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.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


27. 9-26 Zoe's at 1105 Mass Ave. Summary: Good food, a bit expensive, nice service.

Zoe's bills itself as "Breakfast All Day!" and indeed there are many breakfast items always available - but in addition you can find wraps and sandwiches for lunch.

We all ordered take out. Everything came out as we ordered, in a few minutes' time, and the food was quite tasty. I had a turkey/avocado wrap with french fries.

About $7-$8 per person.

Subway, in University Market

26. 9-25 Subway, in University Market, 1105 Mass Ave. Summary - Good food, excellent value, quick service.

Subway - the same fast-food place advertising heavily nationwide - is actually in Harvard Square. This shouldn't be remarkable, but Harvard Square hasn't allowed a fast-food franchise, pretty much ever - you'll note there aren't any McDonalds or Burger Kings. There's a local zoning ordinance that doens't allow those sort of places.

So I was surprised to see Subway within University Market. Of all the fast food joints, Subway seems the most healthy - or at least they claim so. I was impressed with the whole wheat buns and fresh vegetables, so maybe they really are healthy.

In any case, the food was good, there was no line, and it was cheap - about $4-5 per person.

Charlie's Kitchen

25. 9-22 Charlie's Kitchen, Eliot Street. Summary - Very good "diner" food, fun setting, friendly but extremely slow service.

Charlie's Kitchen is a throw-back. Not only is there vinyl booth seating, mirrors everywhere, "classic rock" piping in thtrough speakers, TVs turned on in most corners, but just inside the kitchen there's a bell - the kind that has a wooden handle so you can call the kids in for dinner - dangling from a string that gets tugged by the chef when an order is ready. I bet that bell has been used for decades.

Everything was great about our experience except the slowness in the service. Maybe it was just us, but we watched many other tables receive their food despite the fact we ordered before they did. Our server, a lovely older woman, might have slipped up in communicating our order to the kitchen.

We had the normal diner fare, including burgers, a lobster roll sandwich, fries, etc. No complaints about the food.

About $7 per person.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Au Bon Pain, 1100 Mass Ave.

24. Au Bon Pain, 1100 Mass Ave, 9-21. Summary: Excellent food, decent prices.

I have a love/hate relationship with Au Bon Pain. I love to find it in locations where nothing else seems edible - particularly airports and hospitals. I'm starting to hate it for its growth - there are at least three in Harvard Square alone.

That being said, it's a very well-run business. The food is consistently good, and the menu does change occasionally. The service is always efficient and the workers seem reasonably concerned with helping you out. And the prices are fair.

I had a bowl of soup - vegetarian lentil - and a sandwich on whole wheat baguette (what would the French say?), chicken with apple and grapes. Both were really tasty. $8.50 for both. Jennifer couldn't find her 'perfect' mac and cheese (she wants it baked, with some crust on top and not too runny), but it was OK; Mike had a sandwich which he liked.

And we all left without succumbing to the delectable pastries/muffins.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Harvard Coop Cafe

23. 9-20 Harvard Coop Cafe. Summary: It's a cafeteria in the middle of a general merchandise/bookstore that takes full advantage of its proximity and its name. In other words, the environment around the cafe is much more important than the cafe itself. Food was nothing special, surroundings were unique.

The Coop (pronounced "coop" as in chicken) has been around forever. It holds a near monopoly on textbook sales to Harvard students, despite the intrusion of the Internet and used textbook sites; to combat this, professors update their books each year and force students to buy them new. Otherwise the Coop sells school supplies, some clothing, lots of posters, and general interest books. And, it has a cafe on the mezzanine level, past all the images on the wall of famous Harvard graduates ("Where is JFK?" a man asked the cashier as I walked past), past the seals of the various Harvard graduate schools. It's kind of like entering a Hollywood version of Harvard - lots of dark wood, tons of books, lots of history staring at you. I'm sure it's kind of fun for tourists.

As for the cafe, it's very simple. Muffins, sweets, drinks, coffees, teas, and some lunch stuff. I had their special, which changes daily: pasta with tomato/meat sauce, garlic bread, small salad, for $6.95. One woman working, no line. She scooped out pre-cooked pasta into a sieve, poured hot water over it, then ladled sauce from a crockpot on the pasta. Salad dressing in single serve, tear-at-the-top container. Kind of like how I would expect airplane food to be prepared and served. Reasonable price, and you don't get more than you pay for.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Boston Chowda Co.

23. 9-19 Boston Chowda Co. in the Garage. Summary: Good food, reasonable prices.

There isn't too much to say about Boston Chowda Co. I ordered a "big cup" of soup for $4, and a turkey wrap for $5. The wrap was pre-made, but fine; the soup was tasty, but not exceptional. Service was efficient. Satisfying meal, not too expensive.

