The "Lunch in Harvard Square" Blog - Restaurant Reviews

Since starting to work in the Square in mid-August, I'm trying to eat lunch at a new restaurant every day until I can't find any more. Here's my list of the Top Ten Lunch Restaurants in Harvard Square (Food Only). Got a suggestion on a new lunch spot for me? New Restaurants to Try in Harvard Square.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Russell House Tavern

Russell House Tavern, 14 JFK Street 617 500 3055

Russell House Tavern moved into Z Square's space in April of 2010. I have to admit, I wasn't sorry to see Z Square go, as it kept searching for an identity without ever succeeding.

The entrance to Russell House is through the outdoor patio to the right of the building, the same as Z Square used. Z Square did allow folks to walk in the front door to the upstairs cafe, which really was more of a takeout area; Russell House has the front door permanently shut, which makes for many puzzled diners trying the door and then reading the note saying the entrance is around the right side. It's too bad the owners can't figure out a better and more intuitive solution to the entrance.

Russell House Tavern is using the same "upstairs, downstairs" setup as Z Square did, with a small area by the street, including an outdoor patio, and then an enormous eating area downstairs in the basement. I think this an odd layout, as I find it nice to eat by the sidewalk with the natural light, but only a limited number of people can do so, and the majority of diners will have to eat downstairs.

Today I ate in the small area upstairs. It's really a bar area more than a lunch spot, I think, as most of the space is taken up by the bar and tall, long tables with bar stools that large groups or social smaller ones can sit at. Along one wall there are a few lower tables for "normal" diners. Sitting at a lower table was a bit disconcerting because the folks sitting at the high tables literally tower over you - it's like they're in a different universe, and they make you feel like Lilliputians.

The whole room has a nice color scheme - dark table tops with lots of wood and plenty of light coming in the windows. Very much like an English pub.

Our waiter was eager to please - pleasant, easy to get his attention, and quick - but not professional. There were a number of slip-ups on his part, including checking too quickly to see if we'd decided on our orders, not bringing us bread until we asked, not mentioning a key ingredient in a special entre, and not asking if we wanted dessert. That said, he remedied these situations as quickly and efficiently as he could, so he gets high marks for attentiveness - kind of damning with faint praise.

My guest and I ordered the soup to share - a smoked chicken/lentil soup, in broth, using non-breast chicken parts. It was delicious - the smoky taste of the chicken was unusual and really made the soup come alive. The server correctly billed it as healthy, and so the combination of tasty and healthy was a great start. After we asked, the bread was a nice complement to the soup, and came with a pesto-flavored olive oil.

For entres, I ordered the Hickory Smoked Pork Loin Sandwich, without cheese (I have to watch my cholesterol, doctor's orders). Little did I know that pork loin, in Russell House terms, means an odd combination of bacon and shaved slices of pork meat. Somehow I pictured pork loin being thick slabs of tender pork - essentially, the average of the two types of pork that actually arrived between the bread slices. Don't get me wrong, it was very tasty, but for a cholesterol-watching diner, bacon wasn't getting my doctor's approval. The "crispy onions" that came in the sandwich were thin slices of onion in batter and then fried - this time, my doctor was vigorously shaking his head "no." At least there were some apple slices! So the verdict was, tasty, but quite different from what I expected from the description.

The menu states you can order sides of either greens or french fries with sandwiches, but the server mentioned you could get some of each, which I went for. This turned out to the be right call, as the plate was full of both greens and fries - I can't imagine how much arrives if you order either individually. I ate all the fries, which of course made my doctor leave the restaurant in disgust - I had completely failed his low cholesterol diet. Both the fries and greens were very tasty.

My guest ordered the special macaroni and cheese, which the server mentioned came with chicken and sage. Unfortunately, the server didn't mention that it also came with gobs of onions, which unfortunately my guest abhors. I tried a bite, and I thought there was a taste of nutmeg as well - it was a pretty strong flavor, and it certainly didn't taste like sage. It was sweet - not really what I think one looks for in a mac and cheese dish.

