Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Harvard Square
Everyone’s heard about it, few people really know it
This story originally ran September 11, 2009; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
According to historian Charles Sullivan, an area that includes the present-day Harvard Square was founded in 1630 as the Puritan village of Newtowne, which would become Cambridge in 1638. Many of the original streets still exist, including parts of Church, Story, Eliot, Arrow, and Mount Auburn Streets. And a few early 18th-century wood-frame houses on Winthrop, Dunster, and South Streets remain as well.
The name Harvard Square did not become popular until the middle of the 19th century. Today the Square (the area around the convergence of Massachusetts Avenue and Brattle, Mount Auburn, and John F. Kennedy Streets) is a commercial center for Harvard students, Cambridge residents, and tourists. It’s no surprise, given the disposable income passing through, that regional and national chains have moved in, yet the Square retains many long-standing locally owned and operated businesses.
No amount of economic evolution can remove Harvard Square’s fascinating blend of characters. A sunken region next to the MBTA subway entrance is a prime venue for street performers, political activists, panhandlers, and skateboarders. Nearby, chess aficionados challenge one and all for kicks and cash. The Square also attracts many of the city’s homeless people.
Below are some jumping-off points from which to explore the Square, destinations that lead to other destinations.
The Games People Play
1100 Massachusetts Ave.
The name says it all. Since 1974, the store has offered a wide array of study-time distractions, including board games, mechanical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and mind-benders. Check out the specialty chess sets—and chess computers, chess clocks, and chess books. Die-hard strategists won’t be disappointed: foreign board games take up an entire wall, the Chinese board game Go an entire bookshelf.
1105 Massachusetts Ave.
There’s nothing better than a leisurely Sunday brunch at a local diner, and that’s just what you’ll find at Zoe’s, where the plates are piled high with golden pancakes, eggs, and bacon; the coffee is strong; and the jukebox is active. In true diner fashion, Zoe’s serves breakfast all day. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day.
A Taste of Culture
1160 Massachusetts Ave.
Carmen Heller greets every customer at her eclectic boutique with a smile and soft hello. She came to the United States more than two decades ago to bring “a taste of her Peruvian culture” to Harvard Square, and the shop’s selection of hand-crafted jewelry, colorful woven clothing, silk-screened scarves, and playful finger puppets keeps expanding. Although much of the merchandise has a South American flair, Heller works with cooperatives and artists from around the world.
1238 Massachusetts Ave.
Since its modest beginnings in 1954, the Hong Kong—a Chinese restaurant that has become a fixture in Harvard Square—has expanded to a three-floor enterprise that includes a restaurant, a lounge, and the largest dance floor in the Square. The menu is nothing remarkable, but the Hong Kong boasts the biggest scorpion bowl in town, made from nine alcohols (mostly rums) and pineapple and orange juices. With that and some stand-up (the third floor plays host six nights a week to the Comedy Studio), who needs food?
Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage
1246 Massachusetts Ave.
Americans love two things: burgers and political snark. At Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, diners can order both: every seven-ounce burger is served with a free side of sarcasm. Burgers are named for Massachusetts political luminaries, such as the Mitt Romney (“feeling really, really ‘BLUE’”), a burger with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and onion rings; the Elizabeth Warren (“liberally anointed”), a burger with Swiss cheese and grilled peppers with a side of potato salad; and the Mayor Mumbles Menino “Mayor McCheese”, a burger topped with a fried egg, bacon, and cheese and served with fries. Some burgers are named for national figures: the Michelle Obama (“she’s hot & spicy”) is a blue cheese burger with Cajun seasoning and French fries; the Joe Biden Burger (“crazy Joe in 2016”) comes with bacon, American cheese, BBQ sauce, and a side of fries. You get the idea. For a truly authentic Bartley’s experience, add an extra-thick frappe or malt—but only if you wear your stretch pants.
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave.
In 1932, Mark Kramer borrowed $300 from his parents to open a small store that sold used and remainder books. Today, the Harvard Book Store is still independent (Frank Kramer, Mark’s son, sold it in 2008 to longtime customer Jeff Mayersohn and his wife) and has expanded to 100,000 new and used titles. The store’s award-winning Author Event Series presents readings, signings, and lectures by established and emerging fiction and nonfiction authors.
1400 Massachusetts Ave.
Founded in 1882 by a group of Harvard students, the Harvard Coop (pronounced coupe, not co-op) is one of the country’s largest bookstores. Now run by Barnes & Noble, the multilevel, multibuilding retailer sells textbooks, school supplies, and dorm necessities, as well as Harvard merchandise. Each summer, the Coop distributes its profits among its members. Fees are only $1, just as they were back in 1882, but membership is selective: only students, faculty, alumni, and employees of Harvard, MIT, the Episcopal Divinity School, Wheelock, and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy can join.
