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Dinner at Mather: Eight Dollar Bargain?

By Mary LOUISE Kelly

If a friend visiting from out of town were to ask you where to grab a quick bite in the Square for about $8, chances are you wouldn't rush to a Harvard dining hall.

But according to a seasoned local food critic, it might not be such a bad call.

Nathan Cobb, a restaurant critic for The Boston Globe, checked out dinner last week in Mather House and offered comments on the food and ambiance just as he does for restaurant write-ups.

Cobb, a regular magazine writer for The Globe, has been scoping out meals for the "Cheap Eats" restaurant review column for 10 years.

When Cobb arrived at Mather at 6:10 p.m. last Tuesday, he was not overly impressed with the dining hall's atmosphere, he said.

"The ambiance is, how should I put this, late 20th-century institutional," Cobb said. "It's not really the kind of place you want to linger. But that may well be their intention."

Cobb started off his meal with a plate of fried shrimp and brown rice, vegetable minestrone soup, a roll, a salad and a piece of cake.

"This bread has about the same consistency as Plymouth Rock," he said. "And the soup is kind of salty. No, it's more than kind of--it's definitely salty. It is unusual to find soup you can eat with a fork."

But Cobb said he was impressed with the quantity of food he received for the standard dinner price of $7.75.

$7.75 for a big plate offried shrimp would be on the low end in a commercial restaurant," he said.

Since Mather workers allowed Cobb only one entree on his first turn through the line, he employed the tried-and-true Harvard trick of dumping his left-over shrimp into an empty salad bowl before returning to the kitchen for seconds.

Cobb said he found his second entree choice--walnut, broccoli and tofu stir-fry--much more satisfactory.

"Definitely better than the shrimp," he said. "But I'd be hard-pressed to find a walnut in here."

Cobb estimated that in the average restaurant he reviews, his meal would have cost $7-9 for the shrimp, $1.25-1.50 for the soup, $5-6 for the tofu stir-fry, $1.25-1.50 for the cake, and extra for the roll, salad bar and drinks. That adds up to at least $15 and probably closer to $20 for the entire dinner, if he had bought each item separately.

"If we're looking at the price, in terms of quantity, it's a good buy," Cobb said. "In terms of quality, it's questionable. You can certainly find better meals for that price--where the ingredients are fresher and more interestingly prepared."

But Cobb added that he is making his comparison to restaurants which seat 100 people maximum, not the hundreds of students which Mather serves dinner to each night.

"You can go back as much as you want," he said. "That's a big advantage you have over most restaurants. And at least it's filling."

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