To our server's credit, he acknowledged his mistake about the onions, and after checking with the kitchen learned that they changed the recipe a few days earlier, and he didn't know about it. He didn't charge us for the dish as a result. One has to wonder, however, about the breakdown in communication between the kitchen and the servers - onions are a pretty important addition to a dish.

So as for food quality, the kitchen got one dish out of three correct - the soup. The pork sandwich was very different than expected, and the mac and cheese was a surprise, and not really a good one either. So bravo for the soup, and yellow flags for the entres, as they indicated first that the chef's decisions were suspect (onions in mac 'n cheese? bacon described as smoked pork loin?), and secondly that there was poor communication from the kitchen to the rest of the house in terms of the menu descriptions and the wait staff's knowledge.

Finally, we were presented the bill without being asked if we wished for dessert (which we did). It seemed too much of a bother to tear up the bill and keep going, so we paid and left.

Prices are on the expensive side for lunch in the Square - $7-$11 for appetizers (other than a $4 cup of soup, which today was outstanding), and $9 to $15 for entres.

Summary: Russell House Tavern looks like a very nice bar upstairs, including seating at high tables that keep you in a festive mood. The downstairs and the few lower tables upstairs are for dining, and from a first stab, it appears your chances of success are pretty low. Make sure to grill your server for what exactly is coming! (And make sure to not invite your doctor if you're watching your cholesterol.) Given the price, I recommend Upstairs on the Square and Om down the street instead.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Qdoba, 1280 Mass Ave.

Qdoba opened up recently on Mass Ave, next to Bob Slate's. I had been a couple of times to a different Qdoba on Huntington Ave by the MFA, and liked it.

I tried a chicken burrito - a tough challenge for Qdoba given how frequently I order these at either Felipe's or Boloco.

But, Qdoba holds its own. I find the tortillas a bit thicker, so you get more chewiness than the other burritos in the Square. The chicken is flavored with some sort of tangy sauce, which I thought tasted quite good. But in both cases these are personal preferences.

So I'd summarize the burrito options in the Square like this:

Felipe's: Lowest cost, lightning-fast service, good and hearty. Only dark chicken meat.
Boloco: Upscale, little more expensive than Felipe's, more interesting options.
Qdoba: Thicker tortilla, no whole wheat option, good food.

Personally, my preference follows the above order: 1-Felipe's, 2-Boloco, 3- Qdoba.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Finale, Redux

I have been wondering for a long time whether I was justified in having Finale on my "top ten food restaurants in Harvard Square" list, and so I went back today. Guess what? It's still great.

I ordered a tuna salad sandwich, and a half mesclun salad. The cashier took the order and my payment ($10); about five minutes later a chef brought the food out to me, in a precious little bag.

Back at the office, I was delighted with the food: first, a pickle slice (not asked for) in its own little sleeve; the sandwich in a clever sleeve of paper, the bread fresh and hearty, the tuna salad just right in its proportion of mayo; fresh lettuce as well. The small mesclun salad was a revelation - nicely dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette, with some cherry tomatoes, fresh, and then the kicker: a generous hunk of soft goat cheese. There's no mention of these goodies on the menu - they're just included and are surprise. I loved it, every bite.

So it's a bit more expensive here than elsewhere (but not much; the sandwich was $5.50, which is quite cheap; the salad was $3.50 a bit pricey but definitely worth it), but the service is excellent and the food is outstanding.

Cafe Pamplona, redux

All six of us in the company ate in the tiny dining area of Cafe Pamplona a couple days ago. Some pushing together of tables and we were all set. The ceiling is really low - Jennifer had to duck under some beams - and the color is funky (kind of a dirty yellow, I think) and uninspiring. But, it's cozy, and it's cheap, and the food is definitely Spanish.

Around the table we had a bunch of garlic soup; Casey had two eggs added to his. It was tasty, not too garlicy, but in my opinion needed something extra, some sort of kicker.

