Changing Tastes

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Culinary transitions in Harvard Square.

Over the last few months it seems as though every other day brings a new announcement about restaurants closing and opening in Harvard Square. While the reviews pour in about the new establishments, a broader look at the changes reveal a rapidly evolving culinary scene. The new restaurants are creating a more upscale feel in our old little college neighborhood. From new sit-down restaurants to the advent of the “Fast-Casual” trend, the Square seems to be getting a little fancy in the food department.

For years Harvest, Henrietta’s Table, Red House, and Alden + Harlow have been the upscale restaurants in town with the Russell House/Grafton/Park trifecta as the next standbys for special occasion meals and parent brunches for many students. And until recently, Panera, Au Bon Pain, and Cafe Algiers were competition for Cardullo’s in the sandwich and quick lunch category. Now the Square is inundated with fast casual spots like Tatte, Clover, Tom’s Bao Bao, and Shake Shack. While there are many possible reasons for this change including national trends, real estate politics, or simply a shift in the market, it is clear that the influx of new restaurants and exodus of classics is changing Harvard Square’s culinary aesthetic.

Tatte on Mass Ave.
Tatte on Mass Ave.

One of the events that has affected the closure or relocation of many establishments is the renovation of the Smith Campus Center. Finale bakery was the first victim of the Smith renovation in late 2014. It closed after 12 years in the Square also right around the time when Mike’s Pastry opened its doors across the street. In the spring of 2016 Au Bon Pain, Oggi Gourmet, and Al’s were forced to close or move when the Smith Center went into full construction mode.

The restaurants that have opened in the wake of sudden closures (Panera, Cafe Algiers, and Tory Row all closed without warning), have a shiny, new, simplistic aesthetic. From the all white tile approach of Tatte and Clover to the dark wood, mood lighting, and simple dishware of restaurants like En Boca, the restaurants all project a modern, often rustic, and cool atmosphere.

Harvard Square is not the only area of Cambridge that has seen an influx of upscale casual restaurants. Kendall Square near MIT saw the opening of Smoke House Barbecue and Mamaleh’s this summer. Both trendy-casual spots. Kendall’s eateries are also mostly fast casual, regional chains like Sebastian’s, Clover, and Bailey and Sage. These are contrasted with the more established The Friendly Toast, which specializes in breakfast food and sports a retro-diner aesthetic. It seems that the regional chain is an important phenomenon in Cambridge. Adding to the existing contingent in Harvard Square of J.P. Lick’s, Boloco, and Toscano are Tatte and the just opened Flour. Each of these establishments has a sibling or siblings in other parts of Boston.

Flour Bakery on 114 Mount Auburn St.
Flour Bakery on 114 Mount Auburn St.

Emma Noyes, the Editorial Director for Spoon University-Harvard, sees the move toward fast-casual dining, in places like Tatte, Clover, B.Good, and Sweetgreen, as a growing trend across the US. In an interview she writes “America in general is trending toward more trendy, accessible restaurants. In large American cities, fancy restaurants have existed for much of the 20th century. For much of the past, however, there was a gap: high-end French restaurants on one end, fast food/mom and pop joints on the other, and not much else in between. Slowly, restaurants that feel posh but don’t require you to shell out $50/per meal started filling in that empty space.” Whether these middle-ground restaurants are targeting students or just exist in a very populated and touristy area is yet unclear, but as Noyes notes, the restaurants are “aware of their surroundings,” offering coupons and even special pricing for their openings.

As we see the old standbys closing their doors due to real estate conflicts or unwanted competition with shiny, trendy, new restaurants nothing is quite certain. Will these new establishments last as the old ones did? Will their aesthetic and the influx of more upscale restaurants like The Hourly discourage students from trying them out? These changes seem to be happening all at once, but one thing is for sure, students are not at a loss for places to eat.

Kelsey O’Connor ([email protected]) is always sad to see the old ones go and also really enjoys Tatte’s lemonade.