If there's a local goldmine for good burgers in one condensed area, Cambridge's Harvard Square just might be it. Home to a vast variety of beef, cheese, and bun (and more) from cheap to historic, touristy, and all the way up through high-end, this neighborhood has it all.
The search starts out with a trip to Flat Patties. It's lunchtime, and every seat is taken. There's a line of people waiting for their to-go order and still more waiting to place an order. The workers behind the counter are scurrying to fill the orders. It's chaotic, noisy, and hectic in the way that you'd want your favorite fast-food/fast-casual burger joint to be, just buzzing with energy and smelling of griddled meat.
The number is called, and the burger is ready. It's on a fluffy, house-made bun. The patty, as the name indicates, is flat, but it doesn't fall flat on flavor. It's seasoned well and has a thick layer of melted cheese folded over it. It's one of the special burgers on the menu; accompanying the cheese and meat are roasted poblano peppers and a house sauce. It's a great value, coming in at just under $9 with fries.
Onward to Russell House Tavern. There are two floors at this restaurant; the upper floor (at street level) is a bright room with classic bistro touches. At this hour it's packed full of suits taking a break from work. There's a large crowd in the downstairs section as well, but the noise is a little more subdued. It feels like an underground secret dinner club, dimly lit and lined with plush leather booths. The burger is enjoyed at the U-shaped bar where tall, leather-covered lamps provide a bright contrasting light.
Across the way, two girls sip afternoon cocktails and gossip loudly about everything from work to men. The burger arrives on a buttery, crispy, Stone & Skillet English muffin. It's a thick patty, and it's aggressively seasoned and so juicy, it makes it difficult to eat — in that messy way a good burger should be. It comes topped with cheddar cheese, strips of smoky bacon, and sweet caramelized onions. It is hard to resist the urge to finish the burger, but there are many more on the list to sample for the day.
The one to which all of the tourist guides will direct people, Mr. Bartley's, is next. Tucked away from the main bustle of Harvard Square but easily identified by the crowds and lines, it looks like a dorm room, and that's by design. Pop culture posters and political signs are plastered all over the walls, and there's a spray-painted outline of Guy Fieri's head and glasses, accompanied by his signature, left from when he filmed a segment of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
The menu, known for its tongue-in-cheek naming of burgers after celebrities both locally and afar, is printed largely on a chalkboard. In the mix of all of the wall clutter, there's the unmistakable smell of meat and the sight of a thick cloud of smoke from the open kitchen. This isn't the type of place where lingering lazily over a burger is welcome. It's on to the next.
Next, a complete opposite of Bartley's. It's off to Harvest, a restaurant and bar that is tucked away from the main drag while still maintaining a firm spot in the center of it all. The bar is the only place where you can get the burger after lunchtime hours. It's later afternoon, so it's very quiet — just the sounds of the kitchen getting ready for dinner service and soft music fill the air. It's relaxing; one could happily spend all afternoon there. There's one other person in the restaurant, and he's seated at the bar, eating a burger as well.
The medium-rare burger arrives, blanketed in a thick layer of cheese and dressed with red onion slivers, tomato slices, and a couple leaves of lettuce. The bun is on the flatter side and masterfully catches all of the juices from the burger. Fries are crisp and salty and served in an adorable little silver All-Clad pot.
A short walk across the street and it's time for a pit stop at Charlie's Kitchen. The usually full bar is completely empty. The servers are starting to arrive for their nightly shift, and they are playfully gossiping as they prepare for a busy evening. The neon lights from the bar illuminate this 40-year-old, diner-style dive bar known for its burgers.
The standard double cheeseburger arrives, along with an upgraded side of waffle fries. When life offers waffle fries, it's a must to take them. Each thin patty is covered by a single white slice of American cheese. The patties don't fit the bun properly, and they are well past well-done, but there's a certain charm to the whole experience that makes details like that easier to overlook.
To say that stomachs are getting full is an understatement but also a testament to how many uniquely good burgers there are in Harvard Square. Park is on deck, offering the comforts of a corner booth in the dimly-lit, lower-level restaurant.
This burger is not like the others; it's the only patty melt of the day. The caraway-studded bread makes the whole sandwich pop. The thin patty is juicier than a patty of that nature should be, and it's cooked to a medium rare — not something seen often in the thin patty world. The cheese oozes out of each corner, punctuating it with another layer of decadent fat and providing a creaminess. Cholula hot sauce-spiked onion rings provide a great level of heat. Addictively salty and slender fries accompany, served in a small metal bucket.
It's nearing the end of the craw,l but a final stop at Shake Shack is a must. It's now gotten dark, and the demand for burgers is running high. A crowd of college students and a couple of families are ordering burgers and then walking up to the second-level dining room, which looks like a fancied-up version of a college community study room with couches and views of Harvard Square. There's a laid-back feel that is comfortable and relaxing. It's inching towards 9 p.m., and the crowds don't seem to stop coming in. Some are splitting burgers or are taking down a whole one, while others enjoy concretes, a thick frozen custard treats. Others looks like they've just been there for hours and have no intention of leaving.
Stomachs full; the taste for fatty, cheesy beef in between buns is beyond satisfied. It's time for the comforts of a couch and a pair of elastic-waist pants. It was a gluttonous afternoon — but in the best and most satisfying way possible. All that's left for the evening is planning out a series of salads to eat for the remainder of the week to balance out the happenings of the deliciously memorable day.