Tom and I had the daily special, ground beef and some onions/peppers over rice, which I thought was fine - nothing special, but fine. I think that's in general how everyone viewed the food there - fine, but not great.

I missed the outdoor seating the the avocado salad thing I had in the early fall!

Boloco, redux

I love burritos, and I think Boloco on Mt. Auburn makes the best - better than Felipes. Apparently Quedaba (sp) is coming soon and will offer its burritos to Harvard Square, so we'll see if my opinion changes.

My first review of boloco was quite short; but I guess that's because it's a pretty simple place. Enter on the left, order and pay, then wait on the right for your food. The burrito offerings are creative and plentiful and not terribly expensive; the food is fresh; the servers are cheerful and polite and reasonably quick.

I had a large Cajun burrito with avocado. My only complaints: The avocado was right in the middle of the burrito, so I couldn't taste it in many of my bites, and I was still hungry afterwards, even though it was a large. Regardless it was quite tasty.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Henrietta's Table (Last New Restaurant!)

86. LAST NEW RESTAURANT! 1-17-07 Henrietta's Table In the Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street. Summary: Excellent comfort food, attentive service, decent setting, OK prices.

While I have a thing about hotel restaurants, Henrietta's Table seems to buck the trend. I don't know if this restaurant is independent of the hotel, but it seems unlikely the kitchen handles the room service for guests regardless. The restaurant is good enough to pull people off the street and not rely upon hotel guests to occupy its tables - no small feat.

The dining area is large and somewhat noisy, but you don't feel cramped or in your neigbor's space. It definitely feels more cozy and comfortable if you find seating by a wall, rather than in the middle of the room.

The menu is unapologetically "new england cooking." So you'll find a bunch of classic new england dishes, which are not known for their creativity or flavor, but still filling and satisfying.

All six of us from my company ate today. There was a range of entres ordered, from chicken pot pie (me) to yankee pot roast to grilled chicken breast to cornbread batter monkfish. Rob splurged on a beer from Cambridge Brewery Company, which he loved. Everyone ate all their food, plus a ton of the warm breads that came to the table. Tom hoped for more of the pot roast, but raved about it regardless; Jennifer thought the crab cakes were too salty, but she loved the vegetables.

The service was efficient, no problems. About $25 per person, tip included - a bit high, but acceptable.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Inn at Harvard

85. 1-18-07 Inn at Harvard 1201 Massachusetts Ave. Summary: Great location, great name, strange dining area, uninspired food, uneven service, overpriced.

I was apprehensive about eating at the Inn at Harvard, for a few reasons: First, in general hotel food isn't that great unless the restaurant is independent of the hotel; second, I went there for brunch a while ago, and the smoke alarm was being tested for the entire hour we were there, with flashing lights and piercing bells; and third, when I went for lunch the other day, they simply didn't offer it - "no lunch being served."

This time at least I could eat, and there was no testing underway.

The location of the Inn at Harvard is terrific. There used to be a gas station here many years ago, and Harvard built this Inn very quickly after buying the land - and, as I recall, they committed funds to the park area in front of the Inn, which is very pleasant and in good weather much used. And, the name is perfect - I'm sure they do well booking people there who want to visit the university.

That said, I really don't recommend lunch at the Inn at Harvard. First, the space is awkward at best. Essentially, you eat in the entryway/lounge/concierge area - it's an atrium in the center of the building, but it's the center of activity for the hotel. So guests come and go through the tables; the concierge conducts business - loudly - from his desk nearby; and guests enter the building a few feet away from the tables. There's not even a stand for a host/hostess to greet you; you need to ask someone at the front desk if you can eat lunch.

The menu is clearly "hotel food." It's pleasant to read, but you can easily imagine plastic wrap or metal covers over your plates, as in room service. At my server's suggestion, I ordered the salmon dish. The fish was very hot, but slightly overcooked, and there was too much sauce (balsamic reduction), in my opinion. There were many cooked tomatoes, which were decent but very hard to eat. And then it got weird; on the same plate were slices of soft cheese - mozzarella, I think - and they were COLD. To go from very hot salmon and tomato, to stone cold, soft cheese - that was weird. And all this was served on cold lettuce leaves. Kind of bizarre.

