Face it--you didn't come to Harvard for the food. And that's a good thing, because between the swill they serve at the Union and the kind of junk you're liable to pick up between beers at some of the local taverns, your digestive tract is in for a long, gaseous summer. After all, if you feel like eating--and it's become a remarkably popular pastime here over the years--you've only got three choices, none of which is going to earn you a place in the dietician's Hall of Fame: Harvard food (which if you're smart, you don't want to eat); restaurant food (which if you're smart, you know you can't afford); and fast food (which if you're both poor and smart, you will approach with extreme caution as the least of three extraordinary evils.) With that in mind, and with a case of Bromo Seltzer in tow, you'll probably want to set out on a tour of the Square's fast food joints.
First, a word of caution: we are using the term "fast food" extremely loosely. The Square does not feature a MacDonald's (for that you have to head down Mass Ave toward Central Square), a Burger King or anything else that qualifies as a certified member of the American pantheon of garbage-food emporiums. In fact, the use of the word "food" might be a complete misnomer--"grease" would probably be more accurate, but nobody wants to step up to a counter and ask for "fast grease." That's tacky. However, if you time the interval between dinner and your next trrip to the can, you will find that "fast" is an extremely accurate term.
Elsie's--Mt. Auburn St. You win. This is without argument the home of the best fast food in the Square: thick, reasonably-priced sandwiches that make you wonder why you ever put up with Mom's lousy cooking. The Turkey Deluxe (T.D., for the football fans out there) is a classic, and the hot pastrami and cheese ranks up there with motherhood and the flag as something worth fighting for. The decor is, in a word, crummy (in two words, very crummy), but you can go somewhere else to digest, right? Two warnings: stay away from the place at lunchtime, when the Governor often has to call in the National Guard to keep the crowds in line, and beware of the pinball machines, which are about as generous and benevolent as Meldrim Thomson. But by all means don't pass this up.
The Tasty--Boylston St. You lose. The food here is about as appetizing as the menu in a Fort Dix mess hall, and the atmosphere is nowhere near as cheerful. Avoid, and your small intestine will love you forever.
Tommy's Lunch--Mt. Auburn St. The best atmosphere around, which your small intestine may not really appreciate, and some decent food to boot. For 20 years, Tommy Stefanian has provided pearls of his distinctive Armenian logic along with his peerless cheesesteak subs (the latter are much easier to digest), and has attracted a crowd of admirers and hangers-on without equal in the Square. Perhaps it's the pinball machines, which are the focus of truly intense play late into the evening, or maybe it's the extraordinarily friendly counter help; it's probably the menu, because once you stray from the cheesesteak you're on your own. Whatever the secret, Tommy's always attracts a big crowd. And he knows it, too--the prices just went up, and are now at the upper limit of the tolerable range (we just can't believe grease has gotten that expensive). Early risers should also check out the breakfast specials, which are the best in the Square, especially when Tommy decides to begin the morning with a few Armenian love ballads.
Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage--Mass Ave. The best hamburgers in the Square, and possibly the world. We don't think there's a chef around who can do what Mr. Bartley can for a slab of chopped beef; we also doubt there are too many with the nerve to charge his prices, either. It's the classic hang-up: this place has a good thing going, and the owner knows it. But it's worth it to brave the crowd, shell out a couple of bucks, and suffer through the interminably slow service, just to sink your teeth into one of those classic burgers. At least once in a while.
Brigham's--Harvard Square. Very standard stuff: burgers, fries, shakes and sandwiches, none of which is going to stick in your memory, or your digestive system, for very long. If you're into classic American soda-shop fare, though, this is the place. It's also open 24 hours a day, which comes in handy around exam time, but can also lead to some interesting experiences: around 4 a.m. or so some of the world's most intense weirdos pop out from under the sidewalks, and it seems they all make a bee-line for Brigham's. It must be the coffee. Anyway, good luck.
The Rendezvous--Holyoke St. Interesting Vietnamese cuisine mixed with standard burger-and-grinder stuff. The sandwiches at the 'Vous are fascinating: it's a real challenge to make your way through all that lettuce to find the advertised meat, but life is full of such little adventures. The burgers are definitely better, the standard American entrees are standardly satisfying, and the prices are low enough to keep the fans coming back for more. The 'Vous also boasts the best pinball arcade in the Square, although late at night the fans sometimes get a bit over-excited about the way Fate is treating them. But it sure beats mystery meat and gravy.