Nothing special - it won't make the top of my list, but not the bottom either.


22. 9-18 Hi-Rise "At the Blacksmith House" on Brattle. Summary: Only I survived the amazing prices, and the food wasn't worth the cost.

Tom, Jennifer, and Rob all fled as soon as they saw sandwich prices on the blackboard - none of which were below $9. Despite the high prices, the line stayed long for the 15 or so minutes I was there, out the door in fact. It's funny, I don't think a lunch spot like this could survive on the 'other' side of the Square, where our workplace is. Somehow Brattle St. brings out the price-insensitive lunchers.

I had a Sandwich #2, "Fern's Problem Solver," which is roasted turkey, avocado, russian dressing, on grilled semolina bread. It was good, but not as good as Cardullo's, and not as good as Cremaldi's, either - both of which were at least $3 cheaper.

Hi-Rise is beyond the "Yuppie" label I attached to Grafton St. - it's in a league of its own. I'd say it's where transplanted New Yorkers go for lunch, people who aren't afraid to say they get their lunch at Hi-Rise - as a status thing.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


21. 9-15 Pinocchio's Pizza, 74 Winthrop St, just off JFK St. Everybody was happy with their food.

Pinocchio's is the classic Harvard undergrad eatery. It's been around forever - over 30 years - and due to its proximity to the "River Houses" many, many students buy slices there. Locals call it Noch's (pronounced "nokes"). On the walls of the tiny shop are many pictures of Harvard varsity teams, usually signed by all the athletes, plus a chemical breakdown of pizza. The food is good - nice variety of pizzas, many of them available as slices, usually in a deep-dish Sicilian style (but they do offer "regular" pizza that has a thin crust). Their subs are fine also.

If it's busy, make sure to jump into the line that starts at the right of the counter and winds through the seating area. Rookies come in on the left and are ignored!

If you're looking for a typical Harvard eating spot, Pinocchio's is it. Around $5-$6 per person.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hong Kong Restaurant

20. 9-14 Hong Kong on Mass Ave. I made it, finally, after reading the article saying that the Hong Kong passed its latest city health inspection handily. Spartan environment - lots of vinyl; not the nicest service, but OK; extensive menu; cheap - about $6/per person. Food was unexceptional. I had chicken and broccoli, Rob had egg fu yung - basically a massive omelet with loads of gravy (yuck!), Tom had veggie delite. Not at the top of the list. But no one had an upset stomach afterwards, so it exceeded my expectations!

Upstairs at the Hong Kong is another matter. You go there late at night when you want to get rip-roaring drunk, fast. Just order a Scorpion Bowl, grab a thick straw, and go to it. And good luck getting down the stairs without falling!

Unique Pizza

19. 9-13 Unique Pizza (formerly Tommy's, on Mt. Auburn). It was a unique experience, at least: despite asking 3 times, Rob's veggie sub came with onion; my pizza slice would never have arrived if I didn't ask; my turkey sub without cheese was a challenge; the staff tripled during the 10 minutes we were there. By the way, they offer an exciting menu item: macaroni and cheese wedges, served with tomato sauce. Deep fried clumps of mac and cheese. These guys must be from the south or the midwest, where you can generally find anything edible coated in batter and fried. Unexceptional food, poor service, price around $6 - $8 per person.

I miss Tommy's, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Ten plus years ago, Tommy's essentially replaced the Tasty as the late night, drunken, gotta get some fat in my system hole-in-the-wall in the Square. Tommy's had video games, pinball machines, and terrible pizza - but it was always open, and you could always find Harvard students there in various states of inebriation. These places are part of the fabric of college towns.

So what has replaced Tommy's?

B. Good

18. 9-12 B. Good on Dunster St. Nice place, "full disclosure" on calories/unsat fat/sat fat on all their burgers, quick, decent prices, tasty food. Pleasant experience. This is another "only in the Square" type eatery. It's amazing that it's such a rarity to find a restaurant willing to put on their menu board the caloric/fat information on each item. But there was a steady flow of customers, so there's obviously a market for good food, at reasonable prices, with full disclosure.

Tamarind Bay

17. 9-11 Tamarind Bay, 75 Winthrop St. (where Casa Mexico used to be) Nice, smallish, slightly upscale Indian restaurant. Buffet (are there any Indian restaurants not offering a buffet for lunch?) was limited but contained foods I haven't seen at any other similar buffets, including a fried eggplant dish that was very tasty. Good service, a bit cramped seating. $10/person, only buffet, no drinks. Probably prefer Bombay Club with more options.

