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The Lagniappe: Some Buried and Not-so-Buried Treasures of Harvard Square

There are parts of Harvard Square that are best left undiscovered. Fire & Ice Grill (meh) and that weird street performer who puts on the creepiest puppet show/political commentary on earth immediately come to mind. But there are a number of places in and around the Square that are worth visiting to satisfy various compartments of your mind and/or soul. (As this column is not restaurant-focused, I try to avoid them at most costs-but a few eateries manage to slip in, however only in a dual-purpose capacity.) I’ll start with places farther out from the Square, and then spiral in towards the heart of the beast.

A true gem of Cambridge is the Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford Street). This is one of those places you always mean to get to, but it somehow escapes your mind during that occasional spare hour you have on a Saturday afternoon. And then you leave Boston. Years from now, on some banal Thursday, you’ll remember that you lived (at least) two years in a city and didn’t venture a mile northward to see this museum. Don’t be that person.

I really could, and should, spend an entire column raving about this small, but glorious, place. Here’s as little as I can say while doing the Harvard Museum of Natural History some fragment of justice: The museum occupies the third floor of the building, and is comprised of collections from three of the University’s research museums (Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum). This diverse heritage is a fundamental component of the museum’s enjoyable and engaging experience. The collection on display is limited (there are only about fifteen rooms), but what is featured is wonderful.

Once you’ve hiked up two flights of stairs to reach the galleries, the first exhibit you encounter is Glass Flowers-a collection of 3,000-plus models representing over 830 plant species from all parts of the globe. Commissioned in 1886 for the year-round study of botany, the glass flowers were crafted over a fifty-year span by a father-son team based near Dresden, Germany. The results are stunning. The painstaking detail and artistry involved in the creation of these masterpieces is exquisite and mind-blowing. To be fair, it’s not like the subject matter didn’t lend itself to this level of beauty. I imagine an exhibit of glass hairless cats or used syringes wouldn’t stir such wonder, even executed with the same level of craftsmanship. Moving into the Vertebrate Paleontology gallery, I came across the skeletons of some delightfully peculiar (and extinct) animals, like the Toxodon and the Glyptodont. Please see them, smile, and then let your mind wander about the path much of our planet is on (and then probably frown).

The other galleries are as enjoyable-I could go on and on, but I won’t. Go to the museum, get in for free (with a flash of your Harvard ID), and spend an hour wandering through some amusing and well-edited exhibits. The place does have an antiquated, throwback vibe to its presentation, but I think it only compounds its greatness. I became nostalgic for the field trip days of my younger youth, when learning facts like why some birds have iridescent coats (it involves air bubbles in the feathers’ barbs) and seeing stuffed animals like a Spectacled Cobra and an Ounce still kindled bewilderment about this world we are lucky to live in. It was nice to return to that mental space, even if only for a bit. Go alone, go in a group, or go on a quirky date. Just go.

A rather famous, but yonder treasure of the neighborhood is Savenor’s Market (92 Kirkland Street). If you have a kitchen (or access to one) and are looking to cook an unforgettable meal, your search for the perfect ingredients will start and end at Savenor’s. An institution since 1939, the market’s regulars used to include the Rockefellers and the Kennedys. Julia Child sourced all her meats here for her PBS show, and she scrawled her initials in the cement outside the store as a lasting tribute to the place. While the produce is gorgeous, and the other sundries are interesting, the reason to shop at Savenor’s is for the meat. Whether you’d like delectable Kobe Wagyu Sirloin, beautiful Colorado lamb, or something more exotic (like python, bear, or turtle) the butchers here are gurus of their craft, and their discerning selection of protein ensures that you’ll get a divine piece of meat every time. Be ready to pay accordingly. But who am I kidding, you’re HBS students. And as my mom says, “at what price perfection?”

Bibliophiles of the world, rejoice. Your Mecca is right across the river. And it’s called Lame Duck Books (12 Arrow Street). If you’re looking to drop $25,000 on a rare book, come here. If you’re just looking to ogle said book, come, but pretend you’re interested in buying. (Much more affordable works are also on hand.) The shop has a remarkable collection of important works, though it emphasizes “rare literature and primary works in the history of ideas in English, German, French, Spanish, Russian and other languages” (from its website). You’ll find first editions, inscribed books, artwork (some of it quite charmingly bizarre), and photographs. Illustrious names and seminal thoughts fill every cubic inch of the store; the atmosphere in the shop is inspiring, if not transformative. Lame Duck Books is a keystone in the building that is Cambridge’s awesomeness.

Meander over to L.A. Burdick (52-D Brattle Street) for sublime hot chocolate, tasty espresso, and melt-in-your-mouth Luxembourgers. Also try the chocolate penguins, chocolate mice, or basically any one of its handmade chocolates. They are decadent, sumptuous, and scrumptious. The shop is small and cozy, and reminds me of a place I used to frequent when I studied in Florence. If the seats were more comfortable I’d spend all day in Burdicks. Instead, I find this place is better for an hour-long catch-up with a friend. And during the winter months the café is a warm and welcoming harbor from the brutal Boston weather. (Excited for February yet?) The wood-boxed chocolates also make perfect gifts; in my experience many hosts and hostesses have raved about receiving these.

