"Lots of Reasonable 99c Lunches"

Feeding historically

Found in this magazine’s basement: a sheaf of pages listing Cambridge and Boston restaurants from a guide for students that evidently dates from the early 1960s. Here are the greasy-spoons: Waldorf, Hayes-Bickford’s, Hazen’s, and Albiani’s. Old dependables, including Elsie’s and the Wursthaus. Scenes of innocent merriment, such as Cronin’s, where “dinners run $0.99-$2.50” and it’s “just about quiet enough to hear a bomb drop.”

The guide writer did not overlook the exotic—French restaurants such as Henry IV, where “the waitresses usually do not understand English and can never translate the menu,” and Chez Dreyfus, where there were “lots of reasonable 99¢ lunches” and where the waitresses would sneak a little sherry into your onion soup gratinée as though that were the naughtiest pleasure on earth. All gone, all these.

Commencement & Reunion Guide 2006

Stellar Seniors
Oh, Happy Day
• “Lots of Reasonable 99¢ Lunches”
Commencement Calendar
A Special Notice Regarding Commencement Exercises
From Science to Song

Other establishments described in the guide have persisted, of course, such as “Locke-Ober’s,” which “is Boston’s finest restaurant, and is supposed to be one of the best in the world. It is certainly the most expensive restaurant in town. Everything is à la carte, and a meal can easily run to $12 per person. Judicious planning can get this down to $5, but not much less.” (The place remains pricey. Lobster Savannah, a signature entrée, costs $62. In the current Zagat survey of Boston restaurants, Locke-Ober is not included in the list of the 40 most popular restaurants, or in the 40 ranked best for food; its highest marks are for décor.)

Casablanca (40 Brattle Street, 617-876-0999) was founded in 1955 but does not appear in the early-Sixties guide, probably because in that era it was less restaurant and more subterranean (and dark) bar, where one went in one’s trenchcoat to lie about one’s age after watching Humphey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman play it again in the Brattle Theatre upstairs. Nowadays, the Casablanca Restaurant, under executive chef Ruth-Anne Adams, gets into every guide for its sophisticated Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food. Patrons can fare well on a selection of tapas and appetizers (and never make it to the entrées): perhaps grilled calamari with blood oranges, olives, and lime vinaigrette, $11; or grilled lamb, tomato, and pita bread topped with spicy Greek garlicked yogurt, $12; or an artichoke-filled crepe with arugula pesto and lemon crème fraîche, $10.

At Casablanca, murals by David Omar White pay homage to the classic Bogart/Bergman film.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Some old-timer restaurants have shaken off this mortal coil but enjoy an afterlife. Their names and owners change, but their customers persist and keep going to whatever restaurant is at the familiar address. Consider the University Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue across from Widener Library. The old guide called it “a convenient place for lunch if you get hungry at Widener. Its coterie of followers is as loyal as the Hayes-Bickford’s, though pridefully more clean-cut. Wine and beer may be served at table.” Shortly after this endorsement, the restaurant was bought by Greeks, who changed its name to the Toga Lounge and altered its appointments. The University Restaurant’s clientele continued to go there faithfully. The historian of California Kevin Starr, Ph.D. ’69, liked the place as a graduate student and characterized it as “the best bar in Brockton.” After an undistinguished interval as One Potato Two Potato, the restaurant changed yet again. It dressed up Irish and became Grafton Street Pub & Grill. Then it moved a bit down the avenue to the corner of Bow Street to make way for the expansion of one of the myriad banks that infest Harvard Square nowadays. The popular Grafton Street (1230 Massachusetts Avenue, 617-497-0400) has familiar-looking customers, now downing fish and chips or quesadillas or pan-seared duck breast over sweet potato risotto, and is still a convenient place for lunch if you get hungry at Widener. At night it becomes a loud and lively meat market, which may not suit everyone’s requirements.

In the early 1960s, Cambridge did have some classic French restaurants, as noted, and they’re missed. Today on most menus the good artery-clogging sauces have given way to hints of lemongrass and other such staples of fusion cooking. Sandrine’s Bistro (8 Holyoke Street, 617-497-5300) is as French as one finds—and it’s Alsatian. The place has an agreeable ambience and very good food. Try chef Raymond Ost’s flammekueche, a baked Alsatian crispy flat bread topped with bacon, caramelized onions, and fromage blanc blended with spices, $13. Or Alsatian choucroute: sauerkraut cooked in Riesling and juniper berries keeping company with bratwurst, weisswurst, weiner, a grilled pork chop, bacon, a ham hock, and bacon-wrapped potatoes, $28. We prefer to live dangerously with calves’ brains, when available.

Harvest. Have your beef ribeye ($33) en plein air.
Courtesy of Harvest

Apart from French, Italian, and Chinese, the Sixties Harvard Square diner had few choices for ethnic food, whereas today it’s hard to find a good old American corned beef on rye. One can choose Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and so on around the world. A standout newcomer is Tamarind Bay (75 Winthrop Street, 617-491-4552), where the unusual variety of Indian dishes offered at dinner (lunch is more limited) are fresh-cooked and altogether better than the tired tandoori chicken on offer generally.

Another taste one couldn’t indulge much 45 years ago was for eating outdoors. Today there are several attractive venues. The Charles Hotel has Henrietta’s Porch, attached to Henrietta’s Table (1 Bennett Street, 617-661-5005), where one may munch an ostrich burger—made from New England ostrich, of course—under a bright umbrella. Across the courtyard is Legal Seafood (20 University Road, 617-491-9400) with outdoor tables, where nothing seems better on a hot afternoon than a plate of oysters on the half shell, salty from the sea, and a cold beer. The Red House (96 Winthrop Street, 617-576-0605) has a small outdoor patio worth a try, and most menu items may be had in either appetizer-sized or entrée portions. Harvest (44 Brattle Street, 617-868-2255) gives the best in outdoor dining. Pricey, not perfect sometimes, but it comes with birdsong. (Harvest also has perhaps the top Sunday brunch in town.)

The old guide had no truly first-class Cambridge establishments to rave about. Now we rave about Rialto in the Charles Hotel (1 Bennett Street, 617-661-5050), to which one should bring an extra credit card, and Upstairs on the Square (91 Winthrop Street, 617-864-1933), which is our choice for a celebration because of the over-the-top gaiety of its décor. Walk 10 minutes from the Square and find the superb Craigie Street Bistrot (5 Craigie Circle, 617-497-5511). His place is in a basement, and it doesn’t rock, but chef/owner Tony Maws was named one of the best new chefs of 2005 by Food & Wine magazine. His heart is in France, but his style is eclectic. His menu changes daily. Perhaps crispy fried pork jowls, $18, for a starter, or a stew of mussels, razor clams, squid, salmon roe, and cardoons, $15, moving on to roast squab, $35, or Vermont lamb marinated in sake lees, $35, each entrée with remarkable accompaniments. For decades there’s been a restaurant of one name or another in this out-of-the-way spot. In the early 1960s it was La Cantina, which “is mostly patronized by little old ladies, but serves excellent food for $.99-$2,” the old guide advised. We remember the meatloaf.                     



Read more articles by: Christopher Reed

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