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A Drinking Man's Guide to Cambridge

By Dwight Cramer

BEFORE NOON, Cambridge is not a comfortable town to drink in. But, making it past that hour, it is possible to while away afternoons, evenings, nights, days, weeks and even months without going more than half a mile from the Square. Why anyone needs a guide to an activity as simple as drinking is unclear, but the success of the HSA bartending course and the healthy sale of wine books, drinking books, and tourist guide books prove that the people want--indeed, crave--instruction in how to make their own drinks, or failing that, where to find someone who can mix a passable concoction and guarantee the peace in which to drink it.

So, where do you go for a drink at Harvard? The smartest, cheapest place is a liquor store. Buy a bottle of booze, a bottle or two of mixers, and get started. The Harvard Provision Company has a good reputation, and they will deliver to Harvard dorms. Martignetti's (in Allston on Storrow Drive) is further away, but can be reached quickly by car. It will accept a check (with ID), and is one of the cheapest liquor stores around. This over-grown package store is a mammoth, bargain basement-type place, complete with shopping carts.

But if drinking in the room has begun to pall, if the room has begun to pall, if you're afraid (rightfully so) of drinking alone, or if you want to impress somebody that you dare not invite to your room, a bar is a good escape. Some bars are even such friendly places that they (and not the alcohol) become addicting, so even a snot-nosed Harvard student can become a regular.

ONE PLACE to consider becoming a regular at is the Club Casablanca, located in the Brattle Theater complex. Divided into an upstairs (where many, many Harvard Sperry topsider-types hang out with their junior college girlfriends and others) and a downstairs (where older people listen to music), the CasaB appeals to two different groups of people, if not to all types. Upstairs at the CasaB passes, in this deprived community, for a real experience. Especially on weekends, it is mobbed, noisy, and full of people you will probably recognize. It is also expensive, probably the most expensive bar in Cambridge. The prices don't seem to bother most of the clientele.

And the clientele is definitely worth observing, even if it is not always worth joining. Usually, I think the Casablanca is a fine place, but lately I'm a little down on it because when I went there to celebrate Hank Aaron's 715th home run, I was served a weak scotch-on-the-rocks. In my innocence, I did not know such a thing was possible, but this drink was pretty pathetic. I nursed the alcohol along for a good five minutes (quite an accomplishment) but it took me another half an hour to finish off all the ice.

So I went to Whitney's, on Boylston St., the Buildings and Grounds bar. This is another really fine place, in its own way. The television is visible from every seat in the bar, and the beer is only a quarter. This just may be the cheapest bar in Cambridge. Whitney's carded a date when we tried to go there after a movie, and I don't think they really encourage a student clientele. Nowadays Whitney's is comfortable, although it has been a little plastic ever since the building was refurbished about two years ago.

But, without a doubt, the bar that has really lost its old atmosphere after having its old building torn down is Cronin's. Once upon a time Cronin's was a Harvard student hangout located where Holyoke Center has since been plopped. The old Cronin's was famous; old grads still try to find it. Don't try to find it. Go to the new one, if you want to, down on Mt. Auburn St. past Brattle Square, opposite where the trolleys come up out of the ground. Cronin's usually appears to be deserted, so the service is fast. If you do find it, you may find yourself alone in it. Local people use it some, it is quiet, and it's not a bad place to go by yourself if being alone in a bar does not intimidate you or make you feel like an alcoholic. It's waitresses had some problems a few years ago, and people often avoid it on that account.

Across the street is the Ha'Penny, downstairs from the Blue Parrot and Ferdinand's. This is a solid Harvard graduate student hangout today, often heavy on the Loebies (it is not too far from the Loeb). The drinks are good, the atmosphere resembles a good House grill, the prices are reasonable, and the Ha'Penny is another good place to go with friends. It seems to be doing a real prosperous trade, since it is crowded on weeknights and weekends.

THE PEOPLE are friendly at the Emporium, too. The Emporium, located in the basement of the Garage (how's that for directions?), has taken an unfortunate turn for the worse, though. Back in the Good Old Days (about a month ago) the place offered a very cheap beer and weak mixed drinks (45 and 75 cents respectively) and free salted peanuts in copious quantities. Since then, they have jacked up the prices, discontinued the peanuts, and added free music. Since my fondest memories of the place involve hearing drunken friends recite "The boy stood on the burning deck, eating peanuts by the peck. . .," I don't like any of the changes. It is too expensive to get drunk, there is no occasion to recite Peanuts by the Peck, and if there were the band would be making too much noise to hear the drunks.

