Harvard Square is best known for its lauded university, but along with students and professors, this Cambridge commercial and entertainment hub is for residents and tourists, too. One draw is its plentiful eateries: They have everything from the dive-y Charlie’s Kitchen on Eliot Street and funky Grendel’s Den in the old Harvard Club on Winthrop, to the venerable Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage and the Chinese restaurant Hong Kong, two institutions on Massachusetts Avenue across from Harvard Yard. The most legendary Harvard Square eating haunt was Upstairs at the Pudding, originally opened in the late 1980s in the same building as Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. It closed in 2001, only to reopen soon after as the unique Upstairs on the Square. Sadly, along with chef Jody Adams’ Italian restaurant Rialto in the Charles Hotel, it’s now closed. Still, here are five great spots to grab a bite, have drinks, or linger longer on Boston’s so-called Left Bank.
Lead photo courtesy of Linda Clarke
Linda Clarke is a freelance travel writer whose work has been published in the Boston Globe, New York Daily News, and several other print and online publications.
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Tucked away down a red-bricked pedestrian lane 'twixt Brattle and Mount Auburn Streets, Harvest opened in 1976. The design is quintessentially classic without being dated; dark woods and comfortable seating, but modern, and with a pretty fenced courtyard complete with an outside fireplace. Heading this foodie enclave is executive chef Tyler Kinnett, who made Zagat's 30 Under 30 top chefs list in 2015. That's due to Kinnett's savvy pairings: poached fruits and preserved vegetables, dabs of purées or creamy elements, and some crunch are paired with meats and fish, and pies and puddings. Each is a colorful taste experience without being overwrought. Kinnett follows a who's-who of noted chefs; Lydia Shire, Chris Schlesinger, Barbara Lynch, Frank McClelland, and Sara Moulton have passed through Harvest's kitchen. Google those names if need be, and be impressed.
Photo by Linda Clarke
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2. Henrietta's Table
Before there were trends like farm-to-table and locavore, there was Henrietta's Table's chef Peter Davis working directly with New England farms. Named for one farm's pig, Henrietta's is the Charles Hotel's all-day restaurant, and it has a bar and market area. In summer, a farmers market pops up right on the street outside. Inside, the restaurant is modern with an open plan but a rustic twist. Outside, the traffic-free secluded patio is a delight in warm weather. Two and three-course prix fixes make for a treat that cuts the bill. No foams or fanciful embellishments here, just natural meats and wild fish paired with tender vegetables, and the best red bliss mash you'll find. Fresh means flavor and on Davis' menu, food isn't broken and doesn't need fixing up.
Photo by Charles Hotel
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3. Night Market
This relative newcomer to the Square marries Asian street food with culinary nous. Set in a dimly lit, vibrantly decorated basement, Night Market is home to chef Jason Tom (a finalist on the Food Network's Beat Bobby Flay), who does wizard things with vegetables—try smoked tofu with parsnip, pear, and chili; or the daikon fries with radish, garlic and black bean aioli and a smoked tomato and ginger ketchup, which are a popular pairing with drinks. Tom also does wicked stuff with hot spices; the numb numb sauce on the chicken wings is so hot that it makes your mouth … you guessed it … numb. Night Market's secret bar menu has great food deals, just go to the bar and ask for it. Less of a secret are the high-octane sake slushies in a variety of daily changing flavors—except for the Piña Colada, a perennial because folks just love 'em.
Photo by Linda Clarke
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4. Parsnip Restaurant & Lounge
Parsnip overlooks tiny Winthrop Park and pedestrian Winthrop Street, which has original settlers' homes and some of the oldest buildings still standing in Cambridge. Fittingly, Parsnip is a sleek and classic place, with a spectacular but cozy lounge upstairs and an elegant restaurant down. Chef Peter Quinion's well-edited menu is built on expertly paired exquisite ingredients: halibut roasted with green tea with a creamy cucumber and borage sauce, and oyster dressed Tatsoi, an Asian mustard green; zesty hearts of palm and avocado with escarole laced with shallot and fennel; and a vibrant vegetarian dish of hay roasted carrots with savory butter pecan cake and carrot top pesto. For drinks, or something more casual but several notches above the usual bar menu, try the lounge or patio.
Photo by Linda Clarke
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5. Tom's BaoBao
Harvard Square boasts the first U.S. outpost of this popular Chinese chain. Tom's BaoBao serves naught but these traditional Chinese steamed buns with half a dozen different filling options, along with some basic beverages (coffee, tea, locally made soy milk, and bottled juices). You can watch the bao being made in the bright white open kitchen, where the pearly white dough (made from hard red winter wheat) is studiously weighed to just the right size. The filling is weighed just as carefully—all to ensure even cooking in bamboo steamers. The dough is then folded around the filling more than a dozen times. Choose from pork, curry beef, chicken, vegetarian with tofu and greens, and sweet potato. Because this Tom's BaoBao is in New England, it has lobster, too.
Photo by Melissa Ostrow