I knew Russell House Tavern was my kind of place was when I had to use the restroom.
Bear with me.
I went to Russell House Tavern for the first time a couple of years ago, with Melissa, my friend Brian, and Brian's wife, Malika. We were wandering around Harvard Square one evening and happened upon Russell House, which I think was fairly new at the time. The girls went inside to look at the menu (because as long as they had food and beer, Brian and I would have been cool with it) and deemed the dinner options acceptable; more importantly, there was no wait.
While the food was great and the beer selection was even better, the atmosphere didn’t make much of an impression on me. It kind of reminded me of a kitchen. The décor was very bright, with white walls and a black-and-white tiled floor, and the room was a little loud. There were four long, rectangular tables with stools, surrounded by smaller tables with booths and chairs, and a bar off to one side. I mean, it wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; just…nothing special.
As the four of us finished up, I asked about the location of the restroom and was directed downstairs. Assuming I was just headed to a basement level with restrooms and storage, I was stunned as I made my way down a large, oak staircase into a completely different bar, far removed from the hustle and bustle of upstairs.
I found myself in a spacious, cool room with exposed brick walls, dark wood, and stone flooring. A large, marble-topped bar with about 25 seats was the focal point, along with a dining area that was much more intimate than the upstairs. Lamps on the bar and lighting fixtures on the walls contributed to a relaxed, living room feel.
The contrast in atmosphere could not be more striking. If upstairs was like a noisy kitchen, downstairs was like a quiet den. If upstairs was the crowded kids’ table at Thanksgiving, downstairs was where the grown-ups sit, with more comfortable chairs and a few bottles of wine.
A couple of years after that first trip, the downstairs bar at Russell House Tavern has become one of my favorite places to eat and drink in Harvard Square. Brian and I usually have a excellent meal here, matched with a few craft beers, then head across the street to Whitney's for darts, a couple of PBRs, and some local color. (Not a bad night, if I do say so myself.)
Regardless of whether you’re sitting upstairs or downstairs, you can count on creative modern American cuisine and a well-thought-out beer selection. But whenever I’m downstairs, I find myself mostly in the mood for Russell House’s fantastic cocktails. Maybe it’s the lounge-type feel, or the snazzy vests and ties that the bartenders wear. Or maybe it’s just that their drinks are so damn good. While there are plenty of bars to choose from in Harvard Square, Russell House Tavern is the only one I know of in the area that makes the kind of inventive craft cocktails that have been cropping up in Boston these past couple years.
Their cocktail list is presented in two sections – Quintessential Classics and Current Conceptions. On Brian’s and my most recent visit, we sampled from both sections.
Of the classics, we tried the Vieux Carre and the Southside. The Vieux Carre seems like a cool variation on a Manhattan. Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters are joined by cognac and Peychaud’s bitters, providing a nice twist on a classic. A sophisticated, slow-sipping cocktail.
The Southside, in contrast, is the kind of drink you might inadvertently quaff down in two gulps. I didn’t even taste the gin, so I felt like I was drinking lemonade, with the mint simple syrup giving it a subtle earthy freshness. It would be a refreshing summertime cocktail – and a dangerous one.
The Current Conceptions section hosts a number of libations fit for summer. The Always Sunny strikes me as an ideal drink for this insanely hot weather we’ve been having as of late. Made with Privateer Silver Reserve rum, lime, strawberry simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and house-made ginger beer, it was an easy-drinking cocktail with a tropical flair.
And the Crimson Crow was like a raspberry lemonade, with vodka, lemon juice, and raspberry simple syrup.
As Brian and I perused the dinner menu, we shifted our attention to Russell House Tavern’s top-notch selection of microbrews. There are about eight or nine beers on draft, along with a rotating cask option. Whenever a bar has cask-conditioned beer, I feel compelled to try it...partly because I imagine my friends at Brew Dudes giving me a mildly reproachful look that says I’m really passing on a unique beer-drinking experience if I don’t try the cask offering.
Last time I partook of Russell House’s cask, they were serving High and Mighty Beer of the Gods.
It was crisp and floral, an enjoyable beer whether you’re drinking it out of a bottle or a cask. The waiter told me they had just tapped the cask that afternoon, along with representatives from the brewery, who were suitably impressed with the cask-conditioned version of their fine beer.
Russell House Tavern also serves one of my all-time favorite beers on draft – Gritty’s Black Fly Stout. Gritty’s is brewed in Portland, Maine, and finding this smoky, creamy dark beer in Boston can be a challenge.
You could easily come here just for the drinks, but the menu is no less satisfying. Appetizers range from salads to crab cakes to oddities such as beef tongue meatballs, and there are “small plates,” with even more daring choices like hickory smoked lamb’s belly toast, crispy pig’s head cake, and grilled prime rib knuckles.
I'd love to tell you more about Russell House Tavern’s dinner menu, but the only thing I've ever ordered is the grass-fed burger with cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions. Served on an English muffin, this is without question one of my favorite burgers in the Boston area. I still remember my very first bite. It was one of the juiciest, best-prepared burgers I'd ever had. The English muffin gets a little unwieldy once you get about halfway through, leaving you with quite a mess on your hands. No matter! I would eat this thing with my hands tied behind my back if I had to.
Oh, and the last time I ordered it, the waiter asked if I wanted fries or salad on the side…or a little of each. Now is that perfect or what? I get offered a salad and think “I should be good, go with the healthy option,” but I know nothing goes better with a burger than fries. A little of each? Russell House has got you covered.
I unapologetically order the burger every time I’m here. And it's almost too bad, because there are some great options, like the local Berkshire pork trio (loin, belly, smoked shoulder), a variety of seafood dishes, and even a raw bar menu. There’s also a pizza selection, which is Brian’s domain.
On our last visit, he got the Angry Queen, with marinated roasted tomatoes and basil. His assessment: “It got better the more I ate of it. It seemed a little bitter at first. But maybe I’m just drunk.”
What I wouldn’t give to express myself so succinctly and poetically.
In an area with so many bars and restaurants, Russell House Tavern manages to stand out. Upscale but casual, the downstairs area would be a great place for a date. And I don’t mean to judge the upstairs too harshly. Now that the warm weather’s here, the big windows that look out onto the square are open, giving it a nicer vibe. There’s also a small section of outdoor seating.
I usually find the downstairs bar to be a little crowded in the after-work hours; most of the 25 bar seats have been occupied the past couple times I’ve been there, but getting a table has never been much of a problem. Russell House doesn’t seem to draw a lot of students, which distinguishes it a bit from other establishments in the area. That might be because the prices are a tad on the high side. My burger and Brian’s pizza were both $12, and the entrees average around $20. But I’d say such creative cuisine warrants a little extra. And that burger’s worth every penny. The cocktails range from $8 to $13, which is pretty standard for well-made craft drinks, and the draft beers are $5 and $6.
Oh…and the restrooms are pretty nice, too.
Address: 14 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge