A softly lit, basement-level room in Harvard Square. Exposed brick ceilings and a dark, aged-looking hardwood floor dotted with area rugs. Leather-upholstered furniture. Maps and chalkboards on the walls. Bookshelves lined with literary classics. If there were a tweed jacket hanging on a doorknob and a hint of pipe tobacco in the air, the setting might be the office of a distinguished professor at one of the preeminent universities in the world. But while the décor might recall the rigorous pursuit of academia, the most esoteric conversation you’ll have at Park will probably be about the exotic-sounding ingredients in some of their drinks, or maybe one of their excellent craft beers.
The same people who run the nearby Russell House Tavern opened Park last year, and there are plenty of happy similarities – a moderate-sized list of well-conceived cocktails, a killer beer list, and a menu of comfort food classics that are creatively updated and beautifully presented. Its subterranean location even recalls the downstairs area of Russell House. But where the latter feels like a cool, upscale lounge, Park is more akin to a cozy den, replete with floor lamps, leather couches and armchairs, even a fireplace.
The intimate atmosphere extends over a deceptively large space, which is divided into four areas. There’s the dining room, with big red leather seats and long wooden tables.
There's a fireplace in the classroom, and the walls are covered with maps and chalkboards.
The appropriately named “den” is where you’ll find that comfortable furniture and the bookshelves.
And there’s a back room that’s…well, a back room, but with cool circular booths.
Each area has its own slightly different atmosphere, though it’s all tied together by vintage photos and artwork on the walls.
At the center is a large, horseshoe bar that accommodates 20 to 30 drinkers who have an impressive selection of cocktails and microbrews to choose from. That’s where Melissa and I started when we came in for drinks and an early dinner on a recent Saturday.
Our evening began with cocktails, and Park’s list doesn’t disappoint. Mel opened with the 1919, which she ordered in honor of the birth year of two of her late grandparents. It was a potent mix of rye whiskey, rum, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, and most intriguingly, mole bitters (as in the sauce used in Mexican cuisine, not the rodent). Personally, I’m not a fan of Punt e Mes, a bitter vermouth, but the drink overall was bold and complex.
What I am a big fan of is rum, which was paramount in my Private Dancer, made with amber rum, lime juice, Melete Amaro, allspice dram, and Velvet Felernum (a sweet syrup; and yes, I had to look several of those ingredients up). While Mel derided it as a “sophisticated chick drink,” I did at least manage to finish it; the 1919 ultimately proved too much for a certain someone.
Our attention turned to the dinner menu, which is composed largely of traditional American cuisine with some fresh innovations. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the appetizer menu, which has playful entries such as the “Bacon 3-Way.” As we perused the options, our waitress brought over a plate of Vermont cheddar cheese topped with a port wine reduction and the biggest, most elaborate crackers I’ve ever seen. Cheese and crackers just don’t get fancier than this.
We ultimately settled on the charming “Tasting of Toast.” Elegantly served on a wooden board were six pieces of toasted cocktail bread with three varieties of toppings: duck pastrami with whole-grain mustard and pickled shallot; cheddar and apple butter; and chilled crab and cucumber salad. All three were delicious, but be warned – the toppings don’t adhere all that well to the bread, as Mel discovered when her crab and cucumber salad slipped from the toast and plummeted unceremoniously to the floor. The five-second rule, of course, does not apply in bars.
The bar area was quickly getting crowded as we wrapped up our toast tasting, so we moved to a table for dinner. We were seated in the den area, and there the cocktails continued. I ordered the Fireside Poet, no relation to the summery Wandering Poet at the Parish Cafe. Maybe I have a soft spot for drinks that evoke my English degree, but this mix of bourbon, Creole Shrubb, Santa Maria al Monte, maraschino syrup, and whiskey barrel-aged bitters was easily my favorite drink of the night.
Mel’s choice was the Sheldon Highball, which, like so many of Park’s drinks, was made with a bunch of things I had to look up – Cynar (a bitter liqueur), Becherovka (a gingery liqueur of Czech origins), Barenjager (a honey liqueur), house-made ginger beer, and lemon juice. On the heels of the bitter 1919, the Sheldon Highball was especially bright and vibrant; the house-made ginger beer wasn’t too sweet, and the lemon juice gave it an unexpected zing.
