Cambridge's Culinary Culture

Cambridge holds a rich and distinctive culinary history. It gave America ice, the Porterhouse steak, Peking ravioli, its first star chef in Julia Child, and a hankering for Indian food.

This is a survey of 20th century markets, delis, cafeterias, and local institutions, divided into three eras. Some thirty establishments are highlighted for their popularity, longevity, and/or reflection of the times. Longtime residents will notice not every beloved spot is included, as there are simply too many to list, or too little information existing. The 2area's many confectioners, such as NECCO and Squirrel Nut, have been omitted as we are planning to feature these spots in a separate site. Similarly, the abundance of ice cream parlors that once populated Harvard Square, like Brigham's and Herrell's, inspires its own survey. And spas, Cantabridgian for old-time neighborhood convenience stores, have not been included, though a few like Montrose Spa continue to operate.

This sampling essentially gives a local snapshot of food culture progressing from fresh and local, meeting the melting pot, mass production, global capitalism, women's equality, a growing health consciousness, New American cuisine, and then slowly heading back to the farm.

Setting the Culinary Stage

The 19th c. saw Cambridge's Fresh Pond Ice Company at the forefront of the world ice harvesting industry, helping lay the foundation for the culinary culture to come. Their ice was widely used in households and restaurants for preservation of perishable goods, a1nd in new delicious beverages called cocktails. Cambridge's Acme Ice (since 1952) is one of the few operating Cambridge ice suppliers today.

19th c. Porter Square was a major thoroughfare of the area's thriving cattle industry, and its Porter Hotel housed and fed the public. Variously known as the Porter House, this is where the oversized, tenderloin-rich T-bone steak called a Porterhouse got its name. Frank's, the oldest-operating steak house in Boston, was to be born in the same, though quite changed, neighborhood generations later.

Early 20th c. Cambridge saw immigrants carving out a living through provincial culinary traditions in delis and markets, such as in the oldest continually-operating restaurant in Cambridge, the S & S Deli. It also saw luncheon counters, sandwich shops, and communal eateries open all hours servicing factory workers and students. Unless worldly hotel dining could be afforded, as at Harvard Square's Commander Hotel, home cooking was generally what one did. Prohibition and the Depression brought a taste for thrift, WWII a desire for escapism and a new curiosity for exotic flavors, and the Baby Boom era a desire for ease and shortcuts. It wasn't until the 1960s when Julia Child, followed closely by Joyce Chen and the Design Research store, stirred up a new American culinary consciousness. This new inspiration for embracing multiethnic cuisine and classic techniques, followed by the "local and seasonal" influence of figures like Alice Waters (on the west coast), helped shape Boston's culinary revolution from downtown hotels to the kitchen of Cambridge's Harvest to the ice cream of Toscanini's.


The author is a freelance writer and artist who takes great delight in food and drink, as well as cultural Americana. She has worked as a server for Cambridge's Blue Room, Harvest, Salamander (now Le Cordon Bleu), East Coast Grill, 1369, and Daddy-O's (now Oleana), and has had the pleasure of serving both Julia Child and Alice Waters.