I remember driving into Cambridge along Alewife Brook Parkway with my parents as a 1980s elementary-schooler, peering out the window past the Fresh Pond Mall sign and Faces nightclub, en route to Joyce Chen’s Chinese restaurant — the pinnacle of authentic dining back then. Once I saw the big twin apartment towers approaching the Fresh Pond rotary, I knew we were getting close. This was before there was even an Alewife T stop. To get to Harvard Square, you drove down Concord Avenue, and then it opened up before you, like Broadway.
In high school, Harvard Square, not Boston, was the edgy destination. It’s where my friend Vicky secretly got her belly button pierced. It’s where I went on my first date, to Chili’s (very edgy, and now a Flour Bakery). And Harvard Square is where I first skulked in front of the Casablanca, where the ultimate Boston Brahmin, Edie Sedgwick, had her first legal drink. I’d snuck a copy of my mother’s “Edie” by George Plimpton and grew fascinated by Cambridge of the 1960s, when Edie and her Porcellian Club friends gathered at the Brattle Theatre and then tumbled down into the glamorous din of the subterranean Casa B. I’d stand on the sidewalk where they once stood and pretend I was Edie, a statuesque trust fund goddess, even though I was 5’1 with braces and had arrived via the Red Line with $20 in baby-sitting money.
And I’m old enough to remember Harvard Square when it still was hazy with the last clouds of bohemianism. I am old enough to remember people playing guitar on the sidewalk, or freaking out, or selling free magazines advertising strange netherworlds, like nudist camps. This is the first place where I felt like an adult, alone in the lawless world, where I think so many of us kids who grew up here did.
So I set out to find a bit of that world today, in my own car.
Breakfast: Darwin’s Ltd.
My first stop is Darwin’s Ltd., a little sandwich shop with a branch on Mount Auburn (there are two more in the area). It is still gloriously weird after more than 25 years. As a twenty-something, I hid out here during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I was working for a prominent political magazine, based in Washington, and we were all in town covering it. My editor’s mother lived around the corner, in a stately abode that she shared with her husband, American Repertory founder Robert Brustein. We all slept at her house — except there was no room for me, a lowly copy editor. I felt hideously out of place. My editor, apologetically, offered up his mother’s and stepfather’s empty bedroom. I felt so awkward about the whole situation that I woke up early, fled the Brustein bed, and took solace at Darwin’s. Survival of the fittest, indeed.
There’s still a gigantic wooden tree-trunk table in the middle of the room that looks like it was stolen from Hobbit IKEA. Old couples sip coffee and talk art. And there are sandwiches — breakfast ones in one room, lunch versions in an adjacent one, where there’s also wine, Thatcher Farm milk bottles, and vats of bumpy cucumbers. I prefer the breakfast room, where there’s space to stretch out and people-watch. Make your order as strange as you like: I get the Huron, fried eggs and smoked salmon with charred soft red onions and tomato, wrapped in a tortilla, warm cream cheese spilling out the sides. When it’s ready, a man behind the lunch counter sings my name like he’s Pavarotti. As I’m about to leave, a woman behind the counter shatters a tray of glasses. The room goes silent.
“It was me! It was me!” she cries, and cranks up Adam Sandler’s “Lunch Lady Land.”
148 Mt. Auburn St., Cambridge, 617-354-5233, www.darwinsltd.com
Maybe Harvard Square is still a little bit strange. I walk the few blocks to Crema Café, a relatively new addition to the scene at just 10 years old. But friends who work at Harvard assure me that this is still the ultimate local place, and I love it because it sells George Howell Coffee. Howell is based in Acton now, but he started his first cafe, the Coffee Connection, right here in 1974. His coffee is creamy bordering on buttery, and it imparts a delicious caffeine high unlike any other. There’s food here, too, egg salad and rare roast beef. But coffee is the star.
God, it’s loud in here. I sip my iced coffee against a wall, crushing a poster for Club Passim, and let myself coast along on the cacophony for a moment — a child clutching a Curious George doll from the shop across the street while screeching, two guys debating the merits of majoring in physics. I’d heard that Crema might get replaced. After all, rents are high, the neighborhood is changing, and owner Liza Shirazi also runs Revival Café near Alewife now. Before I go, I ask about it. The woman behind the counter ignores the growing line and looks shocked.
“We’ve been here for 10 years. I hope they wouldn’t do that to us,” she tells me.
I hope not, either.
27 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-876-2700, www.cremacambridge.com
All-You-Can Eat: The Maharaja
I slurp my way down JFK Street toward Winthrop Park, where the landmark UpStairs at the Pudding and, later, UpStairs on the Square once stood. They’ve been replaced by Parsnip, a proper expense-account place, but the park is the same — street musicians, an energetic knitter, and a tattered math workbook abandoned on a bench. I’m ambushed by a grinning man in an orange “Save the Children” vest.
“Look at that smile! You know you can help us!” he says. I allow that I cannot. I am busy. I am working. I try not to smile.
He fades away, and moments later, an elfin young thing with a tape recorder appears.
“I’m working on an English language video. Can I ask you questions?” she wonders.
I graciously decline. I’m sort of annoyed — can’t these people see I’m drinking coffee and playing on my phone? — but also relieved. It’s not quite a guy freaking out on LSD and ranting about Woodstock, but strangers still approach strangers here.
I ditch my coffee and duck into the Crimson Galeria complex for the neighborhood’s best lunch: Maharaja’s Indian buffet. Don’t be put off by the Galeria’s construction — you’ll walk along wobbly, thin plywood and up a dusty set of stairs to reach the restaurant, but once you do, you’re rewarded with a window-wrapped view of the neighborhood. Arrive right at 11:30 to secure a table that overlooks the street.
