Cambridge’s Kendall Square is, in a word, disappointing. I mean, it’s not a dump, not a bad area of town. It’s not even a bad place; it could just be so much better. In Kendall’s endlessly long, empty streets, I see unlimited potential. Like that other square in Cambridge that houses a world-renowned university, I want it to be the kind of neighborhood that both locals and tourists flock to. I expect it to be thriving, full of activity, populated by dozens of cool bars, restaurants, interesting shops, and more. Full of popular attractions as well as hidden gems.
Every time I step off the Kendall T stop, I have no idea where I am (even when I’m with people who frequent Kendall, they tend to take a minute to get their bearings). Maybe because everything looks the same. Lots of drab office buildings. And anywhere you’re going in Kendall, regardless of where you are, is at least a 10-minute walk (with directions that usually involve cutting through a hotel lobby).
Which is not to say there’s no reason to go to Kendall. There’s plenty to do, in fact; it’s just all spread out and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. The Kendall Square Cinema is a very nice theater showing independent films. Flat Top Johnny’s is a really cool pool hall. And if you’re looking for adult beverages, a trip to Kendall is certainly worth your while. Cambridge Brewing Company brews their own excellent beer. Lord Hobo has an impressive beer list, a respectable menu of cocktails, and an always intriguing music selection. Then there is the subject of this week’s post: a two-floor tribute to European drinking culture, with a selection of draft microbrews that makes it a true standout in the Boston area and a bona fide destination in Kendall Square – Meadhall.
Stepping into Meadhall is like stepping into a Bavarian beer hall. It’s a vast, open space with high ceilings, a massive bar in the center of the room, two floors, and a stunning 100 beers on draft. All that’s missing are big-bosomed women slinging beer steins and a bunch of red-faced old men singing bawdy drinking songs.
Although it’s only been open a little over a year, Meadhall has a classic, timeless look that might make you think it’s been there forever. The décor is minimal, with a few large brewery banners serving as the only ornamental touches of color. Old-school chandeliers and cracks in the stone floor contribute to an “aged” appearance. There are no TVs on the main floor, which makes it the second bar I’ve been to in the past couple of months that thoughtfully forgoes such modern amenities (the other being Saloon). Floor-to-ceiling windows open in the nice weather and offer a view of Kendall’s wide open spaces.
The bar itself is impressive. It’s oval-shaped and surrounded by 40 comfortable chairs. The warm, handsome-looking wood, with desk lamps that illuminate the bar surface, give you the feeling of sitting at a great, big desk. And right in the middle is a glorious, wraparound bank of 100 beer taps.
Anyone could be forgiven for being momentarily overwhelmed by the beer selection here. It’s not exactly the kind of bar where you can glance at a few tap handles and make a quick decision. Meadhall’s draft offerings are listed on an enormous chalkboard high up on the wall, presumably attended to by someone who has exceptional handwriting skills and no fear of heights.
Here the beers are helpfully delineated by style – Amber, Saison, Porter, Stout, and on and on. If you’re still unsure about what you want, don't fret. The bartenders on the occasions I’ve been here have been quite knowledgeable about each beer – no small feat with that many offerings – and they’re quick to offer you a sample of anything you want.
And chances are, you’ll find a beer you’ll like, unless you’re looking for something like Bud Light. Meadhall is all about craft beers and microbrews, with an emphasis on Belgian-style beers and local and regional breweries. Without doubt, Meadhall caters to the discerning beer drinker.
Interestingly, it was not beer but cider that led me to Meadhall on a recent Saturday night. It was a warm evening, and in a quest to get material for my Outdoor Seating extravaganza, I’d been hitting roof decks and patios all day with a fever pitch. That brought me to the outdoor patio at The Field in Central Square, with Jen, Kelly, and Kat.
As we plotted our next move, Jen suggested Meadhall, because she thought they had a roof deck (which they do not). And, whether we ended up drinking outside or inside, we wanted to go somewhere kind of close by; Jen again offered Meadhall, even though it required a cab ride or a trip on the T. We kept throwing around various options, and Jen kept throwing around Meadhall.
And it wasn’t even because she really loves the place or had a hankering for craft beer – rather, she kept going on about a cider that she’d had the last time she was there and wanted to have again. (For me, this was not a reason to trek all the way to Meadhall, or any bar.)
Unsurprisingly, we settled on Meadhall.
We arrived around 8:30 and were joined by the elusive Dolan (she has a first name, but nobody uses it; at this point, I’m not 100 percent sure I even remember it). There was a good Saturday night crowd, but it wasn’t packed yet. The five of us were able to commandeer a few seats on one end of the bar, and there were also still tables available. Half an hour later, nearly all the bar seats were taken, most of the tables were filling up, and the upstairs was full too.
We’d barely gotten settled in our seats before Jen was pounding the bar and calling for her cider. When it finally came, she downed it in one gulp, demanded another, and finally mellowed out a bit.
I started the evening with a newish favorite – Victory Prima Pils. Solid, crisp, and clean…and look at that glass!
One of the things that’s most interesting about this place, and nearly everyone remarks on it, is that they go out of their way to serve each beer (or cider) in its matching glassware. You know, I’d never think less of a bar for serving a Blue Moon in a Newcastle glass, because frankly, why would you care? Yet Meadhall’s insistence on matching beers with the appropriate glasses is not only charming but also feels, somehow, like the right way to do it. (Or maybe the owner’s just really anal.)
