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 the area’s fascinating blend of characters. A sunken region next to the MBTA subway entrance (“the pit”) is a prime venue for political activists, panhandlers, skateboarders, and street performers, who also provide a festive atmosphere one block away, on Brattle Street. (Tracy Chapman and Martin Sexton both performed as Harvard Square buskers.) Nearby, on Mass Ave, 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 for exploring the square, destinations that lead to other destinations.
Santouka Hokkaido Ramen
One Bow St.
This Japanese ramen chain first opened in New England in 2015 in Harvard Square. The restaurant has already earned a devoted following. Be sure to try the signature Shio ramen, a mild and creamy soup flavored with salt and topped with pickled plum, or the robustly flavored Tokusen Toroniku ramen, made with pork cheek meat. The 59-seat eatery doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait for a table.
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, such as board games, mechanical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and mind-benders. Check out the specialty chess sets—and themed chess pieces: from animals to cathedrals to the Battle of Waterloo. Die-hard strategists won’t be disappointed: foreign board games take up an entire wall, brain teasers and trinkets 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, the jukebox is active, and breakfast is served all day. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day.
Grafton Street Pub & Grill
1230 Massachusetts Ave
This neighborhood pub–contemporary restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily and attracts a big crowd for weekend brunch. Among the popular items are chicken-fried steak with eggs, strawberry and almond salad, a lip-smacking buttermilk fried chicken, and a Nutella crepe. The French doors along the front are a great vantage point onto the square and the patio offers al fresco dining during warm weather months. The late night menu (11 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Wednesday, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday to Saturday) has sandwiches, oysters, rustic pizzas, and appetizers. The pub is named after the lively shopping district in Dublin’s Temple Bar neighborhood. Complimentary parking is available for those with a confirmed reservation.
1238 Massachusetts Ave.
Since its modest beginnings in 1954, this Chinese restaurant has become a Harvard Square fixture and has expanded to three floors, with a restaurant, a lounge, and the area’s largest dance floor. The menu is nothing remarkable, but you’ll find the biggest scorpion bowl in town: nine alcohols (mostly rums) and pineapple and orange juices. With that, trivia nights, and some stand-up (the third floor hosts the Comedy Studio six nights a week), who needs food?
Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage
1246 Massachusetts Ave.
Americans love two things: burgers and snark. At Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, a Harvard Square institution since 1960, diners can order both: every seven-ounce burger is served with a free side of sarcasm. Burgers are named for Massachusetts luminaries, including recently retired Red Sox legend David Ortiz (the Big Papi-Take a Bow) and Patriot Rob Gronkowski (the “Gronk,” nice tight end), and national figures: the Hillary Clinton (“deleter of the free world”) and the Caitlyn Jenner-You go girl. 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 S. Kramer borrowed $300 from his parents to open a small store for used and remainder books. Today, the Harvard Book Store is still independent (Frank Kramer, Mark’s son, sold it in 2008 to longtime customers Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seasmonson), who have expanded it 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. The store has a print-on-demand machine, an affordable option for authors interested in self-publishing.
Cabot’s Candy and Saltwater Taffy
1300 Massachusetts Ave.
Cabot’s Candy, long an institution in Provincetown, Mass., recently opened a store in Harvard Square, and life couldn’t be sweeter. Patrons can choose from fudge (dozens of flavors), peanut brittle (made with beer, not water, the way most places make it), flavored popcorn, or a box of the store’s famous saltwater taffy, which comes in more than 50 flavors, like peanut butter and molasses, orange pineapple, cranberry, and peppermint. Cabot’s also offers baked goods, bulk candies, and classic confectionaries. (Squirrel Nut Zippers, anyone?)
1400 Massachusetts Ave.
Founded in 1882 by a group of Harvard students, the Harvard Coop (pronounced like coupe, not co-op) is one of the country’s largest bookstores. Now run in partnership with Barnes & Noble College, the multilevel, multibuilding retailer sells textbooks, school supplies, and dorm necessities, as well as Harvard merchandise. Membership fees are only $1, just as they were back in 1882, but membership is selective: only students, faculty, alumni, and employees of Harvard and MIT can join. Members receive an instant 10 percent discount on all purchases.
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
6 Plympton St.
Tucked into a sliver of Plympton Street and resembling a small hallway closet is Grolier, the oldest continuously operated 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, and poetry markets as well as spoken word CDs. It also offers regular author readings and book signings. 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.