Grafton Street

16. 9-8 Grafton Street, Mass Ave. Great location, great space, wonderful open windows, big screen TVs, outdoor seating. You expect to get food too? As expected, the food was fine, but nothing special, and it was overpriced to boot. Yuppie heaven. But yuppies are people too, right?
About $13 per person.

Cambridge 1

15. 9-7 Cambridge 1 on Church St. Posh pizza place, modern/dark with great view out back window toward cemetery. All servers are wearing black - gives you an immediate feeling that you've entered a "hip" place. Had basic pizza and iceberg lettuce salad(!) - and enjoyed both very much. Pizza is wafer-thin, underside of crust charred from wood fire, but toppings are top quality and sprinkled on in clumps - surprises in every bite.

This is the classic "how the Square has changed" restaurant - ten-fifteen years ago, Cambridge 1 wouldn't have made it. But as the Square has gentrified, so has the taste of the population become more sophisticated - and wallets are more full, so people are willing to pay $13 for a super thin pizza and a wedge of iceberg lettuce (I seem to recall that "Double Spud" - One Potato/Two Potato, where Grafton Street is now - used to offer a similar 'salad' - I remember as a child being amused at the lack of preparation needed to make a wedge of salad - essentially one swipe of a cleaver!)

Bit expensive, $13.

Cremaldi's on Putnam

14. 9-6 Cremaldi's at 31 Putnam Ave. Excellent sandwiches, inept but friendly server who forgot my soup; and no turkey on my turkey and avocado sandwich! Despite that, the grilled sandwich was excellent - very fresh ingredients and the outstanding bread. So despite the haphazard service, we'll make it back here.

Cremaldi's feels like a true neighborhood meeting spot. It's just three blocks off Mass Ave., but it feels like three miles. The only neighbors are single family residences or multi-unit buildings. The seating area is big and still warm feeling. The menu is small and there are very few staff, so it makes me wonder how they're doing financially. I'm rooting for Cremaldi's to stay - but it's going to take a few more people like me wandering off Mass Ave for them to make it, I think.

Bartley's Burgers

13. 9-5 Bartley's. Everyone loved their burgers. Satisfied our "need for juicy red meat" cravings.

Bartley's is a Harvard Square institution, renowned for its great burgers and iconoclastic ambience. Essentially, it's the Durgin Park of Cambridge, except that Bartley's food is actually very good. It's an experience even before you walk in the door, what with the vent from the kitchen blowing out on to the sidewalk - the aroma of burgers on the grill can't be missed for 100 yards. Then, the 'waiting area' inside the door is about four square feet. Inside, it's incredibly noisy, what with the staff yelling out their orders to chefs who are two feet away from them, to the packed patrons who have to yell to eachother to communicate. But you always find a place to eat right away, often in the center space where singles are packed in next to one another - there must have been romances started at this place. The menu has a million options, most named after celebrities (but good luck figuring out the relationship between the celeb and the actual burger!). And the walls are literally covered with decades worth of posters/signs/prints that inevitably make you chuckle.

All that said, the burgers are plain great. They cook them perfectly, just as you try to do on a grill - about an inch thick, with a seared crust and then juicy in the middle. Sounds easy to do, but very few restaurants can pull it off. And their fries are excellent as well. And they have loads of comfort foods as well - mac and cheese, soups, etc.

You pay a bit extra - about $7-$9 per person - but it's worth it, for the whole experience.

University Market salad bar

12. 9-1 University Market - salad bar. Cheap, all fresh foods, nice variety - success. In Needham, where I worked previously, there were two salad bars we frequented often. The first was at Zathmary's, an outstanding lunch place with an amazing salad bar. It was expensive, but worth it, because the variety and freshness were outstanding. The second was the supermarket Sudbury Farms, and it was weak in comparison.

So I was worried that we had lost our salad bar option in the Square, only to find University Market a few steps away. It's a small salad bar, but quite fresh and with just the right mix to satisfy all of us. And, best of all, it's very reasonable in price - you can get a substantial salad for under $5.


11. 8-31 Lee's on Church St. Lee's is a Square institution, up there with Charlie's and Bartley's Burgers, I think. (Other such institutions that had to bow out in recent years include the Wursthouse, Buddy's Sirloin Pit, Elsie's, Swiss Alps, and Iruna. OK, Buddy's and Elsie's went away MANY years ago...) In any case, Lee's survives because it offers good, basic food, served quickly and usually with a smile, at reasonable prices. If you want a grilled cheese, or a hot dog, or some excellent fries, or a cup of good ice cream, Lee's will work for you.

Leo's Place

10. 8-30 Leo's Place on JFK, Greek "comfort food," everyone thought food was just "OK." Another place I've walked past a million times but never went inside. Very simple diner with basic menu. Nothing special, but if you want decent food at a reasonable price, in unpretentious surroundings, this place is for you.

