultry, beef, and pork dishes without the distinctive Szechuan flavor.
To get a good sampling of Szechuan food without shelling out a lot of money (prices are not inexpensive but reasonable), bring a few friends along with you. The four of five of you will leave fully satiated if not stuffed. Among the best items on the menu are the hot and sour soup, which prepares the taste buds for what follows; special Szechuan Shrimp, which is probably the most tasty shrimp you'll ever experience; and Mushi Pork, a non-spicy dish that will brign you back down to earth.
So if you're willing to venture a few blocks outside of the Square, your efforts will certainly be rewarded. The Su-Shiang is located at 158 Prospect St., between Central and Inman Squares. Just opened in June, Su-Shiang's friendly service (the waiters will gladly explain what each dish is and how it is prepared), relaxed atmosphere and tasty food already surpasses that of any Chinese restaurant within walking distance of the Square.
One last precaution: Be sure to save enough money for an after-dinner ice cream cone. You'll need it.
9 Brattle St.
The sausages hanging from the ceiling at Zum Zum are plastic, but if that doesn't bother you, you can enjoy good real German sausages there. In fact, almost all its German food, from the sauerkraut to the bratwurst to the cakes, is quite good, and is better, some feel, than that of its rival across the street, the Wursthaus.
It is also cheaper than the Wursthaus, with sandwiches running an average of $1.50. This is probably a consequence of its being a fast food place: the service is super-fast and there are no tables. Indeed, Zum Zum has become more and more of an ordinary fast food place ever since Restaurant Associates apparently gave up on their earlier policy of hiring only waitresses with German accents and gave in to the pressures of Harvard Square by installing an ice cream counter.
Although Zum Zum may strike you as a pretentious sandwich counter, it is a good place to find German food that is real and unpretentious and moderately-priced.
282 Concord Ave.
The servings aren't large at Lucky Gardens, but otherwise the restaurant is a winner. It's small and always crowded. Reservations are accepted and it's a good idea to make them because the wait can be a long one. In fact, if you're going in a group of six or more, definitely call first.
The service is exceptionally pleasant--the waiters and waitresses are generally eager to explain the more unusual dishes. One of the best of these is Eight Treasure Chicken. Actually, everything we've ever tried there has been adequate at the very least and usually it's much better than that. The egg rolls are on the smallish side, and there are no accompanying sauces.
The majority of the selections are Szechuan specialities, which means they are spicy, but there is a Cantonese side of the menu. The egg drop and wonton soups are nothing special, but the sweet and sour pork is. Otherwise, we would recommend that you try the more exotic offerings instead of the traditional chow meins, etc.
Wine is not offered but every meal is served with an unlimited pot of tea. Lemon and sugar do not exist. This is a Chinese restaurant, not merely Chinese style. Knives and forks, however, are available on request The prices are very reasonable--remember though, the portions are smaller than the usual Chinese entree size.
1 Shepard St.
Chez Jean is tucked away down from the main stream of traffic, nestled near the Quad. It's an innocuous looking place, with a maitred' struggling hard to give an air of haute cuisine by insulting student types who wander in dressed informally. If you go in jeans be prepared to act snobby--otherwise you won't get decent service.
The service is nothing to boast about, even if you're dressed by Laurent--there aren't enough waiters to do a really good job. Usually though, the place isn't too crowded, which is indicative of the food: poor to mediocre. It's also way overpriced. The menu is rather limited. There are the usual French entrees, and the coq au vin is the best of the bunch. The bread is always dry, the desserts often stale, the vegetables are boring and overcooked--and for all of this you're lucky to get out for eight bucks.
The atmosphere is really the only redeeming quality. The tablecloths are always beautifully crisp and white, and the lighting is soft.
Otherwise Chez Jean is the kind of place parents take Quad-residing freshmen because it's near, and because they don't know better.
