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.

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.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Au Bon Pain "Kiosk" 124 Mt. Auburn Street

82. 1-11-07 Au Bon Pain "Kiosk" Lobby inside 124 Mt. Auburn Street. Summary: Small yet decent selection of the "normal" ABP items.

I suspect this ABP location feeds only off the employees in this building - fortunately it's a pretty big building. I always find it amazing how people will settle for any food (even mediocre food) as long as it's close to their workplace.

That said, this ABP is a step above mediocre. There's a decent selection of pre-made sandwiches (I had a tuna wrap), three kettles of soup, plus chips, cookies, muffins, and drinks. The main thing you lose here is the ability to get a sandwich made fresh for you.

Nothing special, but convenient for nearby employees. About $8 for a typical lunch.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dado Tea (Church Street)

81. 1-4 Dado Tea 50 Church Street. Summary: Very similar to other location, creative foods, friendly service, reasonable prices.

The only difference I could find between this Church Street location of Dado Tea and the location at 955 Mass Ave. was the amount of floor space. The 955 Mass Ave. location has more seating room.

Otherwise, the menu is exactly the same, and it turns out the service is quick and friendly in both locations.

I tried the Potter Wrap - multi-grain rice, carrot-ginger, chicken salad, and mesclun mixed greens in a tortilla wrap. The interesting combination of foods worked - it was really tasty. The wrap plus a bag of chips set me back $9 - a fair amount, but not outrageous in the Square.

I continue to recommend Dado Tea as an interesting, creative lunch spot.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


80. 1-3 Conundrum 56 JFK Street (down a narrow alley, where Iruna used to be). Summary: Funky space, attentive service, empty, good food, a bit pricey.

Conundrum was in trouble with me, because I loved the former occupants of their space, the Spanish restaurant Iruna. Iruna was the classic Harvard Square bistro, similar to Cafe Pamplona - tiny space, decent food, lots of atmosphere, low prices. I miss Iruna. (Funny, you can still see the name "Iruna" on the back of the gate you walk under to enter the alley.)

And, I hate the name Conundrum. It doesn't say anything, except maybe that the owner is a bit pretentious (not many people use the word conundrum, I don't think). It certainly doesn't say anything about the restaurant.

The space is slightly fancier than when Iruna was there. There's now a bar in the first room as you walk in; the dining area is to your right. When Tom and I arrived, there were two other people eating; when we left, only two other people had arrived. Not a good sign.

The waiter was friendly and knowledgeable. He recommended the crab cakes as an appetizer, which were a bit odd - served on a cabbage vegetable spring roll, which I thought was not a good match for the crabcake. I found the crabcake a bit mushy as well, perhaps from the cabbage.

I had a chicken sandwich with salad for an entre, which I enjoyed very much - nicely cooked, still juicy inside. Tom had a California Club sandwich, which he enjoyed, but he learned after ordering that there was no avocado available. Kind of hard to call it "Californian" without the avocado, I think. That was a major goof by the kitchen.

Price was $45 including tip for two. Too much money for only good, not great, food. And a bad name too boot!

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mass Avenue Restaurant

79. 1-2-2007 Mass Avenue Restaurant 906 Mass Ave. Summary: Bizarre menu, very friendly, tough on cholesterol, OK food.

I believe Mass Ave Restaurant is the furthest towards Central Square I will get. It's just past the Plough and Stars; Central Square is in site from its front doors. Maybe that's a decent theme for this review - it's fighting for an identity in all respects.

Nothing about the Mass Ave Restaurant's appearance makes you think quality, from its name, its sign, or its tables/ambience once you're inside. It's essentially a diner. You get a friendly greeting - the woman at the counter who greets you seems to know every customer's name, and if she doesn't - as was the case with me - she asks some questions ("where do you work?") and give you an official welcome. So I assumed I was going to be offered basic diner food.

But, the menu is a surprise, in that half the menu features Mexican food, and nearly all the cooks are Mexican. Turns out the chefs are from Casa Mexico, the restaurant that used to be on JFK Street in Harvard Square (Casa Mexico was good, but not great). The other half of the menu is all-day breakfast, meaning tons of egg dishes, pancakes, waffles, etc. And, it does offer basic diner luch food - subs etc. So you need to choose between all-day breakfast food, traditional deli food, or Mexican.

I opted for a blend of diner and Mexican food. I ordered a roasted chicken lunch and substituted rice and beans instead of mashed potatoes. The chicken was excellent - slightly overdone, but that's typical these days with restaurants worrying about undercooked meat. The rice and beans were fine, but the beans were refried, meaning mixed with lard. I went with rice and beans because I didn't want the cream/butter mixed with the potatoes - but got lard as a replacement! It's hard to leave a diner without raising your cholesterol.

So, if you're not worried about cholesterol and love breakfast or Mexican food, and don't care about atmosphere or location, Mass Ave Restaurant should work for you. About $8/person.