Loker Commons, Harvard's new student-center-cum-food-court, spreads out in the reclaimed basement of Memorial Hall. Descend through the new brick and granite entry facing the Science Center and start taking in the motif: utilitarian gray beams, ceiling, and floor; service counters finished in tile and aluminum; and, for color, electronic signboards running the length of the commons and at the end of the hall. It's what the Rouse Company, impresarios of Boston's Quincy Market and New York's South Street Seaport, would have wrought.
At lunchtime on a recent weekday the joint was rocking. Filled to the brim with students enthusiastically slaking their appetites for food and conversation, it had the animated buzz of a successful urban gathering spot. Even the Crimson's dyspeptic editorialists have declared the student center "a bright addition."
No maitre d' greets you, and navigating your way through the small tables and to and from the cafeteria-style counters is not an easy task. But that's part of what makes it a commons. Besides, you'll quickly notice the truly privileged hangouts: along the Cambridge Street wall booth-like alcoves open up invitingly. Students with laptop computers occupied some of these; with papers, books, and espresso cups arrayed in front of them, they seemed hunkered down—perhaps for the winter. Loker is nothing if not diner-friendly, and allows for some serious hunkering. Weekdays, the place serves coffee starting at 8:30 A.M. and keeps pouring until after midnight; the food-service hours vary, but pizza is generally available from 11 A.M. to midnight, and other offerings from 11 A.M. to 8 P.M. Weekends, only the coffeehouse (11 to midnight) and pizzeria (noon to midnight) are open.
As for the food, the message is more mixed—a matter of taste versus standards. Loker has (unofficially) two main areas: fast food and chic food. Befitting their respective market shares, fast food gets twice the space of chic. We ate on both sides but sat at the first open spot, in chic— so proclaimed by the table itself, small, round, of burnished aluminum, and with the see-sawing instability that is dc rigueur for that cafe atmosphere; bring your own matchbook.
The fast-food section follows the new credo of college food services: Give 'Em What They Want. At Loker, that apparently means the equivalents of Papa Gino's and Taco Bell. The pizza and calzone section offers slices from $1.25 (with added toppings, $1.45) and whole pies for $8.25, prices comparable to local pizzerias. But although the tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings are tasty enough and abundant, the crust is a generic slab. Were it to open as a business in Harvard Square, the Loker Pizzeria would be pulverized by the competition.
The Mexican food is decidedly of the north-of-the-border variety ("...too reminiscent of dining hall fare," the Crimson daintily put it). A Grand Beef Burrito ( $4.25, topped with your choice of salsa and accompanied by black beans and rice) was the size of a small grinder, and the weight of one of Memorial Hall's bricks—it made the table list. If you're not starting both ways on the football team, there are lighter options— nachos, tacos, tostadas, etc.—but on the same theme.
The chow on the yuppie side was markedly more successful, at least to the non-undergraduate palate. A dining-services version of Starbucks, the place tries very hard to be hip: order at the "Hang Out" line to eat on the premises, and at "Take Off" to carry out. It offers many coffee and tea options (from Seattle's Best) with pastries to match, and counter help in vests ostensibly cut from burlap coffee-bean bags.
A $2.25 cup of Jamaican black bean soup was flavorful, as was a "European"-style sandwich ($3.25) on an excellent, fresh baguette, although the dual fillings of hummus and herbed cheese were perhaps one ingredient too ambitious. A trendy panino (an Italian sandwich on focaccia) featured excellent chicken breast meat, fontina cheese, and red peppers, nicely toasted together ($4.75). This being the politically correct side, everything came with multihued veggie chips.
Dessert options included Frisbee-sized chocolate chip cookies (95 cents) and, at a soda counter, ice creams, frozen yogurts, and candy. There's also a jawbreaker dispenser whose offerings approach the size of golf balls.
In all, Loker Commons feels like a version of Harvard Square, in appearance at least, moved uptown and underground. Besides the food and drink, there's a newsstand, an ATM, a fax, a photo center, a copier, and a vending machine for postage stamps. Beyond question, the place Gives 'Em What They Want. As many students already seem to have discovered, you could almost move in.