1712 Mass Ave
The Midget (up near the Quadrangle) is best at preparing the kind of food usually available from delicatessens. Although this Jewish style deli is not in the same league as Katz's Delicatessen on New York's lower east side (and it's not Kosher), in the Harvard Square area the Midget is probably the closest you'll come to a decent corned-beef-on-rye with a side order of kishka. The triple decker "College Sandwiches" are well worth their prices, and bagels with cream cheese and lox are available (a rarity in this town). The adjoining maxi bar and lounge is comfortable and its drinks are served at reasonable prices.
1274 Mass Ave
La Crepe is a franchise restaurant that Harvard Square could easily have done without. As it is, the French eatery has only two saving graces: its onion soup, which is really quite delicious, and its over-sized Bloody Mary. Everything else on the menu is either unpalatable or way too expensive for what you're getting.
The specialty of the house is, naturally enough, crepes. These pancake-like creatures are filled with anything from ham to ice cream, and can make for a nice light meal--but not at La Crepe. Their crepes have a rubbery quality, and you can sometimes get halfway through one of the squared-off flatcakes before you find the filling you paid a dollar extra for.
Omelettes and quiche make up the rest of La Crepe's solid offerings, and though they are decidedly more tasty than the crepes, you can get better servings of both at more reasonable prices from other area restaurants. If you're going to bother at all with a main dish, try the Swiss cheese omelett, which is filled with generous amounts of cheese.
La Crepe used to be a pleasant spot for a drink, but since they've converted the backroom into a lounge where you have to go if you're not eating also, it's much less nice. The seats are comfortable, but the atmosphere is obnoxious and the new bartender has a lot to learn about mixing drinks.
75 Winthrop St.
In most parts of the country, Mexican food is neither expensive nor hard to come by, but for some reason it is both in Harvard Square. In fact, Casa Mexico is the only Mexican restaurant close to the kiosk and, fortunately for Cambridge, its food is superb. But the consequences of its monopolistic position are high prices--some of the highest in the Square--long lines and often hectic service.
But the crowded tables and long lines--often up the stairs to the door by 8 p.m. on a Saturday night--testify to Casa Mexico's excellent food as well as to the evils of monopoly. Most of the main dishes, which are served with refried beans and rice, are variations on the basic Mexican fare of meat or cheese baked in tacos, ranging from the mild and tasty enchiladas verdes to some ferociously spicy chicken enchiladas baked in a chocolate-based sauce. Casa Mexico also offers a large selection of interesting appetizers and salads, and its special spiced coffee.
A meal at Casa Mexico will cost you a minimum of $5 to $6, not too high if you're really interested in Mexican food. But, if you're more interested in atmosphere and elegance, you may regret having spent your money there. A few touches of Mexico such as the plates and mugs are shadowed by the more noticeable influence of Harvard Square--cramped space, noise and less-than-efficient service. But in the end, it's really the food that makes a restaurant, and Casa Mexico's cooking makes it a unique place.
700 Mass Ave
The Hunan restaurant, at 700 Mass Ave by the Central Square post office, is one of the few exceptions to the rule that the best Chinese food can be found in Chinatown. Since its opening over the summer, Hunan has attracted a steady crowd of Chinese families and local gourmets with its menu of three grades of northern and inland Chinese food--very spicy, spicy and mild dishes--to suit every taste.
The chefs follow Mainland Chinese recipes very closely, as evidenced by the lotus shoots and Chinese black fungus in the hot-sour soup (suan lat tong) and the garnish of sliced cucumber and bean sprouts in the Peking noodles (zha zhang mien). The hot-sour soup at Hunan, incidentally, surpasses the soup at Shanghai, the leading mandarin restaurant in Chinatown, with its peppery hot flavor.
The restaurant serves other standard northern dishes, including moo shi pork, Peking duck, meat dumplings (jiao tze), sizzling rice soup and spiced chicken. Prices are generally comparable to those in Chinatown, although some meat dishes are slightly more expensive (a Peking duck costs $15).
For persons wary of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" and the overuse of monosodium glutamate, Hunan's dishes are very low in MSG. The management also has indicated on the menu that persons allergic to any amounts of MSG may ask a waiter to serve them MSG-free food.
