Plenty of Room at the Inn: Harvard Square's Least Popular Eating Joints

It's late Thursday night after orgo lab, you've missed dinner, could use a drink anyway, and have the whole of Harvard Square to choose from. Where don't you go?

Where is the clientele "too adult" and professional, the crowd not collegiate enough, the atmosphere too relaxing, the menu simply not satisfying to the discriminating undergraduate palate? Where is there wine on tap instead of beer, Wheat Thins instead of nachos, hot dogs instead of hamburgers, and Gordon Lightfoot instead of David Bowie?

While you probably first think to head for Grendel's or the Filly, there's nothing wrong with the bars and cafes that Harvard students overlook. For some reason, certain restaurants attract native or immigrant Cantabrigians instead of students, who don't frequent them when given a choice. But--with all due respect--these eating places are still in business without heavy Crimson patronage, so they must be doing something right.

Ruggles Pizza, occupying prime real estate next to Store 24, specializes in British cheddar cheese pizza. Despite liberal offerings of two-for-one deals, monthly all-you-can-eat specials, and a new salad bar as incentives, Ruggles fails to draw droves of undergraduates. "The only guy I've ever seen eating there is the dummy in the window," observes Peter Wagner '88.

Assistant manager John Paul says, "Students comprise most of our business, especially after the football games. But during the afternoon, it's mostly people who work in the Square that come in."

Apparently, however, the Anglicized pizza form has not yet caught on among Harvard students, who are lured instead to Uno's and Regina's. The typical response is that of Carl D. Shannon '87, who grimaces, "Cheddar cheese pizza?"

Top Dog, wedged in between Guisseppe Gelato and the Coffee Connection, celebrates its first birthday this month. Perhaps the location itself is a jinx: replacing a short-lived flavored popcorn emporium, Top Dog seldom appears to attract lines of customers any longer than the phantom queues of its defunct predecessor. Featuring hot dogs with a variety of toppings, chili dogs, and freshly baked french fries, the hot dog king caters to a mixed crowd, according to Estelle, the owner.

She says, "We get little kids on Saturdays, business people and Buckingham, Browne and Nichols students during the weekdays, and quite a few regulars."

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, has only praise for the cuisine. "Top Dog has the best french fries in Harvard Square."

But for others, the atmosphere--consisting of brightly colored furniture and an abundance of comic-strip dogs wearing monocles and waistcoats--is a problem. "It looks silly from the outside," says Dave J. Le Lacheur '87. "It's a cartoon," echoes Lars A. Vaule '88.

Restaurant-goers who seek to avoid cheese fries, smothered hot dogs, and the company of others should flock to Shay's Wine Bar and Cafe, located across from the Galeria on JFK Street. Featuring soft pop music, cheese and crackers, and celery sticks as late-afternoon hors d'oevres, Shay's champagne cocktail and nachos crowd seems to materialize only after its immensely popular next-door-neighbor, the Boathouse Bar, has overflowed with customers.

According to Shay's employees, Harvard students are not the bar's main clientele. "We seem to attract more business students than undergraduates," says Tricia, Shay's head bartender.

Although a few undergraduates have ventured to Shay's and enjoyed it, the bar's excessively cerebral image puts off the less artistically-oriented. John O'Brien '88 says, "You need to be wearing a turtleneck to get in."

But Shay's is trying to change its image. "We're going to concentrate on a more party-type atmosphere as opposed to the quiet wine bar," says Tricia, standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling wine rack. "We've been featuring 16-ounce beers and turning the music up to attract more undergraduates."

Meanwhile, on Dunster Street across the street from The Garage, the Cafe La Ruche holds its place as the cafe equivalent to Shay's. According to Mauve, the cafe's sales assistant, La Ruche features a variety of coffees, homemade soups, breads, pastries, health foods, as well as a relaxing atmosphere and quiet music. "We get mainly locals, passers-by, and weekend shoppers," she says, while serving a bottle of Perrier to a waiting customer. "A lot of people sit down for a half hour, drink coffee read, and kill time," Mauve adds.

The Euro Place

According to students, La Ruche attracts a certain type of Harvard affiliate. "My social studies tutor has office hours there," says a Winthrop House sophomore. "It's where the beret crowd hangs out."

Die-hard fans of the Cafe Pamplona would do well to check out this nearby alternative, where, in addition to the Orzata, Italian sodas, and cappucino, members of the literati can also indulge in a delicious plate of tortellini.

After the pizza, and the Coors, most Harvard Square enthusiasts tend to demand ice cream. With the overabundance of gourmet stores like Steve's, Herrell's, and the Gelato store, where do students choose not to go?

Baskin Robbins, according to Sam, the owner, has gotten a good mix of people for the 14 years it has been open. "We've always had our regulars. People who work here, people who live here. Town people."

The afternoons after football games are busiest for Sam, who adds that the Dartmouth weekend provided an especially large crowd. "It was like a zoo," he says of the hordes who clamored for Rocky Road and Mandarin Orange Sherbet.

Comparing his parlor to the newer ones in the Square, Sam says the "only difference is in personal taste. Some have better chocolate or vanilla, but they're all about equal. In terms of price we're the least expensive."

Yet, some undergraduates charged the parlor with being too far from River houses and basically "outclassed" by the more upscale joints. "Baskin Robbins isn't trendy enough," says Anne Gregory '87.

"Why would you go there when you have all the other places in the Square?" she says.