Russell House Tavern
14 JFK St. at Brattle St.,
Cambridge, MA 02138
Mon-Wed 11 a.m. - 1 a.m.
Thu-Fri 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.
Sat 10 a.m. - 2 a.m.
An updated tavern-restaurant with a sense of history, flexible in its price point for Lit majors on a budget, Cantabridgians with bling, or foodies who want to just cozy up at the bar with a book and a boilermaker could be just what square needs. Russell House Tavern, is that you calling?
Once home to the legendary Wursthaus, the neighbor of the beloved Tasty Sandwich Shop, then the tax-evading Z Square, Russell House is the new culinary drinking den on the historic (if not woefully homogenized) Read Block. Back when cows grazed the pasture that became Harvard Yard, America's first poet, Anne Bradstreet, lived on this site. Soon after, a furniture maker named Thomas Russell operated his business here, oblivious that his humble name would someday reappear in a very changed Harvard landscape. Russell House Tavern gives a respectful nod to its history, while letting the New England Americana vibe inspire its menus.
Four options for dining are a plus here: upstairs in the black and white tiled bistro, in the downstairs restaurant-pub amongst dark wood tables and black and red leather seating, along its swell horseshoe-shaped bar, and outside on the cobbled patio. Executive Chef Michael Scelfo (also of Temple Bar) aims for local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. Island Creek oysters, hearth-baked pizza with ramps and peas, lobster pot, and a Chip-In Farm (of Bedford) panko-poached egg appetizer are all good examples of efforts. A bowl of "salt and pepper" shrimp wasn't the Chinatown delight I was envisioning, but more like a mild and unmemorable Buffalo shrimp. The steak tartare with cracked egg and brioche toast called to me, but I went for a very American steak and ale dinner: Brandt Farms steak with perfectly crispy frites, and my pick of a dozen diverse American craft beers on draft.
Bar Manager Aaron Butler, (a guy who can geek out equally on Red Sox batting averages and the difference in Islay and Speyside scotches) honed his chops at Boston's acclaimed temple to cocktails, Drink, and before that as a sales rep for Horizon Beverage. He compiled the tavern's all-American wine and beer lists, thoughtfully curated a stellar cocktail list, and on a recent weeknight visit, offered pairing suggestions for dishes. He even busted out a few tasty, house-infused liquors for sampling - among them a fresh raspberry-infused spirit, and a mellow spiced rum.
Can Russell House be a bridge between old Harvard Square and new? Can Grafton Group owners do what their satellite of sister restaurants - Grafton Street, Temple Bar, and Redline - don't? (Which is to say, stand out as memorable, consistent, and not overbearing in the sports TV and pick-up bar department?) Perhaps with the enduring concept, and savvy management team led by Ian Grossman of Sel de la Terre - oh, and a little Tasty stardust - it can happen.
RHT, we're rooting for you.