This place already rivals the best Chinatown spots for cuisine and menu and can be reached by a 15-minute walk from Harvard Square. Hunan is a definite must for Chinese food enthusiasts.
1236 Mass Ave
The Hong Kong restaurant, on Mass Ave opposite Lamont Library, only comes close to serving "authentic" Cantonese-style food, including the popular varieties of egg food yong, fried rice and beef-vegetable dishes.
The cooking falls short because of an inordinate use of monosodium glutamate (MSG). After eating in Chinatown restaurants (where the Chinese-Americans eat) you'll be able to taste the adulteration of the Hong Kong's dishes on the first swallow. In fact, if you fill up on Hong Kong food, you'll come down with the infamous "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"--aching jaws, pounding temples and a long-lasting headache.
The soups, particularly won ton and egg drop, are good because of a noticeable absence of MSG excess. The fried rice dishes are slightly bland, despite an overuse of dark soy sauce in the kitchen.
The menu of exotic drinks, a drawing card of the Hong Kong, is quite extensive, but fairly expensive. Standard mixed drinks are also more expensive than drinks at other Cambridge watering holes.
Despite all this, the Hong Kong still offers large portions on their dishes, especially during lunch hour when customers can buy economical and filling luncheon plates. Its location on Mass Ave also makes Hong Kong a convenient eating spot for students. But if you're looking for "authentic" Cantonese food, it is advisable to spend the subway fare on a trek to Chinatown. Several restaurants there offer just as much food for the dollar as the Hong Kong, but without the heavy taste of MSG.
14A Eliot St.
The Hungry Persian has moved from its cramped basement on Boylston Street and reestablished itself on the first floor of a pleasant green clapboard house next to Charlie's Kitchen. The restaurant now encompasses two fairly spacious rooms and a patio, so you no longer have to feel guilty about lingering over your meal while hungry and impatient customers breathe down your neck.
Fortunately, the Persian has brought along its menus intact, complete with the old address, the old prices and the old grease spots. In fact, the only thing that has changed is the service--and that's changed for the better.
As for the food, it would be hard to improve upon. Most of the dishes consist of a round of Syrian bread generously stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes and various other ingredients, all flavored with a spicy tahini sauce. The house specialty, the Hungry Persian, which includes roast beef, cheese, ham and turkey, is about the best of these variations. The falafel--the best in the Square--runs a close second. The roast beef special, the highest-priced item at $1.60, is less successful, with a scarcity of meat and an abundance of a rather bland lemon sauce.
The Persian really outdoes itself on its beverage menu, offering--among other things--13 varieties of tea, three varieties of coffee, and hot and cold cider. Only one dessert is offered, baklava at 40 cents.
All orders can be made to take out, but now that the Persian has undergone its transformation, you might as well stay and admire its newly acquired exposed brick walls, fireplaces and hanging plants.
12 Bow St.
The Cafe Pamplona is tucked quietly into the east side of Bow St. just beyond the more obtrusive facades of The Underdog and Bugatti. The cafe offers a small menu of moderately-price non-alcoholic drinks, luncheon foods, and desserts, all with a European twist. Pamplona's caretaker, Josefina, emigrated from Pamplona, Spain, many years ago and bestows her native touch in preparing all the foods. The cafe is stowed in a small basement--whose dimensions suggest the subterranean architectural genius of an enterprising mole--but surfaces to a streetside patio in fair weather. Despite its size, the basement houses a shiny expresso machine and a quaint fake-woodburning heater, in addition to a tiny kitchen and enough tables for two dozen patrons. It is, nonetheless, very pleasant, and one attains a certain satisfaction simply by observing how close the waiters' heads come to skimming the beams as they make their rounds.
The expresso is supposed to be the best in Cambridge and costs a meager 35 cents. Intrepid diners might sample the double expresso at 60 cents. The Pamplona offers good hot chocolate, "mokka," and American coffee at somewhat stiffer prices, while the cappuccino is a buy at 45 cents.
