CANTABRIGIANS USED TO GATHER IN DIMLY LIT CAFES TO CHAIN-SMOKE AND LAY PLANS FOR THE REVOLUTION. BUT TODAY, BRIGHT, CLEAN, TRANSPARENT COFFEE SHOPS COMMAND THE SQUARE.
Before rain washed the sidewalk outside Au Bon Pain this week, an artist covered the bricks with a chalk portrait of John Lennon. It was a throwback, perhaps, to the Au Bon Pain that Extension School Student Jordan R. Winer remembers.
"Twenty years ago, Harvard Square was really hip," Winer says. "Like, Bob Dylan spent a lot of time playing in all these folk-type cafes. Well now, no way. Now it's very posh, very fancy--Ann Taylor and so forth."
Winer is a self-appointed member of the Square's cafe culture--a sort of underground society that frequents the crowded hangouts where hermits cuddle in the corner with Hume, where chess masters with unkempt beards wage war for a dollar, where Jimi Hendrix impersonators make the cappuccino quiver with their electric guitars.
For them, what has come to represent so much of life around Harvard Square is changing, though, and regulars see Cambridge's cafe culture declining as trendy boutiques fill what used to be the folksy Square.
While first-years still zip from the Yard to slam late-night coffees at Au Bon Pain and a few upperclass students still hide behind books in Cafe Pamplona, many have noticed the dearth of younger patrons.
And coffee-drinkers and employees alike are starting to worry that the Square's traditional haven for studies and socializing is becoming too upscale for its own good.
Take Au Bon Pain, the Square's colossal central coffee shop. The French words aren't too hard to pronounce, really. But the less ambitious have taken to labeling the cafe "ABP." After all, these are the '90s, and short attention spans and busy lives have reduced rules of pronunciation to a single concept: the simpler, the better.
To match the coffee shop's abbreviated name, recent renovations have altered the atmosphere in Au Bon Pain. It's sleeker, a bit less cramped and definitely cleaner.
Today's "ABP" is all fluorescent lights and faux marble tables. The cafe added a sunroom-style front section, jazzed up its designer food display case and imported coffee beans from its neighbor and cafe rival, The Coffee Connection.
But these changes for modern convenience have taken something fundamental from the old Au Bon Pain ambience, Winer explains.
"Au Bon Pain isn't comfortable to go to," he says. "It's kind of like McDonald's. Everything's sort of computerized."
Au Bon Pain isn't the only Harvard Square coffee shop that has transformed physically in recent years. Winer has similar complaints about Cafe Algiers, which closed temporarily, under-went a complete refurbishment and reopened with a new look last fall.
The old Cafe Algiers, Winer recalls, "was the last really `cafe' type cafe in the area. Everyone--undergrads, grads, adults--went there. It wasn't a big deal if you spent a couple hours there with one coffee."
Last year's renovation at the Brattle Street shop added seating in a second-floor loft, eliminated the lower floor and padded the prices. On the Cafe Algiers menu today, cappuccino costs $2.75.
Outside, the building is still New England Puritan brick. Inside, it's North African Muslim. Bronze railings frame an angular staircase. Under the vaulted wood ceilings in the upstairs room, faux Bronze Age pottery graces the windowsills and exotic music twists around the tables.
Though Cafe Algiers is often packed with yuppies scrambling for the cramped seating and the mint tea, patrons of this newfangled shop just don't appreciate the art of a lengthy coffee break, Winer laments.
"Very few people [are there] who look like students," Winer says. "The attitude now is like, eat there, be sort of polite, have a little conversation, say goodbye."
The Garage is a neon-and-linoleum mall with a video store and a wealth of downscale eateries. It's noisy, crowded, impersonal--in short, a lot like any modern mini-mall.
But The Coffee Connection, tucked in one corner of the Dunster Street building, is not like any coffee shop. Many say it feels like one of the last real cafes. It may be the only place in the Square that lists its coffees by region.
Inside the store's cramped quarters, rich, dry aromas waft from the stack of coffee beans next to the mocha makers by the milk chocolate covered espresso beans ($12.50 per pound). The flavor of Ethiopian yirgacheffe coffee, Coffee Connection literature boasts, "suggests...floral lemon." A sip of "Yemen Mocha Mattari" suggests "spicy fruit or chocolate."
But new technology tends to dilute the atmosphere these coffees and exotic flavors help to create, and some customers say they miss the less-automated coffeemaking techniques of days gone by.
Winer recounts his frustration at watching a Coffee Connection employee search frantically for the button to make a "long" espresso.
And even the jazz music piped in between The Coffee Connection's wooden beams and extravagant displays doesn't attract the younger crowds, Fernandez says.
As any true member of the cafe cult will insist, decor alone does not create true coffee shop atmosphere. For that, you need people.
The artsy folk havens' adjustment to upscale shops with a wider appeal has changed the constituency of the customers, many say. Gone are the days when undergraduates piled into coffee shops to smoke and study en masse, when a cafe was the center of a pseudo-intellectual college student's universe.
"When it became a non-smoking place, we lost a lot of the younger people," one Coffee Connection employee recalls.
The watered-down versions of the Square's cafes have attracted more graduate students and older patrons than College students, some employees and frequenters say.
Most of the "regular" customers at The Coffee Connection now are graduate students, according to employee Alexander A. Fernandez.
Some have even gone so far as to label Harvard's cafe scene the "graduate student grotto," says Hawley G. Russell '93.
Graduate students say they have taken over the coffee shops in large part because they need them more. While undergraduates can convene in a range of settings, graduate students' social options are more limited.
"Unless you go bar-hopping a lot, or to clubs, cafes are a good way to socialize," says third-year linguistics student Erich Groat.
Second-year Law School student Wendy S. Minich says she goes to coffee shops "all the time" to escape her school's unpleasant atmosphere.
"I think undergrads are more into making friends and socializing in the dorms, but our place is crap," agrees second-year law student Leslie S. Santos.
But the deluge of graduate students has crowded out the more alternative, street-scene crowd in his cafe, Fernandez says.
"There were a lot more street people who'd come here and sit for eight hours and never pay for their coffee," Fernandez says. "It was a lot more interesting. People used to come here to be entertained."
And while some teaching fellows still hold office hours in the Square's cafes, Groat says his students prefer a place that is "quieter--much more quiet."
A few undergraduates, willing to swallow the changes in coffee shop flavor, still cling to the cafe cult.
Dulcy Anderson '92 and Jennifer M. Gibbs '92 say they've grown up in Harvard Square cafes.
And members of specific "crowds" say they regularly haunt their favorite coffee purveyors. In Adams House, according to legend, everyone goes to Pamplona.
And no matter what happens, some undergraduates will keep coming to coffee shops, drinking and thinking. It's just part of the routine for Cornelius Howland '95, who finds special reasons to seek late-night coffee.
"Wednesday is `existentialist night' at Au Bon Pain," Howland explains.