The Harvard Square Cafe

Let’s face it, there are very few hip restaurants with quality menus and decent pricing in the Village. I can count the cool restaurants that people actually want to go to on one hand: Back Abbey, Viva Madrid, and La Picoletta. The rest I habitually disparage as places for alter cockers.

For instance, I understand the appeal of Walter’s: nice ambience, overpriced, inoffensive food, not really that Lebanese, but sure. I like it when professors take me there. I like it when there’s a lot of wine. I’d probably enjoy spending my older years with a smoked salmon salad and a champagne cocktail for Sunday brunch, flirting with studly men at least 30 years younger than me. (I realize this means I’m thinking about hitting on men who aren’t even born yet. Oh future-Tina, you saucy old minx, you.)

But when I look at the check from any Village restaurant? Goodness. I will certainly need that Social Security I’m going to receive in order to pay for Village meals. Wait. No one our age is getting Social Security when we retire.

This is as good a reason as any to justify going to Harvard Square Café when you’re a college student: because you want to pretend for once that you are retired and can do whatever you want. The friend I’m dining with fits in perfectly in this scenario: huge glasses, sipping a Sierra Nevada at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, wearing a shawl that a Park Street socialite with three wealthy, mysteriously dead husbands would wear. She insists that we sit outside—and why not, the weather is wonderful!—until the wind keeps blowing tiny leaves into our water. “We’re moving,” we decide haughtily, and pick up our waters to move…to another table outside.

As I sip on a too-lemony Arnold Palmer, the first thought flitting through my head is, “It looks so much different sitting inside the courtyard.” Whenever I walked past the café before, idly noticing the diners eating al fresco, I couldn’t shake off that shameful sense of voyeurism. Watching other people eat, choose menu items, and speak about their lives feels rather invasive. The architectural design, however, deftly forces the roles to switch: instead of feeling like an intruder, the diner can choose to watch people pass by, possibly with a good book to pass the time, or a good friend, or a basket of warm, crusty bread and individually-wrapped pats of butter.

And what a reassuring menu, too! Classic French and Italian dishes, nothing crazy and out-there. (An Ahi tuna dish with soba noodles stands out as a strange addition, a half-hearted attempt to match the other Japanese restaurants in the Village.) For my health-conscious friend, a seafood salad with blackened shrimp, tossed already with balsamic vinegar. I wonder why there is no olive oil or other dressing, until I see wedges of creamy, perfect avocado—ahh. Makes sense, especially on the palate, where the avocado’s butteriness mingles with the tart vinegar. The shrimp are cooked to perfection and seasoned enough to simply pop the entire thing into your mouth, shell and all.

For me, it’s a battle between the linguini with clam sauce and the sea bass—but the linguini wins out. I can understand why the menu devotes a full page to its pastas, especially for its homey-ness and comfort-food status. Perfect little clamshells dot the huge serving on my plate, and I tear into the hunks of clam meat with vigor. One regret was that the clam sauce was not peppery enough. (I’m secretly an elitist New Englander at heart.)

Judging by the execution, the Harvard Square Café chefs have serious skills, though they are lacking on the innovation front. The menu is classics, classics, classics, from the rib-eye steaks to the chocolate mousse — which turns out to be exactly what you think a chocolate mousse would be, with a sugary biscuit to soak in a post-meal coffee.

Then again, it makes me wonder whether that might be the point of the café. Is it really to introduce people to wild and crazy new food? Is it to provide a raucous, jolly good time? Or is it a throwback to the familiar, the comfort food that your mother made for dinner when she had the time? As someone who gets a thrill from cutting-edge cuisine, I occasionally need to take a step back, eat a simple clam linguini (just like Mom used to make), and enjoy the setting sun while probing philosophical questions with an old friend.

I would go mad if I had to eat this kind of food every day while I’m young (and if I had to pay the prices on that menu). But if old age means eating at the Harvard Square Café, senior citizenship—after a long, exciting, fruitful career—doesn’t seem too bad.

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