I ran into a college friend who had just moved to Cambridge, MA after 28 years as a New York City resident. She is one of those “why would anyone live anywhere but New York” New Yorkers, so our conversation quickly developed into me defending Cambridge.
Her: “Tell me, where do you even eat here? I seriously can’t find a single decent restaurant.”
It was one of those situations when you realize that you are defensive and passionate about a thing, only because that thing has been challenged. I assumed that I was neutral towards Cambridge—a fine enough place to live—until a New Yorker scoffed at it.
I love living in Cambridge. It’s New England quaint, but international. Lively, but low-fuss. I can go to bars in my backpack and snow boots and still be served a high-end charcuterie board and Old Fashioned. I have a 10-minute walk to work on lovely brick sidewalks and I meet plenty of handsome, friendly dogs along the way (occasionally tethered to handsome, friendly men). My baseline and often dire needs (breakfast sandwiches, espresso, microbrews, and manicures) can be met within a three-block radius.
But I get how a New Yorker might glance around and say, “Where do you even eat here?”
Cambridge does not have a pervasive culture of bar/restaurant hype and chatter. Most of us are living too modestly (i.e. living off the income from a start up that hasn’t started up) or consumed with academic pursuits to care about the newest mixology tapas bar. I do not want to go to the hot new restaurant with a three-month backup of reservations opened by some chef from Chicago whose name I’m supposed to know. I want to go to a comfy bar with no crowds, a respectable draught list, and curly fries.
So where do I even eat here?
Go to Central Square or venture to the wonderful areas of Somerville like Inman Square (it’s so vibrant!) or Union Square (it used to be a deterring to deal-breaking 40-minute pedestrian trek, but is now an effortless Uber away!). Try Highland Kitchen, Central Kitchen, Greenstreet Grill, or East Coast Grill for a start.
If you’re stuck in the Harvard Square area, realize that it’s designed for tourists and students’ parents. It is saturated with indistinguishable gastropubs including but not limited to Russell House, Red House, Boat House, Grafton Street, Tory Row, Park, Kennedy’s, and Alden & Harlow (where I refuse to go because it sounds like a law firm). All of the food is decent but unmemorable. The menus have steak-frites, salmon, a $14 hamburger, a flatbread pizza with figs, and mediocre cocktails with dumb names like the Fireside Poet. These restaurants are all fine. I do not object to eating at them. It’s just like yawn, shrug, whatever. I’m out to dinner for socializing, not for a transcendent gastronomic experience.
However there are some noteworthy establishments in Harvard Square that I frequent and enthusiastically endorse.
Daedalus would be among those indistinguishable gastropubs, except for one distinguishing feature: the roof deck. After a winter of slush and torment, on the first day when you think, “hey I actually want to be outside,” you should go to the Daedalus roof deck. It’s a sedate refuge above the commotion of Harvard Square. A place to have an extended brunch or happy hour with friends, feeling cool in your designer sunglasses.
The food and drinks are in no way exceptional. Most of the customers are law school/business school d-bags. The wait staff is neutral to rude. But Daedalus has that roof deck, so Daedalus is one of my favorite places in Harvard Square.
When/if winter ends…
2) Otto Pizza
Otto Pizza is just awesome. They have delicious, inventive slices like “Butternut Squash, Ricotta, & Cranberry” and “Spicy Pulled Pork with Scallion & Herb.” I won’t go on listing because you can read the menu yourself. The thing is—officially I don’t even like pizza. As I kid I completely refused to eat it. As I graduate student I eat it because it is so often served at mealtime meetings, and like a good organism, I have adapted my tastes to fit resource availability. However, I would never say, “Hey guys, let’s order a pizza!” There are like 25 foods, just as easy to obtain, that I’d rather eat.
But I do often say, “Hey guys, let’s go to Otto Pizza!” because I love the Otto Pizza experience. It’s a cramped, order-at-the-counter, stand-while-eating, place. I get my slice, pat off some grease with a napkin, douse it with pepper flakes, chomp it down, and then clear out for the next folks in line. It’s snappy, energizing, and delicious. I want it when I’m drunk, hung over, and sober. Otto Pizza, la la la!