Service is quiet. No one will urge you to go to the buffet. Just do it: Grab a dish and stalk those silver, steaming trays. You’ll find the usual suspects, saag paneer with plump cubes of cottage cheese and aromatic chicken tikka masala. But the true treasure is vegetarian pakora curry, flat fritters crisped with chickpea flour batter, swimming in a thick, mustard-yellow yogurt sauce with a hint of cumin. Fill up a soup bowl and spoon it up while gazing at the scene below. No one will bother you. It’s a cool respite in the summer heat, and at $10.95 for unlimited food, it’s a deal, too.
57 John F. Kennedy St., Cambridge, 617-547-2757, www.maharajaboston.com
Beer and Burgers: Charlie’s Kitchen
Overhearing chatter about banking internships and tenure woes, I know I’m surrounded by locals — of a certain kind. But I also need more grit. Charlie’s Kitchen is down the alley from the Maharaja. And at midday, there is a line of men hunched over the bar, backs arched like cats, swilling beer in the dim haze.
“Sit wherever,” a bartender tells me. I nestle into a back booth and a guy in a stained apron hands me a thin red paper menu: twin lobsters for $45. I’ve seen those lobsters, lolling in a steamy tank outside. A man at the bar is yelling about Jerry Seinfeld. There are neon purple signs on the walls, advertising meats and double cheeseburgers. Sure, you can get creative at Charlie’s, topping your burger with guacamole, pineapple, or homemade ginger dressing. But read the scene: You want a double cheeseburger special for $7, served open-faced on a steamed bun, blanketed in — well, it sure looks and tastes like American cheese. Lettuce, pale tomato, bread-and-butter pickles. Thin sticks of fries. Just as it should be.
It arrives within three minutes of my ordering, and my pores ooze grease on cue. It isn’t fancy, and it certainly isn’t exotic. But drenched in ketchup, it tastes real. I walk back out into the glaring sun and wince as though I were leaving a movie theater. And, in a way, I am. I step over a man snoring on the sidewalk, a smile on his face.
10 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-492-9646, www.charlieskitchen.com
A Proper Meal: Harvest
Next on my list is Harvest, in the alley off of Brattle Street — the neighborhood’s special occasion restaurant where deals are made, dignitaries dine, and a sun-filled terrace seems to confer a sense of approval. You are here, you have made it, and the sun shines down upon you. There are real tablecloths here, and real service, and a real chef: Tyler Kinnett, who has worked at Hamersley’s Bistro and Sel de la Terre. I’m squired to a corner booth, presented with a small square of cornbread, and a chipper server materializes immediately. Who said that hospitality is dead? He bows discreetly — actually bows — when I order a smoked turkey and bacon sandwich, with just the right amount of chipotle aioli. Fries, salty and mealy, come in a little silver All-Clad pot.
I am nearly 40 years old, yet I feel as though I’m playing grown-up here, surrounded by people far older than myself, discussing their time at Chadwick, the LA prep school, and their teenage adventures dancing on marble floors in Venice. I’ve slipped into a portal of privilege, eating my very good sandwich and sipping an enormous goblet of iced tea, surrounded by hues of beige and caramel. There is nothing scary here, nothing curious: just shrimp cocktail, and grilled chicken paillard, and a burger made with Savenor’s beef from down the street.
At the bar, a lone fellow sips brown liquor.
“Let’s make this a regular thing,” the bartender tells him.
“I will,” he says, winking.
44 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-868-2255, www.harvestcambridge.com
A Quiet Retreat: Café Sushi
By this time, I am very full and slowing down. I never ate this well as a teenager. But I have one more stop: The 33-year-old Café Sushi, at the very edge of the neighborhood, in a simple two-story concrete strip mall leading toward Central Square. No quirky charm here — not until you walk upstairs and slip inside. It is 2 p.m., an odd time of day to stop in for sushi, and yet it’s packed. People sit alone at the sushi bar, reading novels; chef Seizi Imura, who took over the restaurant from his parents, performs knife ballet behind the counter; people crowd the entrance, hoping to squeeze in before lunch ends at 2:30.
I’m at the end of my journey, and all I want is a simple palate cleanser — no gloopy sauces, no crazy rolls. If you want show-off maki drenched in Sriracha, this is not your place. Just tekka maki, a tuna roll, for $6. It arrives immediately, warm and clean, soft and sweet.
This place is not swanky like O Ya or loud like Uni, Boston’s two best-known sushi spots. It looks like a cafeteria inside a mini-mall, which is really what it is. But here, it is possible to enjoy fresh, silken sushi anonymously, without being fawned over or maxing out your credit card. It’s all business. I open up my favorite old Agatha Christie novel, “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead,” pour a droplet of soy sauce onto the edge of my plate, and raise my chopsticks.
1105 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-492-0434, www.cafesushicambridge.com
And, finally, I leave. I walk back through the square, past Tasty Burger and Sweetgreen and Shake Shack, places that weren’t here when I first roamed the neighborhood 20 years ago or more. Retrieving my car on Brattle Street, I’m not thinking about Edie Sedgwick. I’m wondering who can afford to live in these houses and if I have time to stop at Trader Joe’s on the way home. Driving back down Concord Avenue to Fresh Pond Circle, though, not much has changed. Faces is gone, but the Fresh Pond Mall sign is still there, unsightly as ever. So is that ramshackle fireplace store, and the wacky Jetson’s storefront selling 1950s refrigerators. Joyce Chen is gone, but those apartment towers stand tall, promising that another world still lurks somewhere just around the corner.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.