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Bartley's Burger Cottage, Harvard Square Icon, Keeps the Grill Aflame

After 35 years in the Square, the iconic burger joint is still serving up celebrity specials

By Youho T. Myong, Contributing Writer

It’s slightly past four in the afternoon, yet more than a dozen customers are sitting inside Bartley’s Burger Cottage.

Billy Bartley, the son of the restaurant’s founder, is manning the counter while grilling six patties and 12 burger buns at the same time. Constantly chuckling and joking with his customers and employees, Bartley does not seem busy at all. The captivating smell of burgers and fries and the steaming heat from the grills are filling up the Cottage so much that one can nearly taste them.

From time to time, Bartley comes out from behind the counter to greet and talk to old friends and new faces. This has been the routine of his life for the past 35 years.

‘THE HARVARD SPA LUNCHEONETTE’

Bartley, who is now the general manager and chef of the restaurant, was just one year old when his father started the shop in 1961.

“I started grilling when I was 13.” he says. “I’ve been doing this for more than 35 years now. It’s like a family now.”

Joe Bartley, the original founder of the restaurant, moved to Cambridge from Long Island when he was 30.

He was nearly broke, having to borrow $10,000 to purchase a convenient store that was then a Harvard-owned property.

Although he wanted to start a restaurant business and provide the residents of the Harvard area with high-quality burgers and fries, he kept the convenient store for some time.

“He just couldn’t change it into a restaurant,” the son says. “My father had four kids to feed—he had to keep it as it was in order to pay the debt.”

On February 6, 1961, Bartley’s Burger Cottage—which was then called the Harvard Spa Luncheonette—opened. Joe and Billy Bartley have been dishing up burgers to Harvard Square ever since.

And in the past 35 years, Bartley says that a fair share of famous faces have walked through the restaurant’s doors.

“One of the most memorable moments is when Jackie Onassis walked in.” Bartley says. “It was a busy, busy Saturday lunchtime. But when she came in, everything stopped for a second. Every single person in the restaurant was looking at her—they went back to eating after a second. She ordered Muenster cheeseburger with no sides and a skim milk.”

Billy Bartley attributes the restaurant’s huge success to his father’s exquisite recipes.

“It’s the good food, always.” he says. “To be more specific, consistently good food. Location plays a big role, of course. Many tourists who pass by sometimes come in. But the fundamental principle of Mr. Bartley’s has always been: give them good hamburgers.”

As a general manager, he is in charge of a lot of things about the restaurant.

“I do all the cooking, I still do all the hiring and firing of the staff,” he says. “I do TVs and radios. My father is more like the brain of the business—he develops recipes, names the burgers. He drops in for a couple of hours every day, still.”

FIRE IN THE KITCHEN

But in September this year, the burger shop suffered a major setback.

At about 10:40 a.m., a fire broke out in the kitchen, the first significant fire in the restaurant’s history.

While no one was injured in the incident, the building suffered structural damage and was forced to undergo renovations for a period of two weeks.

“We’re paying all of our people,” Bartley said at the time. “We’ll bring in a crew and let [our workers] do some painting.”

In spite of the fire, Bartley retained the optimism that his father carried with him when he first opened the restaurant in the Square, and by the following month, the restaurant was once again a bustling location for tourists, students, and Cantabrigians.

“You won’t notice anything different in the dining hall. All the signs, posters, even the ‘In God We Trust—all others pay cash’ sign,” he jokes. “Nothing has changed, really. I mean, you’re going to see a little more bricks on the wall and newly painted tables, but the dining hall is going to stay pretty much the same. You know, people don’t want us to change.”

Inside, though, the restaurant went through extensive renovations. The burnt kitchen has been completely rebuilt, the scorched walls have been cleaned, and posters have been put up again.

“It was the first time for our Cottage to temporarily close down since 1961,” Bartley explains. “It was not a thing to be proud of, but I saw it as a chance to improve the restaurant. We bought the constructing material directly from Chicago—best stuff. The kitchenware is all new, too. The grill is more powerful now—you won’t have to wait that long anymore now.”

NAME THAT BURGER

The fire may have physically closed the restaurant, but it did not preclude the managers from continuing to work.

Joe Bartley still develops recipes and comes up with names for burgers and other menu items.

His names are famous for being relevant to both campus and political issues.

Since he added Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter club sandwiches to his menu in the early 1970s, naming food items after politicians, professors, or celebrities has been a tradition at Mr. Bartley’s Cottage.

“One of our best-selling burgers now is Barack Obama, a beef burger topped with pineapple and blue cheese,” Billy Bartley explains. “But Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton are quite popular, too.”

Bartley said before the presidential election last week that he was not planning to remove “the losers” from the menu.

“It just totally depends on which burger is good and which is not,” he says. “My father is not going to remove Obama or McCain from the menu just because they lost the election. I mean, Hillary’s still on the menu.”

But that’s not to say that the burger names will remain a permanent fixture.

The Larry Summers, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice burgers were recently removed.

BACK FOR MORE

Sitting at the bar after the restaurant reopened, John McLean says that he has been coming to Bartley’s since its first days.

He did not order a burger this time, but instead he had baked beans and an onion soup.

“Mr. Bartley’s has some fine diner food, also,” McLean says. “I’ve been going here for more than 30 years.”

He chatted with the staff and Billy Bartley for a short time before his food came.

“This is why I love Mr. Bartley’s,” he says, smiling. “Quick yet excellent food, good service, always.”

He evaluates Bartley’s as a “good, classy, professionally-run restaurant.”

“I don’t know what the House food is like at Harvard, but at Brown, students never stopped complaining about the cafeteria,” he adds. “We had decent restaurants around campus, but nothing compared to this place.”

Bartley says many Harvard graduates come back after years just to taste the burgers again.

“You might want to come back after you graduate, too,” he chuckles. “You haven’t been to Harvard if you haven’t been to here. It’s probably an empty diploma without the experience of Mr. Bartley’s burgers.”

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