“The Kong” is infamous as the sketchiest bar in Harvard Square—meaning I would still feel comfortable taking my parents there until 11 pm. After 11 pm it’s still not sketchy, just sloppy and crowded. I never saw someone doing coke in the bathroom, but everyone is dropping their cell phones and thinking, “no one will steal our coats if we tie them together in the corner!” Adult kickball teams have their post-game socials at The Kong. Harvard Business School has networking events at The Kong. It’s PG-13 at worst.
I am not ashamed to admit, I like The Kong. I have great respect for its ingenious structure, designed to sustain customers through progressive stages of drunkenness. The three-story establishment has a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, a bar on the second floor, and a dance club on the third. You can have dinner, consume ample booze, dance like a fool, and end your night with 2 am scallion pancakes and wonton soup. What more could you want in your mid-20s?
In a “when in Rome” way, when in The Kong you drink Scorpion Bowls. These are large ceramic bowls with about a quart of liquor, sugary fruit drink, ice, little plastic animals, and long straws. They taste like when you were a kid and thought it was cool to mix all the fountain drinks, except that some of the fountain drinks are worse-than-well grade liquor. I hate the taste of Scorpion Bowls. I hate the inevitable hangover from Scorpion Bowls. But I love Scorpion Bowls because I love the underlying concept of Scorpion Bowls. They are ritual communal consumption—imbibing a secret elixir together and altering our state of consciousness together. I imagine it’s how our ancient ancestors partied: they fermented some sedge pulp in a hollowed gourd and passed it around the fire. Then they danced and painted the cave walls, like how we dance and post Facebook selfies. Having Scorpions Bowls feels so purely, primitively human to me.
4) Charlie’s Kitchen
There are very distinct zones at Charlie’s Kitchen: an outdoor beer garden, a diner-slash-bar, and an eerily lit upstairs with a disorganized array of tables where I’ve only been after midnight and in an altered state. My regular order is a grilled cheese on rye. The tables are sticky and the staff is long-time locals who don’t give a shit about Harvard kids. Charlie’s Kitchen is a solid establishment.
My favorite thing to do at Charlie’s Kitchen is cry. Yes, it’s a swell place for public crying. My best (French) friend Gilbert and I have one booth in the diner area that we designated as the Crying Booth. When one of us is upset, we come to the Crying Booth to therapeutically cry it out with whiskey, waffle fries, and giant waters. The source or severity of our distress does not matter. The Crying Booth has been our refuge for reacting to and processing serious grievances: professional disappointments, heartbreaks, and deaths. But it is just as appropriate for drunken, irrational crying over ruined knit ties (him) or men who didn’t text back (me).
For example, it’s 1:45 am and I’m in sitting the Crying Booth with Gilbert. I’m wearing some stretchy shirt-dress and leggings. I’m irate, nonsensical, and disheveled.
Me: “I can’t believe…[snotty unattractive sniff]… that guy at the Kong didn’t want to make out with me!…[sniff, sniff].”
Gilbert: “Maybe it’s because he’s married…”
Me: “[Heave, sniff, heave]…Probably. Because everyone’s married or has a secret girlfriend. You should not be allowed into the Kong if you are married or have a girlfriend…”
Me: “No seriously. It’s not fair that they let guys with girlfriends into The Kong. It should be against the rules…”
Gilbert is being a good listener—because he is quietly and contently ignoring me and focusing on his double-beef hamburger….
The best thing about all of these places is that they are convenient, low-key, and most of my friends live within a 15-minute radius. We can spontaneously convene for quality conversation without planning weeks in advance and schlepping across town. We don’t need reservations, just a group text 20-minutes in advance. That is why Cambridge trumps New York City for me. The bars are calm enough that we can actually talk and we live or work close enough that we can frequently talk. It’s easy and satisfying to socialize in Cambridge. I don’t care about the trendiest cocktail with elderflower and jalapeno reduction. I don’t care about the hottest restaurant opened by a groundbreaking chef. I just want to be with my friends, jovially sharing a Scorpion Bowl or irrationally sobbing over waffle fries. Oh, and to stop at Otto Pizza on the way home!