1440 Massachusetts Ave.
Home of the “juice cleanse,” this New York–based chain opened shop in Cambridge in spring 2015. The store’s smoothies and juices are packed with vitamins, minerals, and enzymes and are made with fair-trade products and nondairy alternatives. They are also refreshing and delicious. Try the “bulldozer,” made with chocolate whey, banana, peanut butter, and almond milk, or the “hangover cure,” a combination of papaya, peaches, honey, vitamin C, and a liver-kidney-lymph detox. Other popular drinks: the “all greens,” a concoction of kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, parsley, celery, and cucumber, and the “killer XX,” made with apple, lemon, ginger, and cayenne. In addition to cold-pressed juices and smoothies, you’ll find herbal supplements and an array of healthy snacks. Cleanse coaches are on staff to answer questions and talk about the various cleanses for sale.
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 Club Passim—remains a cornerstone of local and legendary folk music. Noted performers, among them Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Shawn Colvin, and Joni Mitchell, made some of their first public appearances here. Among recent performers are Janet Feld and Bernice Lewis, Mark Lipman, Windborne, and the Goodbye Girls. The club’s intimate setting (102 seats) invites audience and artist interaction.
52 Church St.
This live music venue–restaurant, opened in 2012, has helped to revive Harvard Square’s nightlife scene. Such bands as Mission of Burma, Man Overboard, and Jeff the Brotherhood have appeared. The capacious space can hold 500, but it has an intimate feel. Best of all, there isn’t a bad view of the stage from anywhere (the balconies have the best vantage point). The second floor’s stylish dining area and open kitchen offer gastropub fare such as cola-braised pork belly sliders and sweet potato croquettes. On the popular brunch menu are such hard-to-resist delicacies as eggs Benedict, with a choice of veggie, duck, or crab, and a waffle burger, grass-fed beef on a buttermilk waffle bun, with shallot jam, smoked bacon, a fried egg, and maple syrup.
Cambridge Artists Cooperative
59A Church St.
Established in 1988, the Cambridge Artists Cooperative is the area’s only year-round artist-owned and -managed crafts cooperative. With work from more than 200 artists from across the country, this 2,000-square-foot gallery offers contemporary crafts, paintings, pottery, photography, jewelry, clothing, and sculptures. New work is displayed every month.
Zero Brattle St.
Sweet’s cupcakes are made with a heavy helping of TLC. Freshly baked each morning, all frostings, fillings, and batters are made from scratch. The whimsical flavors (20 available at any given time) change with the seasons—pink lemonade and piña colada in the summer, caramel apple and pumpkin pie in the fall, hot cocoa and snickerdoodle in the winter, and lemon raspberry and chocolate coconut in the spring. These are just some of the flavors that make Sweet worth visiting again, and again, and again…
Zero Brattle St.
There’s a good chance you’ve walked past Tealuxe and never noticed it nestled between Sweet Bakery and Urban Outfitters. The sign proclaims “tea for all” and the aroma of nearly 200 different varieties hits when you walk into the high-ceilinged café. Customers can enjoy exotic as well as more common varieties and you can purchase loose tea to take home. The shop sells all manner of teapots, kettles, honey pots, and other accessories.
5 Brattle St.
Black Ink describes itself as a “one-stop design shop,” and the description definitely fits. The store specializes in stationery, cards, wrapping paper, and playful home décor. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with knickknacks you never knew you needed, like toaster shaped coasters, avocado soap, and bowls in the shape of human heads. The store also has a wide array of The Adventures of Tintin memorabilia, including books, posters, toys, and mugs. Be sure to check out the original store on Beacon Hill.
27 Brattle St.
Enter Crema Café into a welcoming environment highlighted by a smiling staff, communal tables, and the scent of fresh-baked pastries. Made from scratch daily, Crema’s sweet treats tempt customers as they wait in line to place orders. Who could resist a delectable French macaroon (flavors change daily) or a mudslide cookie? The savory options are just as tantalizing. Be sure to try the house roasted turkey and jicama slaw sandwich, with avocado, bacon, mayo, and ancho chili vinaigrette on toasted homemade boule, or the Thai peanut salad, a Napa cabbage slaw on a bed of romaine lettuce with cucumbers, fresh basil, crushed peanuts, and peanut-ginger dressing. Featuring gleaming hardwood floors, an exposed brick wall, and local artwork, Crema Café is a stunning neighborhood spot.
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 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 behind the screen rather than behind the audience.
