In “Good Will Hunting,” Matt Damon ’92 shares a late-night pickle with his love interest. Behind them, a red sign spelling out “Tasty” glows neon in the window.
Although it is unfamiliar to students now, the Tasty Diner, a 24/7 hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop, was once an all-hours gathering place for Cambridge residents and Harvard students.
“You know, we’re old, we were all around before social media. You needed spots where you could find each other. And if you were out late at night, the Tasty was a good option,” Chris W. Moore ’89 recalls.
Now, CVS stands in the Tasty’s place, and El Jefe’s Taqueria has overtaken the small diner as the de facto late-night Harvard haunt. Students today associate “Tasty” with Tasty Burger, the Boston burger chain located down the street. Yet alumni and Cambridge residents have found ways to preserve their memories of the Harvard Square watering hole.
In 1997, renovations conducted by the Cambridge Savings Bank forced the Tasty to close after 81 years in business. When he heard it was shutting down, Moore, a producer of “Good Will Hunting,” pushed for the Tasty to be immortalized as a backdrop in the movie.
“It literally was the worst place ever to shoot because it’s tiny,” Moore explains, describing the diner’s cramped 12-seat arrangement. The scene was shot during the daytime, when it was less hectic. “I’m glad it’s on film somewhere,” Moore says.
But “Good Will Hunting” was not the only film to portray the Tasty. Cambridge local Federico Muchnik preserved snapshots of the diner’s night-to-night life in his documentary “Touching History: Harvard Square, The Bank, and The Tasty Diner.”
Muchnik captured the space in unfiltered vitality in a documentary that Tasty-goers could hold on to even as the neighborhood morphed. In the weeks before the shop’s closing, Muchnik would order a couple of hot dogs, sit in the corner of the room, and begin to film. He trained his camera on the Tasty’s liveliness: the cooks jovially teasing customers, the never-ending conversation, the constant patter of clattering silverware.
Cambridge residents and Harvard students alike were loath to lose the gathering spot.
“I documented the taking apart of the Tasty, and that was a pretty emotional day for many people,” Muchnik says. Cambridge activists railed against the diner’s removal, protesting at City Hall, all of which Muchnik captures in his film. The Tasty, he says, was a “crossroads place because it was open and it was accessible and nobody judged you.”
Muchnik remembers the Tasty was a place of spontaneous togetherness, where unhoused people, Harvard students and professors, and working-class Cambridge locals convened on equal footing. A map of pins on the wall traced customers’ origins and travels. Hearing the stories of other customers’ travels, Muchnik says, felt like traveling with them. There was something transporting about the Tasty.
“If you were there, you were part of the Tasty community,” Nick P. D’Arienzo Jr. ’83 says. “You were in Harvard Square. You were in Cambridge. You weren’t really at Harvard anymore.” He “fell in love” with the establishment, he says. “I found I didn’t want to dress as preppy the more I went. It’s like we cared more about fitting in at the Tasty than about fitting in at Harvard.”
Harvard alumni who frequented the burger joint carry a sort of oral history of Tasty stories. Almost every person we interviewed sent us the names of more friends, promising fresh fables.
Many tell stories of Charles Coney, the diner’s central figure and cook, who worked at the Tasty for 23 years, moving to Harvard Dining Services after the shop closed. Coney died in 2009.
“When Charlie’s in there, you didn’t really mess around, you behaved. He was a small guy, he wasn’t big, but he had a very stern look to him because he was serious and he loved his job, he loved his work,” Muchnik says. “He had a lot of wisdom to his life.”
Coney was like glue, tethering the Tasty and its diverse array of customers together through a combination of strength, affability, and wit. “You got the feeling with Charlie that things were going to be okay.”
But Coney wasn’t the only cook at the Tasty. On the eve of their graduation, Roy S. Lackey ’88 and Sammy S. Hassan ’88 wandered into Tasty for one of their final Harvard Square meals. They found themselves on the other side of the counter, however, when that night’s cook suddenly passed out, apparently having drank too much that evening.
“We sat him at the corner barstool and he just basically put his head down and started sleeping,” says Lackey. “Sammy and I were like, ‘Well, I guess somebody’s got to run the Tasty.’” Lackey took over the register, taking requests at the counter, while Hassan became the short-order chef.
They “had a grand old time for quite a few hours,” says their college roommate, Billy P. Pennoyer ’88, until the server woke back up and they departed for the night — leaving behind their tips and taking two tea bags, one orange pekoe and one earl gray, as mementos. “We had many, many a burger at the Tasty but that legend — well, that just seemed a fitting way to walk away from the Tasty,” Pennoyer says.
Bobby Cleary ’89 recalls one early morning when someone carried muffins inside and Cleary began singing the Muffin Man song.
“It was a riot. The whole place started singing, and the muffin man was happy, and the guys behind the counter were happy.”
Many students would “chew and screw” — eat without paying, then run away. But after his freshman year, Cleary says he and his friends ate for free, a reward for kicking out a man harassing the workers behind the counter. “When we came back in, the place applauded us.”
Others were troubled by the rougher edges of the Tasty’s clientele.
“I thought it was kind of creepy or even maybe haunted. You’d see guys with fedoras, old guys with newspapers, and I would sort of walk by it and shudder and think it’s like something out of a Stephen King novel,” Peter C. Viles ’84 says. “It wasn’t a comfortable spot for me.” His only memory of venturing into the establishment was when his brother dared him to go after a late night of drinking.
Nowadays, alumni and Cambridge residents express mixed feelings on the Square’s gradual gentrification and the closure of community staples like the Tasty. “It’s easy to say it was better then. I don’t know it was better. It was just different,” Viles says.
“We always dread whatever vestige that was hanging on is no longer there,” D’Arienzo adds about his class reunion visits to Cambridge.
Muchnik feels similarly. “The banks have just done a lot of damage to the character of the Square,” he says. He sees the neighborhood, which he’s lived in since childhood, evolving even now.
“The students are the ones that make up the character of the Square,” Muchnik says. “Whatever they bring in dictates how funky or how straight-laced Harvard Square is going to be.”
— Magazine Writer Maeve T. Brennan can be reached at email@example.com.
— Magazine writer Maren E. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.