Of the luncheon foods offered, the gazpacho is extraordinarily good and reasonably priced. The desserts are also fine, if esoteric, and everything here costs less than a dollar.
The Pamplona is a nice place to learn that everyone who is cultivated and lives in Cambridge doesn't go to Harvard or teach Classics. The regular patrons are mostly non-Harvardian and like to linger quietly over chess games or books in the early afternoon. The cafe usually closes at 6 p.m. for two hours, then reopens until 1 a.m. (except on Sundays). The place gets noisier at night.
If there is anything wrong with The Pamplona, it is that it is all too rarefied. The expresso comes in tiny cups, the desserts are small and arrive with dainty silver spoons, most of the patrons look interesting and speak softly, and the dimensions are as noted, somewhat lilliputian--which all just might convince the outsider who stumbles into 12 Bow St. that his tastes just aren't subtle enough for this existence.
1001 Mass Ave
Everybody knows that the Orson Welles is a movie theatre. More and more smart diners in Cambridge are finding out that Orson Welles is also a restaurant--and a very good one at that.
The upstairs restaurant at the Welles is for the casual eater of drinker. It attracts large numbers of the before and after movie crowd. Prices are on par with most places and the food offerings varied.
But if you're looking for a fancy meal and are willing to pay between $4 and $7 for it, you've got to try the downstairs restaurant at the Welles. Every table is served a loaf of freshly baked honey/molasses bread on a cutting board to start and all of the meals come with a salad. The cheapest items on the menu are the vegetarian dishes--such servings as stuffed green peppers in a rouquefort cheese sauce--and they are superb. But you really won't go wrong with any of the dishes, they are comparable to those served in many of Boston's finest.
The Welles offers its dinner patrons a chance to get into the movie theatre for half price--$1.25. Of course that's not the only reason to go to the Welles restaurant, but it does provide some added incentive for the hungry movie goer.
Both the upstairs and downstairs restaurants tend to get crowded on weekends so we'd suggest that you go early or gauge a 10 to 15 minute wait into your time calculations. But we're sure you'll find the wait--and the food--worth your while--and your money.
The Welles restaurant is open until 1 a.m. for the late-night diner. In addition, you haven't eaten well until you've been to the Sunday afternoon brunches at the Welles--they're suberb and reasonable.
In the Yard
Lehman Hall dining hall is actually more of a hangout than anything else, but it does, incidentally, serve decent, cheap food as well. If its hamburgers aren't the best in Cambridge, Lehman Hall's people-watching is; it's easy to spend a whole afternoon there over a cup of coffee, drinking in the atmosphere of conspiracy and petty intrigue.
It would be hard to characterize briefly the kind of people who sit around in Lehman Hall, since it's an electic bunch, but the slant is definitely to the left: NAM and Graduate Student Union cells, visiting organizers and political Dudley House types mix with tourists, suicidal-looking thesis writers staring into their coffee grounds, and hordes of sectionmen.
As far as food goes, there's a good standard quarter-pound hamburger of the sort for which the meat comes packaged between sheet of wax paper, a sauce-covered concoction called a Dudley burger, and the usual sandwiches. There are also a couple of homemade plate-lunch items every day, stews and the like, that are probably the best things Lehmann serves. The coffee is atrocious and, like the atrocious coffee in the Houses, enormously popular. Everything costs about three-quarters of what it would in cheap eats places in the Square.
As an added bonus, Lehman Hall has by far the most intriguing trash disposal system in Cambridge--a pair of big steel rods that ram their way into trash cans in alternation, looking malevolent.
Mass Ave and Wendell St.
People who live in the River Houses for all four of their years in Cambridge can make their way through Harvard with never visiting the College Grille, and that's too bad because the Grille serves the best pizza of any restaurant in the neighborhood. In fact almost all of the Grille's fare, mostly Italian but with a few American dishes, is pretty good and relatively inexpensive.
The College Grille, despite its name, does not cater to the college crowd so much as it does to Cambridge's more permanent residents, and that's part of why it's so nice. If you want to get away from the pomp and stuffiness of Harvard life, the Grille is perfect--especially if you also happen to be hungry or up for a few beers.
