When we first heard of the Beat Hotel, we thought how could they fit yet another hotel in Harvard Square? When we found out it was actually a restaurant/music room, we thought, OK, there’s a lot of those, too, but why is it called a hotel?
What we learned was this: The Beat Hotel was a mid-century fleabag hotel in Paris’ Latin Quarter, a squat frequented by artists, musicians and bohemian types like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The Beat Hotel in Harvard Square is not a fleabag in any way (nor a hotel, of course) and though we can’t guarantee you’ll be sharing a spot at the bar with a modern-day Burroughs or Ginsberg, we can say you’re likely to experience an evening where sumptuous food, live music and top-notch servers combine to make for a very satisfying – dare we say, enriching – night out. The Beat Hotel engages more senses than just your taste buds.
When we visited, the doorman outside at street level greeted us with a big “Hi, friend!” (He does this to everyone; we’re not super special.) My, that was nice. But being a wary Bostonian, we’re not used to such upfront cheeriness – this isn’t New Orleans, y’know – and, frankly, forced or corporately encouraged cheer depresses me or drives me crazy. But here’s the thing — and this carried through our dining and post-dinner drinks experience – the staff is engaging, witty, genuinely warm and outgoing. Got a question about your wine choice? They’ll sit down with you and help you select. Wanna take your time ordering before or lingering after? No problem. You don’t feel like you’re being rushed through anything so the table can be turned.
As you descend the warehouse-sized space, you’ll find a long, dazzling bar to the right. Diners can be ensconced in either booths or tables to the left where there’s a white brick wall. The décor: Late ‘60s flower power meets bohemian chic. Dazzling splashes of color everywhere. Psychedelic columns out of a Peter Max dream.
All roads lead to the stage, and the night we went it was Sunday Big Band jazz night so there were up to 17 musicians in the Brian Thomas Big Band with Alan Lee Clark , with trombonist Thomas and company jamming and jazzing away, swapping leads, soloing, stepping back. They call it “progressive big band jazz” and that fits. His mate, trumpeter Clark has stints with the Temptations and Four Tops on his resume. The Thomas & Clark group alternates on Sunday with the Greg Hopkins Big Band. (There’s Celtic, blues and funk and solo jazz on other nights; you’ll want to go to their website to check on the night you’re planning to go. The range in music parallels the variety in the cuisine.)
Music and dinner is a delicate mix. Too soft and it’s pure background (which is OK, of course but … ) and too loud and you’re overwhelmed and unable to talk with friends. The Thomas & Clark Band was on the louder side of the divide but not too loud – and they were real good, too. Sizzling licks, sizzling food. Tasty. And the between-set music was pretty cool too – we caught a bittersweet, downtempo trip-hop version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black” by Sixth Finger on the sound system.
You can consider the 360-capacity Beat Hotel a sibling to the South End’s Beehive, as they share co-owners Jark Bardy and Bertil Jean-Chronberg. Environment is important to these guys.
Food. You want eclectic? You got it. The menu’s a crazy quilt of French, Italian, Mexican and steak-house cuisines – fusion food to the max. They have three highlighted Big Bowl” entrees – Azteca, Earth and Thai, each with either blackened shrimp, free range chicken, skirt steak, and Faroe Island salmon. (Of course, you can go vegan – Beat Hotel is a good spot for carnivores and vegans.) I went for the Azteca steak bowl and my senses were working overtime, enjoying the yummy mix of meat, adobo-spiced quinoa, tomatillo salad, corn, squash, green beans, avocado and spinach. My wife went for the Local Sea Scallops –“tender and moist,” she reported, happily- with grilled oyster mushrooms, raddichio and parsnip purse. Desert was a cool and palette cleansing sorbet and our charming host topped it off with champagne.
There’s a couple of dozen wines on tap – they’re hoping to put proseco in soon – as well as the usual surfeit of craft beers and cocktails. (Yes, I went for a Ketal One martini – creature of habit – and it was perfectly mixed and chilled.)
If you’ve lived in these parts a while, you have a Harvard Square history. I got here in late ’78 and lived nearby in Somerville (pre-chic Somerville, I must add.) And, yes, I think of the mix of shops, clubs (The Idler, Jonathan Swift’s) and restaurants (Wursthaus, 33 Dunster St.) as being pretty special back then and (harrumph) it’s been downhill ever since, with chains and the like. But the people who were here before me thought the Square had gone to shite at the time I was discovering and relishing it. Everything is relative. And times are better now than they’ve been of late. We go to the A.R.T and the Sinclair a fair amount and if we want to grab a pre or post show bite, we haven’t been real crazy about the choices since Upstairs on the Square shut down. Beat Hotel changes the equation. It’s a great place to stop if you’ve got other pleasure palaces to hit and it’s a destination spot on its own.
Night owl alert: These guys serve food Friday and Saturday til 1 AM and Sunday-Wednesday til midnight. (They’re open an hour later for bar service.) Jazz brunch, Saturday and Sunday til 3.
13 Brattle Street, Cambridge, 617-499-0001 www.beathotel.com