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Harvard Square is known for many things — throngs of students, a rich history of artistic and musical exchange, sky-high rents, arguably overpriced yet beloved stationary stores — but the food scene is not necessarily one of them. Still, thousands of hungry people pass through the Square every day, some on their way to class or the office, others headed to rub the pee-shined toe of not-John Harvard himself. Here is our somewhat definitive guide to the various food experiences of Harvard Square, organized roughly by the situation in which each spot might prove most useful.
It’s time to… splurge (reasonably!) and eat well: Orinoco + Maharaja + Dumpling House + Nine Tastes
Tired of cooking yourself the same kind of meals night after night? Hoping to experience some variety that your dining hall can’t offer? Harvard Square is as good a spot as any to mix it up and get a delicious meal you might not have tried before. Tucked away behind other businesses that line JFK Street, Orinoco offers a cozy atmosphere for enjoying delicious Venezuelan cuisine, ranging from arepas and empanadas to South American wines. Right across the street lies The Maharaja, one of Boston’s best Indian restaurants with an extensive menu and a prime view of the Square through their floor-to-ceiling windows. Dumpling House is located a bit farther off of the beaten path, but their fantastic Chinese cuisine makes a trip down Mass. Ave. well worth the walk. Their food is best enjoyed family-style, so get a group together and devour as many dumplings as you can manage! With the recent closure of Spicies, Nine Tastes stands as the preeminent Thai restaurant in Harvard Square. It’s a favorite for takeout among college students, but has a great area for dining in, too.
It’s time to… grab a slice of pizza: Pinocchio’s + Otto’s + &pizza + Source
If you find yourself in Harvard Square with a craving for some good old-fashioned pizza, you are in luck — the area is full of great options. Pinocchio’s is a Cambridge staple, a favorite among Harvard students and locals alike since 1966. Their thick-crust Sicilian style pizza, which they sell by the slice, makes an excellent late-night snack. Don’t sleep on their meatball sub or baked ziti either. For those in search of less traditional flavors, Otto’s offers a wide array of toppings guaranteed to satisfy any niche cravings. Customization is also at the heart of the &pizza experience, as the East Coast chain’s relatively new Cambridge location serves personal-sized pizzas to customers looking for quick and easy takeout. Finally, Source — another new entry into the Harvard Square restaurant scene — is the only pizza spot out of this bunch with a full-service, sit-down dining area, as well as a thriving bar.
It’s time to… enjoy some high-end pub food: Daedalus + The Boathouse + Grafton Street + Russell House
Food and drink intertwine seamlessly at these Harvard Square establishments. All restaurants are with prominent bars, but they’re also all a step above your typical pub — both in price and quality of food. Daedalus and The Boathouse are next-door neighbors on Mt. Auburn Street, while Russell House and Grafton Street both line JFK Street, making all four of these spots incredibly convenient meeting spots for friends, colleagues, and tourists alike. They each offer tasty variations of American cuisine alongside extensive alcohol selections; Russell House is probably the most popular amongst students, although none of these restaurants would be mistaken for a college bar. They cater to a distinctly more professional crowd. Daedalus stands out as the most expensive, although those looking to splurge on a night out will appreciate the fine dining experience they offer.
It’s time to… get tipsy: Grendel’s Den + Felipe’s + Charlie’s + Wusong Road
No restaurant guide would be complete without highlighting the standout local bars, and Harvard Square has no shortage of establishments that bear mentioning. Grendel’s Den manages to draw a fair number of college students without sacrificing its local Cambridge character; its combination of frequent live music performances, a solid cocktail menu, and satisfying bar food make it worth a visit. Felipe’s might be most famous among Harvard students for its tasty takeout burritos, but it’s also a favorite among local 20-somethings as one of Harvard Square’s most popular bars. When the weather’s good, grab a frozen margarita and enjoy the sunshine on their rooftop patio! Charlie’s Kitchen offers more of a no-frills diner atmosphere, and its beer selection and burger menu are among the best in the area. Newly opened Wusong Road provides scorpion bowls, mai tais, and delicious Chinese-American appetizers at its second-floor Tiki Bar. Read our reviews of Wusong Road here and here.
It’s time to… let someone else pay: Parsnip + Benedetto + Alden & Harlow + Pammy’s + Waypoint + Harvest
There are plenty of high-end restaurants in the Square, kept perpetually full by a mix of rich visiting parents and suits holding business meetings over a meal. Some are more accessible than others. With an inventive menu built around shareable plates in a New American style, Alden + Harlow is probably the hippest and most centrally-located option of the bunch. Just a few blocks down Mass Ave towards Central Square, the cozy Italian-American spot Pammy’s has made a name for itself with their reinvented prix fixe menu. Make a reservation; they’re usually packed. Waypoint, also overseen by Alden + Harlow executive chef Michael Scelfo, is the way to go for exciting seafood dishes in a dark, vibey seating room. As other four-dollar-sign restaurants have shuttered during the pandemic, the modern New England cuisine at Harvest now carries the mantle for swanky upscale dining in the Square.
It’s time to… take a short walk towards Porter Square: Honeycomb Creamery + Bagelsaurus
Head beyond the outer reaches of Harvard Law School and you have a brief, perfect food adventure just waiting to break up a monotonous weekend in the library. The cult-favorite sourdough bagels and artisanal spreads at Bagelsaurus consistently sell out well before the shop closes at 2pm, so go early and be prepared to wait in line. Eat a bagel, preferably with their uniquely delicious honey rosemary cream cheese; walk around Porter Square if you want; revel. When you’re hungry again (or sooner), walk back towards Harvard Square and stop by Honeycomb Creamery on the way to try their creative seasonal flavors in a warm housemade waffle cone. Thank us for this flawless itinerary later!