Another perk of your HBS student status is free admission to Harvard Film Archive screenings (24 Quincy Street). Most nights of the week the HFA presents films, with a focus on independent, foreign, classic, and avant-garde works. The directors are occasionally present to discuss their masterpieces with the audience. Go to the 200-seat theater to expand your horizons, confront your assumptions, or just to make out in the back row during an often-pointless avant-garde piece (hopefully the soundtrack would be good and the lighting dim). In any case the HFA is an excellent resource to break the cycle of relentless networking events and booze-infused parties.

If you are among the audiophiles who insist that vinyl is the only way to really listen to music, and your esoteric tastes lean towards prog or psychedelic rock, jazz, other improv, and the like, you’ll be relishing every second in Twisted Village (12 Eliot Street). The subterranean record shop is easy to miss when walking from Charlie’s Kitchen to IHOP. Most people could live their entire lives without stopping by the store and probably die happy. But if you dig finding bands you’ve never heard of, or need another copy of that Ramones album you’ve worn out from over-use, I suggest locating this shop posthaste. The store seems to revel in its basement-ness, and is a bit of a self-aware hipsters’ paradise. But for vinyl records (and CDs) to challenge and grow certain regions of your musical taste, Twisted Village is certainly worth a visit. When I was there it was eerily silent, which for a music store, was especially weird. But that could’ve been a one-time thing. Or maybe some form of inaudible intimidation.

Folk music and vegetarian food. I know, I know-the first two things listed under “interests” on your classcard (yes, I can see those, too). But seriously, there is one place in Harvard Square that does both quite well: Veggie Planet (47 Palmer Street). A casual place to have a superb experience sans slaughtered animal, the space is a little odd but comfortable, and filled with plenty of goatee-growing-men and the ladies who love them. In the evening (every night!) the dining room doubles as a music venue, Club Passim, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Although the restaurant offers rice dishes, salads, and appetizers, what they do best is pizza. My personal favorite is Henry’s dinner. Open for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, they also have a limited beer and wine list. Come here for a relaxed, unpretentious and tasty meal, and/or to indulge in some pretty solid folk music.

This next review is not really about the main dish because there are plenty of fantastic pizza places in the Square (see above, as well as Pinocchio’s, Upper Crust, and Cambridge 1). But OMG if you feel like drinking on the cheap go to Crazy Dough’s (36 JFK Street). Immediately. Why? $4 pitchers of PBR. The ambience is rather blah, but for that price it really doesn’t matter. The service is great and the pizza is good, which is fortunate because of absurd Massachusetts laws you can only drink here if you also order food. So grab a group of people, a slice (or a salad for expeditiousness towards intoxication), and a pitcher (one per person, obviously). Open until 11 on Fridays and Saturdays, this is the perfect post-pre-game-but-pre-destination destination. I’ve also been there at closing time and walked out with a whole pizza, for free. Which rocked. I then offered it to a homeless man who rebuked my proposal. Just more pizza for me.

I have to end this Lagniappe on one of my absolute favorite places in Hahvahd Square. And that is Upstairs on the Square (91 Winthrop Street). This is definitely a venerable and popular institution in the neighborhood, but I couldn’t resist adding it to the list. While the Soiree Dining Room merits its own feature, I’ll focus on what I find delightfully under-utilized: drinks and a light dinner at The Monday Club Bar. If you haven’t been here yet, please, please, I implore you to go. Maybe it’s the mélange of thoughtful cocktails, succulent food and bohemian princess aesthetic (a term I did not create and can’t remember where I heard it, but too perfect not to use) that spellbind me every time I visit; maybe there’s some strain of airborne amphetamines they pump through the ventilation system to entrance their patrons into a euphoric state. I’ll take more of both. There’s really no better place for great conversation with great company while basking in your mutual greatness.

In the spirit of my hodgepodge approach to this column, here’s my musical appendix for this week. The theme is awesome, but less-popular, tracks of albums I love (see the correlation?):

– The Avett Brothers – The Weight of Lies – Emotionalism

– Johnny Cash – 25 Minutes to Go – At Folsom Prison

– TV on the Radio – Hours – Return to Cookie Mountain

– The Beatles – I Want You (She’s So Heavy) – Abbey Road

– Andrew Bird – Masterfade – The Mysterious Production of Eggs

– Adele – Right as Rain – 19

– Lupe Fiasco – The Cool – Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor

– The Beach Boys – Sloop John B. – Sounds of Summer
(Okay, a best-of album, which I realize is a cop-out. But it’s such a solid song.)

– Green Day – Sassafras Roots – Dookie

– Sean Paul – Like Glue – Dutty Rock

– Bloc Party – This Modern Love – Silent Alarm

– MC Solaar – Hijo de Africa – Mach6

– Hanson – A Minute Without You – Middle of Nowhere (Believe it.)

– Kate Nash – Mouthwash – Made of Bricks

– Grizzly Bear – Cheerleader – Veckatimest

October 5, 2009
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