Harvard Square Burger Smackdown

By Scott Kearnan  |  January 24, 2014
Credit: Courtesy of Shake Shack

With the recent arrival of Shake Shack in Harvard Square, the Cambridge burger wars are getting even more competitive. From a 50-year-old icon to a healthy newcomer, there are an incredible number of burger-centric business within a few city blocks. To help you navigate the myriad patty-peddlers, we surveyed the options and defined the categories in which they excel; we've also pointed out where they could stand to improve. Each is the burger king of its own little street corner - but overall, which do you think reigns supreme over Harvard Square?

  • The Ultracreative Landmark: Mr. Bartley's

    The Fat-Free Summary: The humble setting belies Mr. Bartley's legendary 50-plus-year reputation as a burger paradise with dozens (plural) of varieties and a quirky setting strewn with movie and music memorabilia. 

    What's Well-Done: Depends. What day is it? Most ingredients stay the same, but names change often to reflect everything from local politics (the "Marty Walsh" boasts horseradish chive cheddar cheese, coleslaw and Dijon) and pop-culture personalities (care for a "Mark Zuckerberg"? The "richest geek in America" gets a sandwich with boursin cheese and bacon). Don't worry. There's rarely a dud in the bunch. 

    Why It Sizzles: We love our history, and after half a century, Mr. Bartley's is the grandfather of the local burger scene. He's watched plenty of whippersnappers come and go, but has been unwavering to his formula for success: a lack of pretension and juicy burgers that are designed to satisfy. 

    Our One Beef: Look, we could lie and pretend that the cash-only policy lends to the hole-in-the-wall charm. But let's not kid ourselves. It's 2014: Mr. Bartley's is now an icon, and most of us prefer to debit our dinner. So take our plastic, please. 

  • Credit: Courtesy of Shake Shack

    The Consistent Heavy-Hitter: Shake Shack

    The Fat-Free Summary: The latest entrant to Harvard Square's burger battleground, this NY-based chain comes from the fine-dining minds at Union Square Hospitality Group; they elevate the hamburger to a carefully crafted art form. 

    What's Well-Done: We get especially fired up over the SmokeShack (pictured), topped with special sauce, bacon and chopped cherry peppers, and the location-specific "concretes," Shake Shack's signature approach to frozen custard. We especially love the Crimson Red Velvet; the name nods to Harvard's school colors, and the cake is made at Boston's own South End Buttery. The Harvard location is also among the first to serve Shake Shack's new daily fresh-cut fries - as opposed to the frozen crinkle-cut served at most Shack outposts. 

    Why It Sizzles: To succeed on a mass level, most fast-food joints end up trading quality for consistency. Shake Shack found a way to achieve the equilibrium between predictability and polish. This Pat LaFrieda beef comes from the same purveyor that supplies NYC spots like Spotted Pig and Minetta Tavern, but Shake Shack combines such elevated ingredients with the operational smarts of an international behemoth. The result feels like the best of both worlds.

    Our One Beef: Feverish excitement accompanies the opening of each new outpost - but it's hard to maintain cult appeal with growing ubiquity. We'd hate to see Shake Shack become the Starbucks of the burger world and increase its footprint while losing the luster that originally made it cool. 

  • Boston's Upstart Burgeoning Empire: Tasty Burger

    The Fat-Free Summary: Denoted by everything from the Pulp Fiction-nodding name to pool tables, an extensive selection of canned craft beers and unheard-of (for these parts) late-night service that runs until 4 AM, a fun personality pervades Tasty Burger, which has two other locations in Fenway and South Boston.

    What's Well-Done: Each ⅓-lb. patty is all-natural certified humane (so are the eggs and bacon), and we find it best deployed with the gooey Gorgonzola burger. The tasty chili cheese dog with jalapeño sauce and chopped onion is a big win too, and among the shakes we're partial to the minty Green Monster. 

