Tommy Doyle’s Cambridge, MA Pub/Cafe
4-Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
A real community home with good food in an upscale (Kendall) or overly worn (Harvard) environment.
Tommy Doyle’s is haunted. At least, that’s what Garrett Tingle tells me, the group general manager of the Harvard Square location, a free-standing building that was formerly the ancient “Hyde-Taylor House”, once a schoolhouse, once a private home, and once the seat of the House of Blues.
Garrett’s a third-generation Cantabrigian, and despite his humbly covering it up with a long-sleeved shirt, clearly has the arms to bench press a car. He’s been working in restaurants since he was 18, and got a job working the bar at Tommy Doyle’s, choosing the place (but owners Alan O’Sullivan & Peter Woodman did not know him) because it was his mother’s trivia place and she was their favorite customer.
“So, how is this place haunted?” I ask.
“No matter what big event we have,” he says, “something in this building will shut down inexplicably, but then will come up with no notice.” And his staff late at night have definitely had sightings of figures, especially downstairs: strange noises and lights going on and off. I wonder if they might want to have NSTAR check their electrical transformer. But who knows? Maybe Sam Adams is keeping an eye on his beer.
Tommy Doyle’s has other locations: in Kendall Square, Cambridge, in Hyannis on Cape Cod, and in Newton (which has a separate website for some reason).
Harvard Square has a diverse crowd of students, professionals, “locals”, and tourists, and Garrett is proud that despite the Irish theme of the pub, he gets all types. “You can’t pigeon hole us,” he says. He points out the small crowd behind us on the 2nd floor watching an international soccer game on a projection TV screen. “And just the other day we did Latin Night for the Harvard Mexico Club,” he says. “Last week, the President of Belgium came here, and we had a 21st birthday party.”
Garrett tells me that it’s very important to him for Tommy Doyle’s to be involved with the community, and from his good-natured demeanor, I believe it. They raise money for local groups, doing for example a Mothers Day 5K Race that begins and ends at one of the Tommy Doyle’s branches. They give the space away free and offer a portion of bar sales to the charity. They host live music 5 nights a week, but the bar has three levels, so noise is not that big a problem, and you can still have a quiet conversation if you choose the right seat.
Inside, the pub’s walls are a dirty yellow color and the brown wood and earth tones we expect from an Irish pub abound. The place has low lighting that leads to privacy and an interior that with kindness I could call “comfortable”. But I can’t help but notice the beer placeholders, the thick wooden tables marked from use, and rips in the couch we’re sitting on, snug in a corner where a group of 6 could be seated. Televisions line the walls and only some of the old-timey photos stuck everywhere (even on the ceiling) are real. There’s even a touch of grafiti on the wall by my seat, where from the grease stains I would guess that nobody’s scrubbed there in some time.
I suggest that Garrett doesn’t lack refinement, but that the lived-in theme is a deliberate design that adds character, and he agrees. His customers like Tommy Doyle’s to resemble a lived-in home more than an overly-crisp corporate decor like at Quizno’s. I’m pleased to find, however, elegant touches like catsup that comes served on the side rather than in a Heinz bottle, drizzle over many of the plates (see the photos), and each table has a small vase of flowers.
While their Irish stew and Shepard’s stew are authentic, just like the home country, Tommy Doyle’s works hard at being inclusive and is far from pretentious about cuisine. Karaoke night is Wednesday, and their executive chef is a non-Irishman, because “people who are passionate about what we do here” is more important than ethnic loyalty. The chef, Estuart Rojas, has a fantastic Latin moustache. He comes out to say hello and sits for a chat while Garrett attends to other business. After schooling at the Chicago Culinary Institute, Estuart worked at Boston’s Top of the Hub restaurant in the Prudential Center and brings some of that fancy panache to Tommy Doyle’s. His top-selling dish is fish & chips, and among his talents is stuffing a reuben sandwich into a chicken. I didn’t even know that was possible.
He has several dishes brought out to me — I’ll end up with leftovers for a week! Although the prices aren’t discounted, they meals come as large portions, and they come on simple white plates, the same presentation style as the Top of the Hub. Tommy Doyle’s makes everything in house, even their own sauces. Estuart is funny because he sits staring at me while I eat, as though trying to read my mind with each bite. But his attention is also partly on the game. When the crowd roars, and he thinks I’m distracted writing a note, he can help but peek over his shoulder to the televisions above the bar. But then I have his attention again. “So what do you think?” he asks.
I think that the staff here at Tommy Doyle’s means business. They’re clearly determined to make this the best place it can be. I’m very impressed by their earnestness. I spend a lot of time on people in my reviews because I find time and time again that good people create good food, service, and atmosphere. So my hopes are high. Let’s eat!