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
6 Plympton St.
Tucked into a sliver of Plympton Street and resembling a small hallway closet is Grolier, the oldest continuous poetry bookshop in America. Established in 1927, this nook of a bookstore now stocks over 15,000 volumes of trade, small press, and university publications devoted to poetry, prosody, poetry markets, and spoken word CDs. It offers regular author readings and book signings as well. T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, and E.E. Cummings are among the many legendary writers who have paid a visit to Grolier, and their black and white portraits gaze down from above the shop’s many shelves.
Club Passim and Veggie Planet
47 Palmer St.
Before she became a poster child for the antiwar movement in the 1960s, Joan Baez gave her first concert at a small Cambridge music venue called Club 47. Half a century later, Club 47—now called Club Passim—remains a cornerstone of local and legendary folk music. Noted performers, among them Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Shawn Colvin, and Tracy Chapman, made some of their first public appearances here. The club’s intimate setting (102 seats) invites audience and artist interaction, and its bohemian restaurant, Veggie Planet, appeals to the health-conscious. Try the vegan pizzas and other entrées. But most of all, listen.
Cambridge Artists Cooperative
59A Church St.
Established in 1989, the Cambridge Artists Cooperative is the area’s only year-round artist-owned and artist-managed crafts cooperative. Featuring the work of more than 250 artisans, this 2,000-square-foot gallery offers contemporary crafts, paintings, pottery, photography, jewelry, clothing, and sculptures. New work is displayed every month.
27 Brattle St.
From the communal tables to the smiling staff, visitors to Crema Café will find a welcoming environment filled with the scent of freshly baked pastries. Made from scratch daily, Crema’s sweet treats tempt customers as they wait in line to place their orders. Who could resist a s’mores cupcake or a perfectly golden-brown macaroon? The café’s savory options are just as tantalizing. Be sure to try the Spinach Artichoke Grilled Chicken sandwich, prepared with a creamy artichoke spread and wilted spinach, and pressed on homemade focaccia, or the Southwest Salad, a corn and black bean salad on a bed of red cabbage and mixed greens with tomatoes, queso fresco, fried tortilla strips, and a chipotle-buttermilk dressing. Featuring gleaming hardwood floors, an exposed brick wall, and local artwork, Crema Café is a stunning neighborhood spot.
Algiers Coffee House
40 Brattle St.
A reporter from the Times of London who reviewed this Mediterranean-inspired café several years ago raved about the coffeehouse’s beverages and cited the frequently overheard debates between Harvard students. The perspective holds true: the coffee is as strong as ever, and the philosophical exchanges never cease. Appetizers are plentiful without being overpowering (the hummus is the best in Harvard Square), and the sandwiches and shish kebabs are tasty and affordable. After an evening in the Square, a pot of loose-leaf tea or an iced Viennese coffee goes down smoothly.
40 Brattle St.
Fans of the silver screen have been catching flicks at the Brattle since 1953, when Brent Haliday and Cyrus Harvey Jr. premiered with the German film Der Hauptmann von Köpenick. Showing classic, independent, foreign, and art-house films, this not-for-profit theater—one of a vanishing breed—is best known for its eclectic and repertory format. Housed in a barnlike meeting hall, this is one of the few remaining movie theaters to use rear projection, with the projector located behind the screen rather than behind the audience.
Colonial Drug Harvard Square
49 Brattle Street
From the Old World lettering that adorns its plate glass window to the red, white, and blue barber pole out front, Colonial Drug is like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. Yes, they fill prescriptions and sell some over-the-counter remedies. But the store, which has been run by the Botinari family since 1947, is best known for the more than 1,000 men’s and women’s perfumes, colognes, and eau de toilettes that it sells. The store’s awning, which reads “The People with Absolutely No Common Scents,” says it all: what you’ll find here are unusual fragrances, many imported from around the world. In addition, the store, a throwback to another time, offers scented candles, badger brushes, a huge selection of shaving soaps and lather creams, razors, strops, and brushes of every stripe imaginable. The store also features combs made of rare wood, natural horn, and carbon. And it offers superb customer service, including complimentary gift wrapping and worldwide shipping.
52D Brattle St.
When the Aztecs drank chocolate thousands of years ago, this “drink of the gods” was so rare and sacred that only the richest could afford it. At Burdick’s, “richest” is a culinary reference: a mug of hot chocolate here beats that watery instant stuff any day. The secret? It’s made from chocolate and chocolate alone, hand shaved and warmed in milk. If that’s not rich enough for you, try the Harvard Square, a dense chocolate cake layered with walnuts and vanilla, or a slice of chocolate mousse cake. The store also sells a wide selection of chocolate confectionaries. Of special note are its chocolate mice.
American Repertory Theater
64 Brattle St.
Founded in 1980, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has garnered many of the nation’s most distinguished awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for best regional theater, a Jujamcyn Award, and the National Theatre Conference’s Outstanding Achievement Award. Housed in the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard, the A.R.T. boasts a resident company of professional artists, teachers, technicians, and administrators. Its theatrical club space OBERON, called a “second stage for the 21st century,” is an incubator for local artists. The company has staged dozens of American and world premieres. Several of its productions later moved to Broadway.