    Why It Sizzles: The restaurant group behind Tasty also runs the Franklin Cafe and Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar, but here it embraces a sillier side that is truly winning. There are eating challenges, like the "All-the-Way Shaft" that combines a burger with a ½-lb. hot dog. There are creative menu items, including the "Blue Collar" with a deep-fried patty, plus daily-changing specials submitted by fans. And there are clever combos, like the "Starvin' Student," a $10 partnering of burger, beer and fries. In lesser hands, it could seem gimmicky. But Tasty Burger is too good.  

    Our One Beef: When Tasty Burger hits, it hits home runs. But it can still work on its overall batting average. Consistency, particularly with service, still has room for improvement. 

  • The Health-Conscious Chain: B.Good

    The Fat-Free Summary: The Boston-based chain is hungry for "hundreds" of locations, says its founder, while retaining its back-to-basics intent of farm-to-table beef, local in-season ingredients and other "real-food" approaches to the quick-service concept.

    What's Well-Done: Vegetarian options are usually an afterthought. But the veggie burger here might be the overall standout, no matter which of six preparation styles you choose. (We suggest the "West-Side" with avocado, cilantro, fresh salsa and chipotle purée.) The salads might actually tempt you away from the meatier options, and the kale crush smoothie, a  combo featuring local apple, pear, banana and apple cider, easily convinces us to go green. 

    Why It Sizzles: B.Good eliminates the buyer's remorse that accompanies fast-food burger-buying. And if we can help a locally born business spread a healthier, more sustainable style of business, then that's a big plus on the side. 

    Our One Beef: It's really nothing against B.Good, but sometimes we want our french fries, well, fried. We applaud a business model built on healthy alternatives, but more frequent culinary innovations (besides the "seasonal special") might keep our wandering eyes from being tempted back to the dark side. 

  • The Boisterous Hipster Haven: Charlie's Kitchen

    The Fat-Free Summary: Charlie's is the alt-rock star of Harvard Square, a divelike diner with neon lights and tiled walls, where post-concert throngs gather for post-midnight patties - or, on sunny days, to take advantage of the cool beer garden. 

    What's Well-Done: The Double Guinness burger is made using the Irish stout, and even the fries are beer-battered. The result: intoxicating. We like the heat-seaking Buffalo Burger on a bulkie roll, topped with sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions and bacon. 

    Why It Sizzles: You can't beat the vibe. Charlie's has been around for decades, and there's a palpable air of Harvard Square's storied punk roots, those that predate the area's current glossy, high-sheen incarnation (the eclectic jukebox, itself a local legend, doesn't hurt). Bonus points for eco-friendly initiatives like rooftop solar panels and being open until 2 AM on the weekends.

    Our One Beef: Not really a "beef," but buyer beware: one man's "charming greasy spoon" is another's "just plain greasy." What some call "colorful service" others call "surly." Adjust your expectations to reflect the spot's style and heritage. Otherwise, Shake Shack will probably be more along your lines.

  • The Top-Notch Underdog: Flat Patties

    The Fat-Free Summary: Compared to nearby competitors, Flat Patties is big on value but low on buzz, which only makes its hype-free homemade burgers even more of a pleasant surprise. 

    What's Well-Done: The thin burgers come in many permutations, but we're partial to the chimichurri (also topped with Monterey Jack cheese) and the "Sunday Morning" with fried egg, ham and smoked tomato jam. But honestly, as long as you're not expecting a giant burger (these flat patties aren't designed to bust bellies wide), they're all flavorful and consistently among the best-made in the square.

    Why It Sizzles: Because in a world where everyone's clamoring to be the next big burger king, Flat Patties does what it does really, really well and somewhat under the radar. Also, you can't beat the quality-price combo; you'd never expect a simple, house-sauce-slathered cheeseburger to taste this good for $4.35.

    Our One Beef: It's an issue only a new lease could solve, but Flat Patties gets crowded. Like, really crowded. As good as the burgers are, the tight downstairs counter area and limited seating upstairs sometimes send us elsewhere.