The bar at the College Grille, the Samara Room, is one of the most hyperactive places in town, It's always crowded and noisy and you can always get into a good bumper pool game. The juke box is up-to-date, and the drinks are moderately cheap.
The only problem with the College Grille is that the service is slow as hell on the weekends. If you're in a rush, waiting a half hour for pizza can be maddening. But when you have time to relax and take it slow, the Grille, located just north of the Mass Ave Holiday Inn, is a terrific way of soothing the nighttime munchies or getting a pre-exam drink.
50 Boylston St.
You can't get just cheese at Fromage any more. What used to be an informal light-lunch place is now a moderately-priced continental restaurant, complete with menus and table service. The front counter and cafeteria line have been replaced by more tables, so you can no longer ogle the quiches, salads and desserts before choosing; omelettes are served by waiters instead of being announced by a French-accented voice from the kitchen.
The menu and the style have changed, but the quality of the food remains excellent. The emphasis has shifted from quiches, salads and bread and cheese to higher-priced full meals like boeuf bourguignon, canard a l'orange and mussels. You can still find the familiar fluffy cheese omelettes and quiches, but they now come with Fromage's distinctive salad, rice, bread and butter and coffee or tea. The only other cheese dish Fromage still offers is cheese fondue, a bargain at $5.50 for two.
Prices for entrees range from $2 to $3.95, with deserts priced at 65 cents to $1.25. Fromage still lacks a liquor license, but you can bring your own wine or enjoy the terrific lemonade. Altogether, Fromage--with its red-checkered tablecloths and white-washed walls--is a fine place for Francophiles, and anyone else, to dine well and inexpensively.
1680 Mass Ave
Unlike most Greek-American restaurants, the food at the Acropolis captures the essence of Greek cuisine. Without resorting to over-spicing or floating the food in grease the Acropolis relies on the simple yet delicious lemon and egg, and tomato sauces to bring out the natural flavor of the meat dishes. The variety plate of hors d' oeuvres for $2.50 for two is an excellent beginning, but the spinach pie baked with strudel leaf and feta cheese, along with saganaki, fried cheese with egg batter are also good choices.
Though the food stays clear of the usual pretenses, the decor is overdone and loud, a far cry from the simple atmosphere found in restaurants in Greece. Ten dollars for two (including appetizers, desert coffee and drinks) should suffice for your exploration of Greek cuisine, enhanced by tapes of Greek music and excellent service by waiters who are mostly of Greek origin and know all about the food they serve.
As You Like It
1326 Mass Ave
The only distinctive thing about As You Like It is a fruit salad that boasts eight fresh fruits, including watermelon, even in the dead of winter. Aside from that, all the menu offers are some mediocre sandwiches and salads, a few fairly high-priced main dishes, and cutesy quotations from the Bard of Avon.
But the restaurant does have the advantages of a convenient location and a wide selection of breakfast dishes, which are served at all hours. You can almost always be sure of finding an empty table, and if you're lucky you can get one overlooking the continuous parade on Mass Ave.
The service is generally efficient and the decor inoffensive if nondescript. All in all, As You Like It is a convenient place for a cup of coffee or a quick meal, but there are plenty of other restaurants around the Square that offer a lot more than convenience.
At Hilles Library
Lightning probably won't strike the top of Hilles Library and you probably won't meet the Harvard or Radcliffe life mate of your dreams there. But the Hilles Coffee Shop is full of library users taking a study break, and God knows they aren't attracted exclusively by the food--which is pretty skimpy. Ice cream, prepackaged cookies and brownies, doughnuts, and other standard House grill fare is about all that is offered. Hilles is a much nicer library than Lamont, and the Coffee Shop on the top floor is just one of the reasons. It's a nice place to go for a study break, but you'd have to be pretty desperate actually to go there for anything else.