Finally we made our way to the entrée menu. Amid a broad offering of reinvented classics, what truly stands out is Park’s “meat pie of the day,” served with mushy peas. I’d love to report back on this fun, unique offering, but for better or worse, my eyes never made it past the top item on the menu – slow-roasted brisket served with white bean cassoulet and caramelized vegetables. Fork-tender, almost like stew beef, the brisket was bursting with flavor and practically melted in my mouth.
Melissa opted for the phenomenal chickpea-lentil burger, which was spicy and rich. As a carnivore and burger purist, I typically only consume veggie burgers under duress. This one, I would actually order for myself – which, respectfully, is the highest honor I can bestow upon a burger not made of meat.
We were pretty well satisfied after dinner, but I couldn’t leave without trying something from Park’s top-notch beer list. There are about a dozen or so microbrews on draft, plus a cask option, and a similarly eclectic selection of bottles and cans. I chose the locally brewed Portico Sett Seven Scotch Ale, which I’d been curious about since seeing it on draft at Flash’s Cocktails. Dark, complex, and smooth, it was a fine way to round out the evening.
Of course, with a beer selection Park’s, it’s a shame to only try one. So I returned a few nights later to check out a couple more options. I was giddy to learn that the cask option was one of my favorites – Ipswich Oatmeal Stout. But as the bartender started pouring it, he noticed that it seemed a little “off” and might be the dregs of the cask (they change it every Thursday). He gave me a sample so I could judge for myself, but he was right. Disappointed as I was to miss out on the cask offering, I really appreciated the bartender’s warning; he could have just poured me a glass and I’d have thought “ugh, Ipswich on cask really sucks!” Instead I ordered the Boulder Beer Company’s Mojo IPA on nitro, one of Park’s most recent arrivals. Crisp, dry, and smooth, with a creamy head, it tasted as good as it looked.
I then challenged myself to inquire about the Thunderhole Brown Ale without giggling or snickering about the name (I failed). Kindly overlooking my immaturity, the bartender described it as lighter than most brown ales and suggested I might prefer something more traditional – St. Botolph’s Town, a “rustic” brown ale from the ever popular, Somerville-based tenant brewers, Pretty Things. He gave me a sample before I committed, and it was excellent.
The bar was much quieter on my weekday visit than it was on Saturday night (in other news, the sky is blue). It gave me a chance to look around a bit, and there’s plenty of neat little historical oddities, like old typewriters, sewing machines, and lots of photos from the 60s and 70s on the wall. And I noticed that the tap handles are affixed to a reclaimed iron plumbing pipe, similar to what I recently encountered at Granary Tavern.
I also had an opportunity to speak with Justin, the manager, and of course I had to ask about the name of the bar. Why Park? He told me the bar is named for the Harvard Square parking garage, with which it shares space in the lower, basement level. A most inauspicious muse, in my opinion. But Justin explained that in an area with so many bars and restaurants, the people behind Park wanted it to be a place where you could go for drinks and stay for a great meal, and thus park yourself for the night. Fair enough! I’ll be sure to park here again.
With a beer list that’s not only expansive but constantly in flux, Park is well suited to a busy, eclectic neighborhood like Harvard Square. The beer selections rotate often, and a new cask is tapped every Thursday. The dinner menu shifts periodically as well, and even the cocktail list had changed in the few days since I’d been there.
Prices are pretty standard, even a little low in some cases. Our Tasting of Toast was reasonably priced at $10, and sandwiches and entrées range from $10 to $23. The drinks were $10 and $11, and the beers cost what you’d expect for such a diverse selection – $5 to $9 for the draft brews.
Even with so many options in Harvard Square, Park’s a pretty popular place. On Saturday the bar filled up within minutes of the doors opening, though the space is big enough that the crowd wasn’t overwhelming. And while the exposed brick and wood on the walls and ceiling make for an attractive décor, they also result in some pretty rough acoustics; you might struggle to be heard when it’s busy. But on my weeknight visit, things were much calmer – ideal for sitting at the bar and having someone knowledgeable recommend a good beer.
Address: 59 JFK Street, Cambridge
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