Grendel’s DenCambridge, MARestaurant
2.5 Star Restaurant (our ratings)
Showing its age too much, but a good value if you are really tight on cash
Grendel’s Den has a place in history, Kari Kuelzer tells me. No, really! Founded in 1971, the restaurant was banned from serving alcohol by a state law allowing churches to object to the sale of alcohol within 500 feet. A frequent customer of Grendel’s happened to be Laurence Tribe, the Harvard Law School Professor who later became President Obama’s judicial advisor. Mr. Tribe and Kari’s parents fought the law all the way to the US Supreme Court, and won, with an 8-to-1 majority and the opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger. (Mmm…. burger…)
Today, Grendel’s is still there, but the church is gone.
Actually, Grendel’s Den is partly gone too. The upstairs area has closed, and Grendel’s has no association with Upstairs on the Square except sharing the same building. But there is still the basement level bar and pub, and Kari shows me photos of the 1971 interior that closely match its look today.
It looks a little beat. A bar dominates the space, and the brick and wood are adequately lit, a heating unit sticks out into one of the seating areas, and part of the ceiling is covered with wood planks. The floor is tile and wood, and is partly covered with rugs — something that’s unusual for a restaurant, since rugs are hard to clean. This makes me wonder what they’re covering up.
The place feels organic, unplanned. “We don’t overhaul our decor unless we have to,” Kari says. “It’s not out of respect for tradition, just economics.” There are two neon beer signs, as though someone didn’t realize that it knocks the “classy” right out of a restaurant. There are mirrors on the walls, as though someone wanted to make the place look bigger, but didn’t realize that mirrors with round frames just don’t do the job. One of the mirrors has today’s specials written on it.
Still, you can’t beat the outdoor seating in warm weather, next to Winthrop Park, the tiny green space off of JFK Street. Indoors, there are 100 seats including barstools. Old timey jazz plays on the speakers.
So, thanks for liberating our booze from churches in 1983. But what have you done for us lately?
Kari says that the strength of Grendel’s Den is value. You get a high quality, sit-down meal for a lot less money here. And being a former full restaurant, it’s not like they’re merely a bar with aspirations. Kari’s parents managed a few restaurants before opening Grendel’s, and the recipes are time-tested. All ingredients are made in-house.
The eclectic menu has dishes from all over the world. Kari points out to me dishes that are American, Tex-Mex, vegetarian, Mediterranean, and South American, and they’ll have Japanese or Chinese meals occasionally, too. One cuisine they refuse to serve is fried foods. So they serve potato chips instead of french fries. They have fresh fish every day at market prices, sustainably caught or raised.
Is it a better value? Yes. A fancy burger at Grendel’s is $7.50, with potato chips. Nearby Mr. Bartley’s charges $9-$11.50, but you get real french fries. Four Burgers in Central Square charges $7.50, which can rise to $11 with fries and a few toppings. Riverside Pizza has a cheeseburger plate for $6.50 with fries, and Harvard Square’s b.good is $6.29, including fries for $8.50. So the prices don’t seem that different, but to be fair, Grendel’s has $5 lunches every weekday: sandwiches, soups, burgers, and salads, and specials, which undoubtedly undercut the competition. And they have half-price meals practically every day. And you get table service (which none of the places I mentioned have)… but if you’re good hearted, that adds the cost of a tip.
The Nachos Supreme ($8), is a heaping plate of nachos with monterey jack and cheddar cheese, sour cream, chili, guacamole, and salsa. It’s a pile that’s too hard to eat with your fingers, so you should fork through it. It’s above average, very salty chips, smells great, with crunchy onion in the guacamole that makes it interesting, yet the sour cream is ordinary. The chips won’t scrape your mouth.
The Buffalo Wings are good, not greasy, served with celery, but the blue cheese dip is too drippy, again feeling “organic”, like someone is serving it out of rote without realizing that if it’s not viscous, you dip and the sauce flows right off like water. The dip is cooling and a nice offset to the Buffalo sauce, which is ordinary but has just the right level of hotness. The chicken was a little dry.
The Salvadoran Vegetables & Tofu ($8) is a plate of warm vegetables and tofu, served piping hot. I’m not sure if this is by design, but tofu is naturally bland — a subtrate for spices — and the dish is weirdly perfect in being bland as well. The veggies have a hint of crunch, but the noodles are plain. I’m sorry to say that I found it tasteless.
I try a Natural Disaster ($8.50), a turkey burger with Swiss cheese, avocado, and Cajun dressing. Although the presentation is basic, and you should skip the generic potato chips, the burger is delicious, invigorating, and it’s served with a mango chutney that’s really good, sort of a jelly without awkward chunks.
I want so much to like Grendel’s Den. I used to love this place in the late 1980s, but as it is, I’m afraid I don’t understand the appeal. The meals are inexpensive, but not worth going out of one’s way for to save $2-4. Some of the food was interesting, but overall that would not draw me here, either.
Perhaps the saving grace of Grendel’s Den is the space itself. “It’s our mission to have a welcoming atmosphere,” Kari tells me. And I can vouch that it’s friendly. Two strangers from different groups introduced themselves to me — something which hasn’t happened elsewhere. There are no televisions to distract you from the people you’re with. But they don’t hold live music nights here, either.
Overall, with a bar feel and little natural light, maybe Grendel’s Den is too comfortable for me. If I had a pair of jeans with rough spot in the knee, I’d wear them, but would I want to eat dinner off of them? What I’d like to see is for Grendel’s to charge higher prices — I don’t think people would mind — and to put that cash into interior decoration. But maybe that’s just me? In the pub/cafe tier, they would be acceptable, (about our ratings) but I in the restaurant tier, which is where Grendel’s says they want to be, I can only give two and a half stars.
Grendel’s is holding an 40th Anniversary Bash on April 1st, but besides having a few special menu items, I don’t know what the event will be.
89 Winthrop Street, Cambridge MA
Daily 11:30am – 1am