1770 Mass Ave
Good food at reasonable prices is hardly one of the bases of Harvard Square's fame. In fact, serious Cambridge diners learned long ago that if they want a decent meal that won't break them, they must get out of the Square. Matsu-ya is one of the few restaurants far enough out of the Square to be good, and close enough to walk to from the Houses. The Japanese and Korean dishes at Matsu-ya are quite good and surprisingly reasonable in price. The shrimp tempura is one of the best dishes, but we haven't come across anything on the menu that we wouldn't recommend. Diners can either eat Oriental style, sitting on cushions around the knee-high tables, or opt for the more run-of-the-mill booths and tables. The service here also is a refreshing change from the hustle-bustle feeling you get in most of the Square restaurants.
Matsu-ya is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. It closes on Monday. If your stomach can hold out, a late evening visit to Matsu-ya is particularly pleasant.
Harvard Ave. at Cambridge St. in Allston
Steak is not the specialty at most Harvard Square restaurants. One must usually go into Boston to find quality steaks, but the Allston Depot offers meals equal to Boston's finest and for more reasonable prices. The seafood makes equally as good a meal for a similar fare though the lobster is not priced on the menu and varies with the season. The club steak special for $5.95 is a good bet but the scallops are good enough to be a worthy competitor and possibly the winner for seafood fans.
The bar is well attended in the evenings and equally as full during the lunch hour when it becomes a sandwich bar with deli sandwiches going for less than $2. The wine list is short but detailed with suggestions for your meal.
The service is excellent on weeknights; we were seated immediately and served very quickly. Weekends are more crowded; we suggest making reservations before dining.
Because the depot is out of walking distance, a car or a bus trip up the Allston line is necessary. The depot is not an every night hangout but is well worth an evening. Be sure not to miss the salad bar.
58b Boylston Street
Duck Soup used to be, and probably still is, the best place to sit for an hour over coffee and watch the carefree types breeze of Boylston St. A low-ceiling but airy basement at the southern end of Boylston's cramped commercial row, Duck Soup still offers good coffee, at a dime a cup if you order something else, at a quarter if you just want to sit. The soups here are interesting and tasty--even wholesome--while the dessert breads and cheesecake are fine if expensive. The chili, too, is memorable; it has character. It's difficult to feel gloomy in Duck Soup because so many lunching shoppers are smiling and talking at neighboring tables, because Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald are themselves already wailing over small speakers on the walls, and because the service is so cordial and earnest. Duck Soup is open Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m., and till 10 p.m. the rest of the week, but it's at its finest at midday.
19 Brookline St.
Latin-O is the number-two Mexican restaurant in Cambridge, far behind the swanky Casa Mexico but still a fairly nice out-of-the way place to go for a south of the border meal. It's tucked away in a little side street off Central Square, and the atmosphere is one of heavy straining for class: there are fancy tablecloths and napkins and the like, but the waiter still wears a plastic pencil holder he got at the dry-cleaner's and there's the annoying tinkle of Muzak in the background.
The food comes in huge portions and is, to Latin-O's credit, all Mexican, mostly various tortilla dishes with beans and rice on the side. The Chili Pelleno, a stuffed green pepper, is one of the better things on the menu; most of the other dishes are far too bland and pasty. It's hardly Mexican food at its best, and it's hardly cheap either--dinner for two ought to run you about $15.
Science Center Cafe
The Harvard architectural-criticism gang has been raving about the Science Center for a couple of years now, and with things there more or less in full swing this year it's not hard to see why. The cafeteria there is probably the nicest indoor physical setting at Harvard in which to while away an hour between classes. It has a tall, airy glassed-in porch, outside tables in good weather and another section adjacent to the stream of students going to class.
The food itself is simple and not especially ambitious--a few basic sandwiches and lots of yogurt, danishes and other pre-prepared stuff, at predictible prices. It's not really a place to go for a meal, but for a cup of coffee and something to munch on to take your mind off of getting into Med School it's fine.
617 Concord Ave.
Good Japanese food can be had for a short trip to Fresh Pond. The prices are by no means low, but the food is good enough to make you forget how much you are shelling out.