Le's Vietnamese Restaurant

9. 8-29 Le's vietnamese in Garage. Excellent food, lots of it, OK prices. Formerly Pho Pasteur - the quality seems the same as when it was Pho Pasteur, but it's a bit weird that the name changed. There are still reviews from the old name still on the wall. In any case, the food is excellent, and the prices are commensurate - about $9-$10.


8. 8-28 Cardullo's - amazing deli, $7.95 reg., specials $6.95, lots of meat, great add-ins, cash only. I've walked past Cardulo's a million times and never really knew what was inside. Turns out they have a fantastic deli/lunch option, with three or four servers behind the counter making sure you get what you want. Tremendous number of options, and the quality is superb. We ordered four sandwiches and each of us was stunned at the high quality of what we ate - no small feat considering these were 'basic' sandwiches. I had a BBQ turkey sandwich (a special), and it was the most tender turkey I've ever had, with a nice but not overpowering BBQ sauce. Remarkable. You pay a dollar or two extra here, but it's worth it. About $8-$9.

Link to Article on Square Restaurant Inspections

Rebecca Ledford of the Harvard Crimson wrote an excellent piece in April this year about city inspections of Harvard Square restaurants. She followed city inspectors on their duties and got the "dirt" on how well Square eateries fared in their inspections, which, it turns out, are remarkably thorough (lasting a few hours, and they see each business twice per year).

I was pleased to learn that the Hong Kong has turned the corner - I've been anxious about visiting there, as their reputation is so much geared toward the upstairs bar and their legendary Scorpion Bowls (they've been around for decades), that the restaurant was thought to be an excuse for the staff to work mid-day.

Here's Ledford's article.

Bombay Club

7. 8-25 Bombay Club on JFK Street, upstairs in Galeria - I've been here a number of times and i alsways enjoy it for lunch. Bombay has an extensive buffet with high quality food; a separate station for the appetizers - small crackers/wafers and chickpea/potato/spices to put on them - and a very nice dining room. About $10 per person.


6. 8-24 Felipe's on Mt. Auburn - burritos - only dark chicken meat. This place is a machine, moving people fast. And they better get a lot of volume, because their basic burrito is only $3! Apparently Felipe's is THE place for undergrads to grab a quick bite, and with that price, no wonder. The food is good, I only wish they had white chicken meat. About $6 for a well-stuffed burrito.

Updated, 10-14-2011: Felipe's rocks. I've been to it so many times now that they recognize me, which is saying something given how many people get lunch there. Even though the menu is much simpler than Boloco's down the street, I'm now convinced that Felipe's is much better than Boloco, both in terms of quality and value. Simply put, there's no better place to get good, healthy food at a great price. You get to pick everything you want in the burrito and then watch them make it in seconds. The knife flashes as it cuts the meat and/or vegetables, the sour cream gets plopped on the meat, the jalapenos get clumped in the middle of the burrito, making for a single bite full of pain - and yet, the food is absolutely delicious. The cashiers know how to ask "anything else? for here or to go?" - and nothing else - and yet they have you on your way in mere seconds. Felipe's is an efficient and cheap haven for lunch in the Square.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

La Creperie

5. 8-23 La Creperie at 1154 Mass Ave. Bit expensive, only one person working. I had nice salad, it was large with chicken and nice balsamic dressing. Others had crepes, which they enjoyed, but weren't filling enough. Bit expensive for the amount of food. Service was moderate speed-wise, but getting slower as more people came in after us. Around $8 per person.

Cafe Pamplona

4. 8-22 Cafe Pamplona - great soup, bean/avocado/onion mix with chips, homemade lemonade, lovely outdoor seating under yellow umbrellas (we ate downstairs in a big room with seating for about 30, fortunately it was just us because I imagine it gets really loud down there if full), about $10. Everyone enjoyed their meals.


3. 8-21 Boloco, on Mt. Auburn St. (not Felipes) - smaller burritos, more expensive than Felipes, but white chicken meat, creative offerings, wraps as well.

Cafe Sushi

2. 8-18 Cafe Sushi 1105 Mass Ave. - excellent bento box, $9. Made for complete meal, including sushi, chicken teriyaki, seaweed salad. Success!

Upstairs on the Square, downstairs

1. 8-17 Upstairs at the Square (corner JFK and Mt. Auburn St) - fancy - downstairs. Took the company there after moving to the Square on our own (total cost: $143, for the truck rental). Some items on the menu unrecognizable to some, and the grilled cheese was too fancy - probably due to grilled bread and non-American cheese - but in general everyone impressed with the meal and the space. Nice service.