Alden and Harlow
40 Brattle St.
When Chef Michael Scelfo opened Alden and Harlow in 2014 in the former Casablanca restaurant space, he wanted to serve “honest American food, bold and flavor forward in taste.” And he does, with dishes that include chicken-fried local rabbit topped with chili oil, celery, apple, and blue cheese. During the summer, the restaurant hosts special four-course “whole garden” dinner events in its greenhouse. It has a late night menu for those looking for grub after hours, and its weekend brunch has such yummy items as corn pancakes with strawberries, buttermilk crema, and mint, smoked char belly, soft scrambled eggs with chevre, and croissant pain perdu, served with peach preserves, maple, and whipped honey labneh. Scelfo recently opened another eatery, Waypoint, across the square at 1030 Mass Ave., offering coastally inspired fare.
Algiers Coffee House
40 Brattle St.
A Harvard Square institution for 45 years, Algiers closed briefly in 2016, but reopened under new management. The cafe is known for its delicious Middle Eastern cuisine—from kebabs and falafel, to labneh with zaatar and pita. It also has an extensive drink selection that includes its signature mint tea. Open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight, Algiers is a great late night option.
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 chocolate shop and café, “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 and walnut cake topped with velvety ganache. Burdick’s also sells a wide selection of chocolate confectionaries. Of special note are its whimsical chocolate mice, beloved by Burdick’s patrons for more than 25 years.
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: Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for best regional theater, a Jujamcyn Theaters Award, and the National Theatre Conference’s Outstanding Achievement Award. Housed in the Loeb Drama Center, the A.R.T. has seen a number of its productions transfer to Broadway, among them All the Way, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Pippin, The Glass Menagerie, and most recently, Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812. 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.
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 was George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston (July 1775 to 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 and papers belonging to the Longfellow family, as well as clothing, fine arts, tools, and toys. The house, which sits on just under two acres, has a carriage barn and a pergola and is surrounded by lush lawns and formal gardens. Join the likes of Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of many visitors to the house.
5 Craigie Circle
Looking for a restaurant that uses local and seasonal ingredients? Look no further than Forage, which offers classic fare with an inventive twist. On the dinner menu are such mouthwatering entrees as hanger steak with an allspice and fennel rub, served with roasted carrots, leeks, fried parsley, toasted sunflower seeds, and local grains, and slow-roasted pork ribs with ratatouille, polenta, dehydrated picholine olives, and saffron-pickled harukei turnips. Entrées are a bit pricey, but the inventive appetizers are more affordable. Try the roasted beets with melted Twig Farm Square goat cheese, braised beet greens, toasted hazelnuts, and fennel fronds. The bar has distinctive cocktails with a focus on seasonal and locally produced ingredients. The menu changes daily, so be on the lookout for new dishes. Forage also offers a four-course tasting menu (both omnivore and vegetarian).
The World’s Only Curious George Store
One John F. Kennedy St.
Everyone’s favorite inquisitive monkey has taken up residence in the heart of Harvard Square—at least for now. Dubbing itself the “world’s only Curious George store,” it’s truly one of a kind, featuring books, toys, puzzles, and apparel—all dedicated to the beloved friend of the Man with the Yellow Hat. At the bustling corner of JFK and Brattle Streets, it also carries other Boston children’s classics, including When a Lobster Buys a House and Journey around Boston from A to Z, and a small selection of other toys. Recently, named Boston’s best toy store by Boston magazine, its future remains in doubt because the building may be remodeled.
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. It houses an eclectic variety of eateries and shops, most notably Newbury Comics, with 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.
Park Restaurant & Bar
59 John F. Kennedy St.
Park entered the square in 2012 and now boasts that it has become “the neighborhood restaurant and bar of today.” Blending modern and vintage aesthetics, its four distinct seating areas, the dining room, the classroom, the den, and the back room, have a unique design. Leather couches and book-lined shelves make you feel like you’re eating in someone’s home. Start your meal with an appetizer like lobster crab dip, move on to a patty melt, grilled slow-roasted brisket, or cast iron–seared swordfish, pick a side order of bacon and gruyère potato skins or cider-braised collard greens, and end with blueberry shortcake or chocolate stout cake. Park also offers weekend brunch and a late-night menu . The patio provides outdoor dining during late spring, summer, and fall.
Tom’s Bao Bao
84 Winthrop St
As you can guess from its name, this restaurant’s signature dish is bao, steamed buns made from leavened dough. The dish began as Chinese street food more than 1,200 years ago. Tom’s buns are filled with pork, curried beef, chicken, sweet potato, or vegetables (bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, and smoked tofu). You can even choose lobster for a decidedly New England touch. Curious to learn more about how bao is made? You’re in luck. At Tom’s each bao is handmade and prepared right in front of customers.