The restaurant, patronized by the area's Japanese population, is divided into three parts roughly according to the kind of food served in each. The most exotic, and least crowded, section is the raw fish, or sushi, bar. Osaka's sushi is as good as any you are likely to find in the Northeast.
In the most popular section, Osaka offers teppan yaki, a preparation of bite-size pieces of tender beef broiled in front of you on an open stove. The third section, with standard restaurants and chairs, serves the traditional Western favorites--sukiyaki, teryaki and tempura. All full meals are accompanied by a delicious Japanese soup called miso, sunemono, a crab meat salad, and all the green tea you can drink. Of the liquors, the sake and plum wine are particularly worth trying.
1672 Mass Ave
If there were to be only one Italian restaurant in Harvard Square--as there is--perhaps it should be Natalie's. Located about 10 minutes' walking time outside the Square, this restaurant can be all things to all people, from the casual pasta lover to the more serious Italian food aficionado.
Natalie's offers a broad range of food for a broad range of prices. Two light eaters can easily get by with the large $3 antipasto, which is probably the best in the area (try the Caesar dressing); those with more space in their stomachs and more left in their wallets can select from a variety of veal and chicken dishes, uniformly well prepared.
The pasta is fine and reasonably priced, and the sauces subtle and delicious. The wine list is ordinary and somewhat high-priced, but the on-tap Michelob and Miller's are good buys.
Service is good, although Natalie's has gained a strong following that can make entry difficult at times--try to avoid the dinner rush.
What it all comes down to is that you can get any type of meal you'd like at Natalie's, costing anywhere from $1.75 to $7.50 per person. And what the Square may lack in quantity in Italian food spots, Natalie's more than makes up for in quality.
India Sweet House
243 Hampshire St.
India Sweet House tends to get lost in the massive shuffle created by Legal Sea Foods, right next door in Inman Square. But don't pass the Sweet House by too quickly; it's the best Indian restaurant in Cambridge.
The standard fare is curry, as it is in all Indian restaurants, with some degree of choice as to how hot you want it, and it's quite good. But aside from the food, what really makes the Sweet House is its atmosphere, which, for Cambridge, is amazingly pleasant. It's almost an oasis--calm, uncrowded, everything done with a minimum of fuss and bother. The Sweet House is no bargain, with dinner for two costing upwards of $10, but it's a good place to go to get away from it all.
In Harvard Sq.
Grist Mill opened earlier this month, and like most new places it is having its birth pains. One recent day found the restaurant attempting to serve a lunch crowd of about 200 with seven harried waiters and waitresses, the manager at the grill, and nobody with enough time to buy a few heads of lettuce, of which they had just run out. But assuming Grist Mill gets its personnel and its ordering under control, it should turn out to be a good place to grab a bite to eat.
It's hard to avoid a comparison with Pewter Pot; the inside of the old Hungry Charley's has been redone in colonial decor. Large murals of the old-time Harvard Square cover the walls, electric gas-lights flicker above, and a waterwheel turns in the wall. But thankfully, the feeling that it was all meticulously planned in the back room of a plastic shop is not so pervasive.
The menu is interesting and broader than that of the people across the street. The dinner specials appear to be a good buy, and food items that a Harvard Square regular would expect to be greasy--french fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, omelettes--aren't at all, which is a delightful surprise. The coffee is similarly excellent.
On the other hand, the sandwich board seems to be a little out of range despite inflation, and frappes (known elsewhere as milkshakes)--a staple of many Square meals--are conspicuously absent from Grist Mill's menu.
Our advice is to wait a week or two to give Grist Mill a chance to settle in, then try it. And be sure to catch the electronic cash register on the way out. It's right in front of the water-wheel.
These reviews were written by Crimson staffers: Chris Daly, Sydney Freedberg, Geoff Garin, Dave Harf, Nick Lemann, Jeff Leonard, Rich Meislin, Jenny Netzer, Walter Rothschild, Liz Samuels, Rick Sia, Scott Smith, Efthimios Vidalis, Phil Weiss, and Natalie Wexler. Photos by Bob Ely.