Plus, in another indication of this being room service food, my bread plate came with two rolls and four crackers - makes sense for delivery to a room, but unusual in a table setting. The ice tea I ordered was sweetened with perhaps pear - kind of a strange taste.

The service was uneven as well. There was a manager who roamed the hotel and occasionally checked in on me, plus a server who was good but certainly not great.

All this, and the gratuity of 20% was added in automatically. Total bill: $27.
Not worth it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Buddhist Meditative Center

84. 1-16-07 Meditative Center 950 Mass Ave. Summary: Excellent vegetarian food, interesting combination of meditation and lunch, good value.

The sign says "open to the public," so I went for it. As you walk in, on the left is a Buddhist altar and large floor area for meditation; on the right is a lunch area. When I went, there were just two diners. Seems like they don't get that many people off the street.

I ordered the vegetarian special, takeout. They change the special daily, and other than some side dishes, this is pretty much all they offer each day. You get 4 vegetable dishes, plus rice and soup. The soup wash a vegetable broth with mushroom and slivers of veggies. The four vegetable dishes were: Cabbage, broccoli, tofu and pineapple, and tofu and sprouts/shoots. The rice had a nice flavoring on top of it. All the food was well prepared and very tasty.

While I waited for the food, I watched a man pray before the altar; he sang a chant/song and frequently rang a bell or hammered a large gong as he sang. Clearly this was a known song, because another woman near me hummed along with him. It was interesting to listen and watch.

I was encouraged to attend meditation sessions in a friendly and subtle way, as I paid for my lunch. I didn't feel like I was intruding and I would go again, both for the food and for the experience. $6.50 for lunch.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tommy Doyle's

83. 1-12-2007 Tommy Doyle's 96 Winthrop Street. Summary: Cozy, friendly atmosphere plus excellent food.

96 Winthrop Street has had its fair share of restaurants lately. Of note was the House of Blues, which rocked the street for a number of years. Brother Jimmy's BBQ was also there. Turns out 96 Winthrop is listed as an Historical Landmark in Cambridge, meaning the owners of Tommy Doyle's had to abide by pretty stringent restrictions on any changes they wanted to make to the building. Bully for them they pulled it off - the building looks 'historical' from the outside, but works well as a three-level bar/restaurant on the inside.

I really like the atmosphere of Tommy Doyle's. It's a nice blend between a down-and-dirty Irish pub, where everything inside is old/authentic from the local neighborhood, and a tourist trap, where everything inside is clearly purchased by some expert buyer. There are plenty of TV's (this is a bar, after all) but they don't overwhelm the place. It's dark, but not too dark during lunch, when on the street level a decent amount of natural light comes in through the windows.

The lower level is clearly a drinking area - it's basically an open area with a couple of tables, plus a bar.

The street level is mostly a dining area - seating for about 30, plus a bar you can eat at as well.

The upper level is the "party room," according to my server, where bands play and things can get a bit crazy.

I sat at the bar and had a friendly conversation with the bartender, who wasn't Irish but instead from Albany - but who confessed that she picked up an Irish accent and could hold her own with native Irish speakers. She suggested the fish and chips as a "special" dish, and she was right - it was excellent. The fish was fried in a crispy light batter and was very hot on the inside - juicy, full of flavor. Alongside, the chips were steak fries and were also a nice mix of crunchy on the outside yet hot and chewy on the inside.

Tommy Doyle's has an excellent location right in the heart of the Square, next door neighbors to The Red House, Om, Upstairs on the Square and Grendels - and it holds its own against these storied restaurants.

Excellent location, nice pub atmosphere, friendly service, and perfectly cooked food, all for about $16 including tip. A good find and one I'll recommend to others.