It’s time to… eat something that’s vaguely good for you: Veggie Grill + Life Alive + Dig + Sweetgreen + Clover + Playa Bowls
Depending on whether or not one is a devoted patron of these establishments, Harvard Square is either suffering from an epidemic of overpriced fast-casual chains exploiting our inchoate desire for healthy eating or blessed with an abundance of overpriced fast-casual chains concretizing our inchoate desire for healthy eating. (That they are overpriced is a given.) Each scratches a slightly different itch.
The hearty, vegetable-forward bowl options at Dig are not to be confused with the plant-based vegan fare at Veggie Grill, or the ubiquitous Kale Caesars and Harvest Bowls of the genre behemoth that is sweetgreen. But Harvard Square boasts outposts of all three. Less well-known outside of the Boston area, Clover also serves up trendy riffs on vegetarian fast food out of their flagship brick-and-mortar location across from Harvard Yard. Fresh from Central Square and new to the neighborhood is Life Alive, which offers assorted bowls, smoothies, salads, and beverages that are all “good for you and good for the planet” somehow. Finally, Playa Bowls on Mount Auburn Street makes solid acai, pitaya, and green bowls and smoothies.
It’s time to… indulge in a burger: Shake Shack + Tasty Burger + Mr. Bartley’s
Sometimes you just want a burger. Tasty Burger is a Boston stalwart; Shake Shack is a New York import. Both do the trick! Mr. Bartley’s is also an iconic Square establishment, but honestly, we don’t know many Harvard students who have gone here more than once, often during their first visit to campus. It’s worth a trip for the kitschy experience more than the burgers themselves.
It’s time to… sit for a while, or get food to go — these spots do both!: Kong + Bonchon + Saloniki
These three restaurants have perfected the art of multitasking, operating thriving takeout businesses while offering a solid sit-down dining experience as well. Hong Kong serves fairly typical Americanized Chinese food, with large portions and an expansive menu — perfect for ordering in a group. Besides, their locally famous scorpion bowls are tough to finish alone! Likewise, the heaping servings of Korean fried chicken at Bonchon almost demand to be shared. Saloniki brought Greek food to Harvard Square when it opened in the Smith Campus Center, and while its pitas and plates work great as takeout fare, it offers a spacious dining room and a fully operational bar for those looking to sit down and stay a while.
It’s time to… pick up takeout for a quiet night in: Jefe’s + Le’s + Pokeworks + Falafel Corner
There are countless takeout options to choose from in and around Harvard Square, but these four are among the most popular spots that haven’t been mentioned already. If it’s a burrito you’re after, El Jefe’s has you covered — college students love this place for its late hours (open until 4:00 a.m.!) and its steadfast refusal to charge customers extra for guacamole. Just across the street in the Garage you can find Le’s, a reliable option for Vietnamese cuisine and especially hearty pho. Pokeworks borrows the choose-your-own-toppings approach used by the likes of Subway (also in the Square!) and Chipotle and applies it to poke. Last but not least, Falafel Corner is popular for its reasonably priced falafel and shawarma. Fire up Snackpass and get your order in!
It’s time to… have a coffee and a pastry and maybe splurge on a sandwich: Black Sheep Bagels + Darwins + Pavement + Flour + Tatte + Train Station Dunkin Donuts
Harvard Square is, after all, a college neighborhood — it should be no surprise that it is packed to the brim with coffee shops, each one bringing something unique to the mix. While some iconic local establishments went out of business under pandemic pressure — we’ll never forget you, Café Pamplona — most of the franchised outposts have persevered. Black Sheep Bagels boasts the tastiest bagels to be found right in the Square and a solid roster of espresso drinks to accompany them. Darwin’s, a Cambridge-area staple, has not one, not two, but three locations in the area; the one on Putnam Avenue, with its expensive yet delicious sandwiches, strong coffee, and cozy decor, is often affectionately called the Mather Darwin’s for its proximity to the undergraduate House. While the bagels at Pavement rival Black Sheep’s, convenience is what draws frequent long lines of caffeine-hungry students: The café takes Crimson Cash and is located in the Smith Campus Center. Flour Bakery, founded by a Harvard alumna, offers locally famous pastries alongside a great selection of sandwiches and caffeinated beverages — their caramel pecan sticky buns alone are worth a visit. Pulling double duty in the Capitol One bank space on JFK Street and around the corner on Mount Auburn, Peet’s Coffee works as a trusty (and perhaps superior, not to mention historically antecedent) Starbucks alternative. Zinneken’s specializes in bespoke Belgian waffles and is perfect for a quiet study session or an afternoon first date. If you’re looking to indulge in a more upscale breakfast, Tatte sells a wide variety of coffee, tea, breakfast foods, and bakery items in their spacious, elegant storefront in the heart of the Square. For caffeine-seekers on the go, it’s hard to do better than the Dunkin Donuts underground location in the Harvard MBTA station for efficient service and a taste of one of Boston’s greatest exports. For a taste of local culture with a dash of infrastructure, it’s truly the finest Harvard Square has to offer.
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