The Coleannon Cakes (2 for $8) is an appetizer, “seared potato cakes with scallions, cabbage, and garlic butter”. They are absolutely smooth, a soft mashed potato with a pure mouth feel, and come breaded and possibly fried. Although they come with cheese that might stop your heart, but they are hearty, not greasy. And they’re topped with a delicious salad with hot peppers that has no need for dressing.
The Reuben-Stuffed Chicken ($14) is “chicken breast stuffed with corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut. Served with a curry sauce, mashed potatoes, and Irish-style sauteed cabbage.” That curry smell is potent even before I read the ingredients on the menu, and I love boiled cabbage… um, sauteed cabbage… and it comes braised with chicken stock. The chicken and corned beef are solid, and have a real meat bite to them, but the chicken was slightly rubbery and may have been underdone. Unfortunately, with 8 dishes to sample, I let this one sit and the potato became cold. I can easily see a customer letting a dish sit for a while, busy in conversation with friends. I wonder if Tommy Doyle’s heats their plates.
The Hill 16 Burger ($11) comes “topped with Irish bacon and cheddar cheese.” The fries were limp and greasy, but I enjoyed the burger. What I mean is that I enjoyed the meat, which came juicy and spicy and didn’t need the toppings, which were uninteresting and seemed plopped on — the bacon was sort of a ham — as was the bun. Of course, I understand. Estuart tells me that me that upscale rolls are very expensive and go bad in 24 hours. Unfortunately, I found the cheese uninteresting, too.
The Stuffed Pork Tenderloin ($15) is “packed with sundried tomatoes, spinach, and Provolone cheese, served with a port glaze, mashed sweet potatoes, and haricot verts.” (Haricot verts? It sounds like somebody fell asleep at the keyboard at the end there, or maybe they patrons won’t read that far in.) Now this is more like it! The pork is pure, it really is the other white meat, with a chewy center and the sundried tomatoes chew a bit like cranberries. The sweet potatoes are a nice touch.
The Ribeye steak ($15) is not a menu item but a special, “grilled to temperature, topped with a red wine demi glaze with creamy fingerling potatoes and grilled asparagus.” It’s really tender, in a delicious sauce, a wine demiglaze, that’s really good. The asparagus doesn’t become stringy and has a good crunch. It’s an interesting presentation because the wine glaze comes on top of the meat, and then below that is a spicy cream sauce, with potatoes on the bottom.
The Shrimp & Spinach Stuffed Ravioli ($15), is “raviloi stuffed with spinach, garlic, and peppers, sauteed with shrimp and Spanish olives in a light cream sauce.” This one’s my favorite so far, with layers to the creaminess and a sweet but not overpowering cream sauce. Every spoonful is slightly different and it’s a real treat to get a seafood dish at an Irish pub.
The Slow-Roasted Lamb Shank ($17) comes “in a red wine demi glaze with mashed potatoes and haricot verts.” More haricot verts. I’m going to have to come up speed on these verts, obviously. Apparently it’s French for green beans. Oh! I like green beans. Holey moley. Now this is a big chunk of lamb, with a bone right through it! It breaks apart in your mouth and you just want to savor the meat, and it comes with the most ‘alcohol’ tasting of the wine sauces I tried.
The Statler Chicken ($14) is another special off the menu, “pan seared with herbs and topped with a Madeira glaze with roasted red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach.” It’s got a fantastic smell and exceptionally moist chicken. This is my new favorite, the only meal at Tommy Doyle’s that got me to “Wow!” The spinach is really flavorful and the russet potatoes are just right consistency, not crunchy but not soft.
This review makes me think of my review of the Rosebud Diner. The food was okay but the owners bragged in a way that said they were either arrogant or clueless (I chose clueless). I get the opposite feel from Tommy Doyle’s. Although only one meal wowed me, they have some great items and I can tell from the earnestness of the chef and manager that they really care. So they get points for that. I don’t doubt that they have great customer service, they love to build community, and they are eager for feedback — even when there’s a big soccer match on TV.
That being said, Tommy Doyle’s definitely goes in my pub/cafe tier rather than a restaurant tier. I knocked them from 4 stars to 3.5 stars for the worn appearance of the place and the mild smell in the basement bathroom, which is covered with grafiti. It’s clean, but there’s only so much you can do when (as I confirmed with one of the servers) people vomit there twice a week. Still, I know from experience that the Kendall Square location is more upscale, so I am pleased to give Tommy Doyle’s a well deserved 4 stars in Kendall Square and 3.5 stars in Harvard Square. Think of it like this. So many pubs (notably nearby Grendel’s Den) claim to create a community and Tommy Doyle’s really outperforms there, with plenty of out-of-the-way niches. If you want a restaurant, fine, go to a restaurant. If you want an overperforming pub to become a regular at, Tommy Doyle’s is a solid choice.
96 Winthrop St, Cambridge, MA
1 Kendall Sq #100, Cambridge, MA