Rich in history, this landmark building was the home of one of America’s most renowned 19th-century poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Prior to that, the house served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston (July 1775–April 1776) during the Revolutionary War. Today, the museum is administered by the National Park Service and houses a collection of 19th century documentary material as well as clothing, fine arts, tools, and toys in addition to papers belonging to the Longfellow family. The house, which sits on just under two acres, features a carriage barn and pergola and is surrounded by lush lawns and formal gardens. Join the likes of Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne as one of the house’s many visitors.
The World’s Only Curious George Store
1 John F. Kennedy St.
Everyone’s favorite inquisitive monkey has taken up residence in the heart of Harvard Square. As its name implies, this store is one of a kind, featuring books, toys, puzzles, and apparel—all dedicated to Curious George. Located at the bustling cross-section of JFK and Brattle Streets, the shop also features other children’s classics, including Charlotte’s Web and Corduroy, and a small selection of other toys.
36 John F. Kennedy St.
Follow the smell of pizza, incense, and Vietnamese food, and you’ll end up at the Garage, definitely one of Harvard Square’s oddities. This multistory mini shopping mall is in fact a converted parking garage; even the original car ramp has been preserved. The Garage houses an eclectic variety of shops and eateries, most notably Newbury Comics, which features one of the region’s largest collections of new-wave and alternative music. There’s a tattoo parlor for ink enthusiasts, a hemp store for hippies, a Starbucks for yuppies, and more.
50 John F. Kennedy St.
This trendy footwear boutique has dozens of brands and styles guaranteed to make the hearts of shoe lovers flutter. Berk’s shoe inventory ranges from classic to cutting-edge to whimsical, including patent-leather clogs, sequined slippers, and polka-dot rain boots.
89 Winthrop St.
The sign outside this dyed-in-the-wool Harvard Square watering hole claims that it was established in 1271. It’s a typo and should have read 1971. Grendel’s Den is named after the antagonist from Beowulf, and the owners kept the sign because the medieval date evokes the epic poem’s period. The bar circumvents the state’s no-happy-hour mandate by offering half-price food nightly between 5 and 7:30 p.m. and between 9 and 11:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The justice system OK’d such defiance: Grendel’s famously fought a legal battle over its liquor license all the way to the Supreme Court and won—separation of church and state was at the heart of it, believe it or not. That’s worth celebrating with a sandwich and microbrew—or two.
Upstairs on the Square
91 Winthrop St.
Opened three decades ago as Upstairs at the Pudding, this bifurcated eatery—the casual, wood paneling-and-fireplace Monday Club Bar on the first floor, the swanky Soirée Dining Room on the second—overlooks a cozy park frequented by street musicians. The Soirée’s elegant yet simple entrées will set you back more than food at the Monday Club Bar, which serves lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch; the dining room is for dinner only, from Tuesday to Saturday.
Out of Town News
Zero Harvard Square
Anyone looking for news from far and near will find it at Out of Town News, the iconic newsstand in the heart of Harvard Square. It was here that Julia Child searched for obscure Italian and German cooking magazines, and rumor has it that Robert Frost (Hon.’61) stopped by for directions to a reading on a snowy winter’s eve. The newsstand nearly folded in 2008 (why fly in yesterday’s Le Monde when it can be read online?), but was saved by Mike Patel, who in 2009 signed a five-year lease with the City of Cambridge. So don’t stop the presses yet, and don’t give up browsing in person.
The “Yahd” defines two sides of the Square. Lined by Harvard’s freshman dorms, it’s the epitome of a New England college campus—red brick buildings under a canopy of hardwood trees that come ablaze each fall. Presiding over the yard is a statue of 17th-century English clergyman John Harvard, the college’s first benefactor. The sculpture is often called the “statue of three lies”: the inscription reads “John Harvard, Founder, 1638,” but in fact, Harvard was founded in 1636; Harvard was not the university’s founder (although his library and fortune helped to sustain the school through its early years); and no one knows what the actual John Harvard looked like. Sculptor Daniel Chester French had a student model for the statue in 1884. When you view the statue, note how bright one shoe is. Tour guides say that it’s good luck to rub Harvard’s left foot. Nearby is the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard’s main library, with its 57 miles of bookshelves and more than three million volumes, including one of the world’s few existing copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford St.
A trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History is an evolutionary experience. Visit prehistoric creatures such as fossil invertebrates, reptiles, and the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus. Wander through a garden of more than 3,000 handcrafted glass flowers or admire a 1,642-pound amethyst geode and the world’s largest turtle shell.
Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line inbound to Park Street, then the Red Line outbound toward Alewife, and get off at the Harvard Square station. By foot: walk across the BU Bridge heading into Cambridge. Take a left, using the pedestrian walkways along Memorial Drive that skirt the Charles River until you reach the Harvard campus. Take a right on John F. Kennedy Street, and you tumble into the Square. It’s a two-mile trip, one-way, and an easy bike ride.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Harvard Square area.