89 Winthrop St.
The sign outside this enduring dyed-in-the-wool Harvard Square watering hole announces that it was established in 1271. It’s a typo, and should have read 1971. But the owners kept the sign because Grendel’s Den is named after the antagonist from Beowulf, and 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. 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 US 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.
92 Winthrop St.
Known for its burgers, dogs, and frozen custard confections, this popular chain opened here in 2014. Founded by restaurateur Danny Meyer in New York City in 2004, Shake Shack has a wide following and now 100 plus restaurants are across the country. The place seats more than 100 and offers a small wine and beer selection, but the hand-cut fries and the concretes (dense frozen custard blended at high-speed with various mix-ins) are what will bring you back. The burgers and dogs are pretty good, too.
En Boca Wine Bar and Restaurant
8 Holyoke St.
En Boca, the first non-Irish project from Massachusetts restaurant masterminds Peter Sarmanian and Bill Goodwin, is a Mediterranean-style restaurant specializing in a small plates and shared plates. It takes pride in an inclusive menu of dishes from the farm (baked farm egg with chorizo), the land (steak tartare), and the sea (bacalou croquettes with lemon aioli and malt vinegar). The restaurant seats 132 and a private dining room seats 36. The Spanish tapas are the real draw—classic dishes like wood-grilled octopus and house-marinated olives. The bar offers seasonal cocktails, beers, and wine.
Out of Town News
Zero Harvard Square
Anyone looking for news from far and near will find it at this iconic newsstand in the heart of Harvard Square. It’s housed in a kiosk originally built in 1928 as an entrance to the Harvard Square T stop and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Here 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 owns the newstand operator Muckey’s Coporation and in 2009 signed a five-year lease with the city of Cambridge. Its future is once again in question: the city’s $4.6 million redesign and renovation of the brick plaza—set to begin in fall 2017, does not call for retaining the newsstand.
10 Eliot St.
This family-friendly, multilevel bar-restaurant has been a mainstay of Harvard Square for more than four decades and is a popular draw for college students because of its late hours (to 1 a.m. Sunday to Wednesday, to 2 a.m. Thursday to Saturday). The wide-ranging menu includes fried chicken, chicken supermelt and lobster salad melt sandwiches, barbecue chicken breast sandwiches, and veggie items like the homemade black bean and veggie cheeseburger, served with salsa, guacamole, and chips. The ground floor is reminiscent of a 1950s-style diner, with several HD TVs turned to local news and sports channels. There’s also a sidewalk patio, an upstairs lounge boasting “the best jukebox in Cambridge,” and a year-round (weather permitting) beer garden offering 18 draught beers. Charlie’s hosts trivia quizzes on Sunday nights, live music on Mondays, and karaoke on Tuesdays.
18 Eliot St.
Fans of Indian cuisine will love Tanjore. Whether you are in the mood for tandoori chicken, pani poori, or traditional masala, you’ll find those items and more on the extensive menu, which also has cold appetizers and chaats, kebabs, and dosas (stuffed rice and lentil crepes). The lunch buffet (weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., weekends, noon to 4 p.m.) is especially popular. Among the desserts are traditional Indian sweets like gulab jamun (evaporated milk dumplings dipped in rose syrup), ras malai (homemade cottage cheese patties in a flavorful milk sauce), and mango kulfi (Indian-style homemade ice cream).
The “Yahd” defines one side 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, 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 (best known for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.) had a student model for the statue in 1884. When you look at 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 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 1,600-pound amethyst geode.
Harvard Art Museums
32 Quincy St.
Among the things Harvard University is renowned for are its three art museums—the Fogg (Western art from the Middle Ages to the present), the Busch-Reisinger (works from northern and central Europe, with an emphasis on German-speaking countries), and the Sackler (Asian, ancient Mediterranean and Byzantine, Islamic, and Indian art). All three were united under one roof for the first time in 2014 as the Harvard Art Museums. The project took six years to complete, at a reported cost of $250 million. The facility, designed by noted architect Renzo Piano, is an expansion of the original 1927 Fogg Museum building. The museums house more than 250,000 works of art and are home to four separate research centers. The renovation incorporated galleries to feature special exhibitions. Find hours and admission here.
Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line inbound to Park Street, then the Red Line outbound toward Alewife, and get off at Harvard Square. By foot: walk across the BU Bridge into Cambridge, go left on the pedestrian walkways along Memorial Drive to John F. Kennedy Street, go right, and you’ll tumble into the Square. The one-way two-mile trip is 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.
Explore other neighborhoods around Boston here.
This story originally ran September 11, 2009; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.1 Comments