We know you’re not really here to eat and drink. You’re here to get your degree and prepare to make the world dance on your fingertips like a yo-yo. But in the meantime, you get to spend a few years in the middle of one of Boston’s best neighborhoods, a lively square that’s filled with great food options. So when you need a break from studying, you’ve got plenty of options for everything from small plates and sushi, to dive bars and burgers. Use this guide to Harvard Square until the day you graduate and are inducted into the secret society that rigs the weather and the Westminster Dog Show.
If you’re an English major or MFA student, then you need a place where you can pretend to be a struggling writer in a post-war European capital. Cafe Pamplona, a musty basement-level coffee shop that would be a great place to plot resistance actions in the Spanish Civil War, is your spot. There’s a small menu of Mediterranean-ish sandwiches and soups and they get the job done, but you’ll probably want to come here to rotate through some specialty coffees for a few hours as you work on a masterpiece that will lead to a critically respected but commercially overlooked literary life.
Longfellow, a swanky place with furniture that looks like it came from the set of a mid-’90s legal thriller, calls itself a cocktail bar, but the best reason to come here is for the food. Everything on the menu is designed to be eaten with your hands, but instead of standard bar food like nachos and mozzarella sticks, you’ll find short rib kitfo and deviled eggs topped with crumbled potato chips and ikura. It gets crowded, but unlike most cocktail bars, you can make reservations (which is yet another reason we’re not totally convinced it’s a cocktail bar).
Shay’s is the type of little basement pub where you expect to hear fiddle music. But you could be coming here for more than just beer and a tuna melt. Specifically, you should come here because it’s one of the best places in Harvard Square for affordable wine, with a ton of glasses that are under $9, bottles under $30, and half-bottles if you don’t want to commit. It has a small but nice front patio with umbrella tables when the weather’s nice, too.
Waypoint is a big restaurant that always feels like a party, thanks mostly to all the people drinking absinthe cocktails. It’s a seafood spot, but one where you get things like uni bucatini and octopus meatballs instead of baked scrod, which makes it a great place to take someone who doesn’t think they like traditional seafood. If no one you’re with is into fish and you ended up here by mistake, you’ll still be good if you split the giant lamb shoulder, or explore an extensive pizza menu.
Over the next few years, you’re going to have a lot of discussions with a lot of people about where to eat. If you’re looking for something remotely nice, Alden & Harlow will be suggested in literally every one of those conversations. This big American small plates place is one of the most popular restaurants in Boston, and sometimes feels like a Harvard dining hall. But it’s popular because it’s good, with a wide-ranging menu of farmy stuff and good seafood (try the really garlicky clams) and some of our favorite cocktails of any full-service restaurant in Boston. Come to this dark, loud space when you need to ensure you’ll have a good time.
Boston is home to some outstanding Vietnamese food. Most of it is concentrated in Dorchester, a neighborhood that’s just eight stops away from you on the Red Line. But if you can’t make it out there, Le’s on JFK isn’t a bad stand-in. The menu at this casual spot is enormous, and while most people head right for the pho (not a bad choice - it’s a nice, rich broth) you should try some of their bigger entrees, too, like the ginger chicken.
Keep Grendel’s Den in mind for the end of the semester when you have so little money left that going to Starbucks for all three meals seems like a good idea. The entire bar menu at this comfortable little basement spot is half-off every night from 5-7:30. That gets you things like beef brisket for only $7.50, and a few salads that you can get for as low as $3.50. It’s not a menu that’s going to blow you away, but it’s a good little spot to hang out with some beers for a few hours before heading out for the night.
Cafe Sushi is so nondescript that, when you walk by and see a line on the sidewalk, you might initially assume there’s a sushi-themed speakeasy in there. But there’s a line because this is one of Boston’s best sushi spots, a place with an excellent $100 omakase and a menu of great a la carte rolls. If you don’t want to splurge for the omakase, order a few standard rolls and then finish your meal with a few pieces from the “signature creations” menu, where you’ll find house-cured pieces of fish topped with things like hickory-smoked caramelized onion for around $4 each.
