Atrium Rest. Basks in National Acclaim

Restaurant Review

If you're looking for a place to take that special someone before a formal, look no further than your own backyard.

Students who frequently visit popular hotspots in Boston may have missed one of the most enjoyable dining locations right here in Harvard Square.

And surprisingly, that restaurant, recently cited as one of the area's top restaurants in USA Today, is owned by Harvard, the same University that brings its students such dining hall favorites as savory baked tofu.

The Atrium Dining Room at the Inn at Harvard is owned by Harvard Real Estate and managed by the Doubletree Hotels Corporation.

While the Atrium has been traditionally been reserved for hotel guests, it has been open to the public since its opening four years ago.

"We've always been open to the Harvard community," says Sarah Willis, director of sales and marketing at the Inn at Harvard. "But we'll never advertise [the restaurant]."

"Most people [who dine at the restaurant] are hotel guests," Willis says, "but as people become aware we are open, you will see a shift."

"It's not a dramatic shift, but there are more outside guests than usual," says Lisa Van Lare, the food and beverage manager.

Set in the lofty inner room of the inn, the hotel's dining room holds just 20 tables scattered intimately between a collection of tables and stuffed arm chairs. Hotel guests sip cocktails or read their newspapers while diners enjoy the tones of the setting sun on the sky-lit ceiling and the tastes of Chef Cynthia Neitz's New England Fare.

Neitz, a human resource manager turned culinary expert, says she specializes in sauces and tasty combinations of vegetables and meats. A vegetarian herself, Neitz is happy to provide dinners with a vegetarian options.

"What differentiates us is our creativity," Willis says. "We have the standard New England fare, but our sauces are very creative."

Since the article in U.S.A. Today appeared, Willis says the restaurant has seen a greater number of outside diners. Still, a leisurely diner on a weeknight may see just one or two other diners during the evening. Peak dinner hours are around 8 p.m., Willis says.

"Most of our business does come from the University," she says. "Parents of first years, alumni visiting and people attending special conferences."

Still, she says she hopes other diners and visitors to the square will discover all the restaurant has to offer.

Dinner last week included a fresh herb salad with baby vegetables and citrus vinaigrette, black bean soup with creme fraiche, and a light vegetable tempura with ginger tamari sauce. For the salad and the tempura, both of the sauces were strong and outweighed the taste of the food itself.

For the main course, one of us had lemon papardelle pasta with grilled scallops and asparagus tips in orange fennel broth. The grilled seafood was excellent but sparing, while the fennel broth and pasta were light and enjoyable.

The other ordered grilled tenderloin of beef with fresh horseradish pepper creme fraiche, warm potato artichoke salad and sauteed greens. Neitz says the tenderloin is one of the most popular items, and true to her recommendation, the meat was tender and succulent.

For desert we tried the chocolate hazelnut torte.

Service was prompt and you and your companion will particularly enjoy the basket of breads which proceeds the meal. The cranberry nut rolls are not to be missed.

The salads and soups were tangy and the vegetables were crisp and fresh.

The dinner menu includes just three salads, four appetizers and five entrees: seafood, fish, chicken, beef and lamb.

Although selection is small, the dinner is excellent and the beautifully garnished plates are a joy to behold.

Prices for entrees range from $17 to $22. Appetizers and salads are all around $6 or $7.

For companionable dining, try a late hour. The restaurant serves from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. but Willis says many customers do not dine until at least 8 p.m. to take advantage of the Atrium's unique night-time lighting.

Indeed, the transition between the sunny day-time space and the ambiance of night is something to behold, we suggest timing your dinner to sunset so that you will see the different types of light.

If you are at the restaurant with a special someone you will probably choose to order from the dinner menu.

But Willis suggests that students may also choose to visit the restaurant for drinks or appetizers before heading out on the town, as many of the hotel guests do.

In addition to appetizers and cocktails, the Atrium also offers a lighter fare menu available until 10 p.m. for those not looking for a full dinner.

Lighter fare options range from four to $10 and include items such as soup, chicken and turkey sandwiches and burgers.