I'm afraid I consider the music made by these local bands to be nothing but noise at the Emporium, and I feel the same way about the bands and juke box at Charlie's Place, at 1 Bow St. Charlie's serves not particularly good drinks, expensive beer, and is a hangout for local high school kids. I know some people who drink there in the morning and claim it is not too bad before Cambridge High and Latin lets out classes in the afternoon. It also has the reputation of being good for golden oldies and that kind of thing. I think it is too noisy to talk and too expensive to drink, so I'm not real high on it.

I do like Charlie's Kitchen, under the same management and also frequented mostly by Cambridge residents. Charlie's Kitchen, right across from the MBTA yard, serves some of the finest bar food in Cambridge. Its prices are good, the service is fine, and it somehow manages to be quiet while still maintaining the essential equipment of any serious bar--a television and a juke box. The decoration of the bar consists basically of pictures of John F. Kennedy while he was at Harvard, and they illustrate perfectly the status of the bar in Cambridge--it takes the patronage of Harvard students, but I suspect the pride in Kennedy is basically pride in a Boston Irishman who became president, and not in a Harvard boy who made good.

Upstairs at the Kitchen there always seems to be room for groups of seven-to-ten people, and though the service is slow (the better to encourage you to drink) the food is fine when it arrives. Obviously, the cooking is not of restaurant caliber, but the food is definitely a step above greasy spoon quality. And it is cheap.

AT THE OTHER end of the Harvard Square area, and in many ways at the opposite end of the spectrum, is another Irish bar, the Plough and the Stars, down Mass Ave. towards Central Square. The Plough and the Stars must be called strange, if for no other reason than the conflicting and interesting reputations that have been attached to the place. First, and indisputably, it is known as an Irish bar. The juke box plays Irish songs, the Irish Republican Army is reputed (somewhat more dubiously) to use the place as a sort of unofficial headquarters. At times it has been called a pick-up bar, at others it has been called a gay bar, at others still it has published a literary magazine. The Plough and the Stars is definitely fascinating, and well worth a visit. It will offer Guiness, Bass Charrington and other British Isless beers, ales and stouts, though they are expensive. Cheaper hard liquor is available, as is cheaper soft alcohol. The clientele is varied, and sometimes some friction develops between the factions, but so what.

Just as rowdy, and considerably less interesting is the Oxford Ale House, on Church St., just around the corner from the Coop. This place seems to attract a lot of townies, but maybe some of those people are freshmen (it is close to the Yard) and I can't tell the difference. It is routine to be carded here, at least on weekends. This place provides live entertainment, beer and more potent alcohol, and little else. There is no atmosphere, only noise, and the only interesting thing I ever saw there was this girl who looked utterly miserable and was drinking alone. Somehow or another, the Oxford Ale House seems out of place in Cambridge, at least as out of place as Yale would be, and (hopefully) more so.

The Wursthaus, at 4 Boylston St., in spite of an equally unsuccessful attempt at evoking Anglo-European atmosphere with a name, is more like the kind of bar to be anticipated in a big university town. Maybe not a bar for undergraduates, the Wursthaus appeals to anyone who likes good foreign beers (the selection of beer upstairs is the best in Cambridge) and quiet. Try to ignore the decor, which is an awful attempt at South German kitsch. Also the food is worth avoiding, just as the beer is worth making a special visit for about once a month. The prices are very high here, and the drinks (especially upstairs) are weak.

About three doors down, you can find Barney's, a pleasant place that tries to be Irish, but serves good sandwiches more successfully. Downstairs at Barney's is a good place to take people for lunch. The place offers a daily special that varies in quality, has a television, and is a good place to sit if you've been shopping or whatever. Since most Harvard students are not likely to spend a whole goddamned day shopping in Harvard Square (and would be too broke to do much of anything other than eat at Food Services if they did) most people never see the inside of Barney's, which is too bad.

Obviously there are many more bars around. There are also coffee houses, the Performance Center, restaurants, the greasy spoons, and your neighborhood pusher. So this is not an exhaustive list. But much more research would have left The Crimson team incapable of writing a coherent article. In any event, alcoholism is genuine bad news, and any serious attempt at decadence begins--but does not end--with drinking.

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