You’re probably going to spend a lot of time at The Sinclair over the next few years, because it’s one of the best music venues in Boston. Even if you don’t have a ticket, you should take advantage of the rooftop where you can eat things like smoked gouda mac and cheese and a pretty good bone marrow burger. Even better is the downstairs bar which, with an extensive selection of craft beer and pinball, is one of our favorite places to drink in Harvard Square.
As you’ll come to find out if you haven’t already, the “square” in Harvard Square is basically a traffic island with a subway station. So if you’re looking to hang out outside, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. Head to Charlie’s Kitchen, a punk bar/diner/beer garden that has an awesome sunken patio with fire pits, and which will be the first place you head to on that sneak-attack 60-degree afternoon in early March that tricks you into thinking winter’s over. It’s a bar food menu, but a pretty good one, with a cheesy burger you’ll like if you’re into cheesy burgers.
If you’re still trying to find your way around campus, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the Harvard Square Tatte is actually the undergrad library. This place is packed at all hours of the day with people simultaneously reading Proust and eating really good shakshuka. If you’re coming here primarily to study, you can do so with just a coffee or something from the pastry case - though you should come to this full-service Israeli spot for a full lunch at some point.
Bonchon is really good for two scenarios: (1) nuclear winter has descended and you need a windowless basement to hang out in for a few years, or (2) you’re just in the mood for some good fried chicken. This place gets packed on the weekends with a lot of people enjoying the big Korean menu that has everything from bibimbap to kimchi pancakes, but we suggest sticking to the nicely fried chicken, preferably the spicy variety that really does have a nice little kick.
Benedetto is an upscale Italian restaurant in the Charles Hotel, and it’s a safe bet that whichever foreign heads-of-state or laundry industry disruptors that happen to be visiting campus at a particular moment will be eating here. It has the swanky and somewhat sterile feel of a hotel restaurant, but the food is way better than what you typically find at those places. If you’re looking for a special occasion spot, you could do much worse than coming here for the wild striped bass ravioli and house-cured sardines.
Mr. Bartley’s, which has been around for so long that it probably went to Woodstock, is the greasy college burger joint that all other greasy college burger joints aspire to. The burger selection is massive, the menu is filled with topical political humor, and the place is worn-in like your pair of jeans with the outline of a cell phone in the front pocket. It doesn’t have a bathroom and it doesn’t have beer, but other than those minor inconveniences, it’s just about perfect.
There’s the ramen you heat up in tupperware in the microwave of a communal kitchen that hasn’t been cleaned in two months, and then there’s the ramen that’s served at Santouka. At this place (which kind of feels like a noodle-themed spaceship), you’ll get big, flavorful bowls with really tender meat and broth that’s on the lighter side, but in a good way. Don’t be surprised if you spend more of your February here than in class.
Orinoco serves a lot of really good Latin specialties that are perfect for when you’re in the mood for a giant plate of food that you’ll be surprised to see yourself finish. It works especially well for Sunday brunch, when you can get things like corn pancakes topped with queso to shake up your standard eggs and mixed fruit routine. But you should also keep it in mind whenever the weather’s nice to enjoy one of Harvard Square’s best quiet patios.
Don’t bother with the food at Beat Brew Hall - it’s overpriced, over-sauced bar stuff. But nevertheless, this is still one of the best places to hang out in Harvard Square, thanks to a big beer selection, huge communal tables, shufflepuck, and frequent live music. Bring a group on a cold winter night and pretend you’re at Oktoberfest instead of studying for a logic midterm.
Drinking strong margaritas on a roof somewhere should be one of your top priorities on any day that breaks seventy. That’s what Felipe’s is here for. It’s still worth coming here the rest of the year, though, thanks to big burritos that are good enough to impress everyone, including your friends from California, for whom bitching about Mexican food anywhere east of Mission Viejo is just a part of their identity.
Unfortunately, Boston isn’t really a late-night town. But we do have the Falafel Corner. This tiny take-out spot in the middle of the square is open till 3am six nights a week, so there’s no question that it’s going to be your late-night drunk food of choice. But you don’t need to wait until you’re filled with light beer to come here, because this place is always good. We prefer the roll-ups to the platters, but in either case, the meat is tender with just a little crispiness on the outside. And with almost everything on the menu priced in the single digits, it’s the perfect place to spend your last $10 of the night.