I only recently tried Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, during my trip to the Tip Tap Room, but Kat’s been drinking it by the gallon for years. Her glass was even cooler than mine, and her beer more complex.
By this point Dolan, a hard cider aficionado, had joined Jen’s chorus about this cider they were drinking. Needless to say, I had to see what all the fuss was about. Now, I’m not a big cider guy; I order one now and again – usually Magners or, if I can find it on tap, Harpoon. The problem for me is that my personal gold standard for hard cider is one that my friend John, of Brew Dudes fame, made last Thanksgiving. It was rich, potent, smooth, and thick – like actual apple cider. I only had John’s brew one time, but every cider I’ve had since then has been embarrassingly inferior.
Until I had Downeast Cider. And suddenly, Jen’s exuberance was understandable.
Downeast Cider is a craft cider made in Maine with locally grown and freshly pressed apples. I raised this unfiltered brew to my lips and was greeted by the pure aroma of apples – as opposed to something that’s supposed to taste like apples. It looks like that thick, brown cider you have on Thanksgiving. Someone at the bar said it reminded her of “rural Virginia.” For me it recalled the homebrewed version that John made (and hopefully will make again) and pretty much ensured that I’ll never order another brand.
I stuck with Downeast the rest of the night. Jen or Kelly ordered the other cider on tap, Fatty Bampkins. We all diplomatically agreed it was “pretty good.”
Since my Saturday night visit to Meadhall was so dominated by the cider (and I swear, I’m not on Downeast’s payroll), I figured I’d better make a follow-up trip and discuss a little more beer. So I stopped in on a Sunday afternoon around 2, and promptly ordered a cider.
But after that, I figured I’d try one of the two flights of Belgian beers that Meadhall offers. I’ve never really acquired a taste for Belgian-style beers, but I decided to take a chance. I got the Ommegang Flight – Ommegang Witte, Ommegang Belgian Pale Ale, Rare Vos, Hennepon, and Ommegang Abbey Ale. I enjoyed all five, and if I were better versed in Belgian beer nomenclature, I’d describe each one in excruciating detail. But what I will say is that they were all a little milder than your typical Belgian beer (and I know there are some beer connoisseurs out there cringing at my lumping Belgian beers together and calling them “typical”). The flight is especially good if you’re feeling indecisive; you don’t get to choose your beers, but the ones they give you are carefully thought out and arranged.
A little food was in order. Meadhall offers a “weekend menu,” an abbreviated version of their regular dinner menu. I went with Bourbon Barrel pork sliders, made with the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale barbecue sauce. The sliders were good, but were befouled by pickles. (I disdain pickles on sandwiches – except Cuban sandwiches, but that’s another story.)
There’s a small cocktail list if you neither like nor are in the mood for beer. I tried the iced toddy, which is like a hot toddy, but…well, you get it. It was a refreshing drink for a hot day – tea, Apple Jack brandy, ginger liqueur, lemon, and honey syrup, topped deliciously with ground clove, which just put it right over the top.
Cocktails and ciders aside, Meadhall is clearly about the beer. So it wasn’t until I started writing this post that it dawned on me – does Meadhall serve mead? I mean, it’s called Meadhall – not Beerhall. This necessitated yet another visit.
I stopped in around 5:30 on a Thursday and found the bar nearly full with after-work imbibers. Sure enough, Meadhall serves mead. There are three “meaderies” represented – Honeymaker, out of Maine, and Moonlight and Sap House, both in New Hampshire – and each have several styles represented on the menu. It’s pretty rare that I drink mead; then again, who does drink mead on a regular basis? I don’t mind it, but as you may know, it’s incredibly sweet. So I opted for a Honeymaker mead described as “dry.” As meads go, it was pretty good; ironically, I would have liked it to be sweeter (look, I’m a complicated individual, OK?).
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the mead was served in a matching Honeymaker glass. The woman next to me, noting the dainty glass and the honey wine it held, remarked “It’s hard to imagine Vikings drinking that.” Fair point, but we agreed that the Viking version was probably very primitive and attracted bugs, so this was a step up. I switched to a Peak Organic Summer Session, a crisp, American wheat beer, and called it a night.
Every time I come to Meadhall, my appreciation of it grows. It’s popular after work and fills up quickly, but with 40 seats at the bar and plenty of space to stand, the crowd never feels too dense. It’s attractive during the day, when the big windows let in an abundance of natural light. But it’s even better at night, when the interior is illuminated almost solely by the chandeliers and desk lamps. The upstairs area, which is sometimes rented out for private functions, offers cushy leather chairs and couches and has a smaller bar.
Prices here are pretty standard. Most beers are around $5, but there are some fancy ones that’ll cost you a little more. My beer flight was $10. The Downeast Cider was $7, and cocktails are $10. The food’s a little pricey, but there are snacks and small plates that are pretty reasonable. The pulled pork sliders I had were $12, which I think is a little high (but when it comes to pork sliders, I’ve been spoiled by the $5 happy hour special at the Corner Tavern).
As Cambridge “squares” go, Kendall may lack the vibrancy of Harvard or Central; but those other places lack anything resembling Meadhall. In a city that boasts many bars specializing in microwbrews, Meadhall is a true destination for any beer drinker.
Even if you prefer cider.
Address: 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge
Website: The website is “coming soon,” but you can check out the placeholder here: http://themeadhall.com/. I imagine they’re too busy sampling their beers to finish the website, and I can’t say that I blame them.