Darwin’s, Ltd. Cambridge, MA Pub/Cafe
2.5-Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
A blast from the past that seems to have stopped evolving.
Having just done a review of Life Alive, the new feel-good, health food cafe in Central Square, I was energized to do a review of Darwin’s Ltd. Of course the name evokes Charles Darwin, who discovered evolution, and gives the place a feel-good cachet, as though over time humankind will both understand nature and live in harmony with it. Steve Darwin, who founded Darwin’s Ltd in 1993, is even a descendant of a cousin of Charles Darwin, just like all of the famous scientist’s own children. (That is an in-joke for you naturalists.)
So I was pretty pumped up to meet manager Mike McCullagh. Darwin’s Ltd has two locations, on either side of Harvard Square. As well as being a sandwich shop and bakery, it is also a coffeehouse and grocery store that sells beer, wine, and produce. It makes for a colorful but ecletic interior. There are racks of goods in every direction and, with two supporting beams near the cash register, I can see that the queue to order sandwiches must create a traffic jam inside the store. In-between the two counters on either end of the store is a middle area with some limited seating. Although the staff can pick the music — that can be dangerous — the music that plays on speakers isn’t loud and happened to be light rock and country when I visited.
Mike tells me with pride that they get their bread fresh every morning from Nashoba Brook Bakery, and that they are always sampling different meat providers and trying to find the best ingredients for their sandwiches.
Why does Cambridge need a destination like this? I ask. There are plenty of alternatives, after all.
Mike doesn’t really have an answer, but says, “We have neighborhood tenure now,” meaning that a community has formed around Darwin’s Ltd that keeps it going. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see much community. In the common space, each person sitting is hunched over a laptop, ignoring the others around them. Even at 4pm, the down time of the day, turnover is limited.
I ask Mike about the Starbucks Effect, where people take advantage of the space to squat for too long, making it hard for newcomers to find a seat. He says that there’s nothing they can do about people who abuse the space. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Darwin’s Ltd had a policy against bugging loiterers (although I would prefer it, such a thing can backfire, socially), but I am surprised to hear that Mike doesn’t know he has the right to ask them to leave. Any private establishment can ask anyone to leave for any reason at any time, and sometimes should.
I manage to get a bench seat (no table) and try a few of Mike’s favorite sandwiches.
The Mount Auburn ($7.60), “smoked turkey, avocado, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and vinaigrette” has bread that’s good-tasting, but falls in-between soft and hard. So with a thick sandwich like this it’s definitely a chew to get through it and it tends to fall apart in your hands, partly because it’s overly moist. The avocado was a nice surprise but the sandwich had too much mayo. Mayonnaise adds a creamy, smooth mouth feel. Avocado also adds a creamy, smooth mouth feel. I would have hoped for something spicy to offset this. The turkey is thinly sliced deli meat. As i said in my review of Finale, this choice always surprises me. Turkey sliced thin, especially if it comes from a “loaf” of processed turkey bits, can be slimy and too flimsy to bite into. The Mount Auburn sandwich is okay but not impressive.
The A.R.C. ($7.60), is “hot roast beef, cheddar, bar-b-que sauce, lettuce and tomato”. It’s served warm, and the bread is cut thinner, and it is really good bread, interesting and fresh. I expect a BBQ sandwich to have a strong smell, but it was bland, and like the Mount Auburn, I found it too moist, chaotic rather than thematic, and hard to eat without making a mess.
My favorite sandwich was The Hubbard Park ($6.85), which is “hummus, avocado, apple, carrots, tomato, sprouts & honey mustard”. Imagine that, me choosing the vegetarian sandwich first! (I love meat.) It tastes wholesome and pure, invigorating, and the apple and hummus combination really offset each other, while the sprouts add a healthy mouth feel. Unlike the other sandwiches I tried, it seemed a designed offering rather than a heap of ingredients.
I also sample the Florentine Cookie, a very thin wafer with bubbles of goodness, textured like a peanut brittle but very much with a carbohydrate body, covered on one side by a thin coat of chocolate. (Unfortunately, one cookie does not allow me to say anything broadly about their bakery items, but it was good.)
At this point I am struggling to love Darwin’s Ltd the way I wanted to when I arrived. The sandwiches are fine but unexceptional. What about, as Mike suggested, the community?
I used my position as a journalist as an excuse to introduce myself to some of the laptop people. They confessed to having been seated for 40 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 hours, 40 minutes, and 4 hours respectively. Four hours! The gentleman in question told me that he loves to hang out at Darwin’s Ltd because there are so many power outlets, and during this time he spent $9.50.
Others tell me: “I enjoy the ambiance, it’s not a chain”, and “It’s a good escape from the hustle of Harvard”. While nobody blew me off, one woman offered to write reviews for Events INSIDER, and while we spoke (a mini-interview), she wouldn’t stop looking at her laptop. I mentioned this to her and she became angry, insisting that putting her attention elsewhere while someone speaks to her is perfect etiquette. I suggested she get a second opinion and she terminated her own interview with a dismissive, “Bye”. Well, well.
One should not overly generalize, but I get the impression that the customers at Darwin’s Ltd do not form a Merry Band of Brothers who laugh together, cry together, and, when seated alone at a two-person table, offer the empty chair to newcomers.
As one man who is a regular tells me, “It’s like that quote from Cheers.”
I say, “You mean, you want to go where everybody knows your name?”
He replies, “Oh, that’s not it. Nobody knows my name here. I mean it’s comfortable, unpretentious.”
So, I’m not sure what to tell you about Darwin’s Ltd. Some reviewers seem to write for the ego trip of shooting others down. That is not my style. I support local businesses and would love nothing more than for everyone to give Darwin’s Ltd a try. But I cannot find an angle from which to recommend it over the alternatives in Harvard Square that I also want you to give a try, like bgood and Mr. Bartley’s and Finale, all of which do great sandwiches in their respective tiers (fast food, pub, and restaurant).
So what is the mystery behind Darwin’s Ltd? They seem to be popular with their existing community. What am I missing?
I suspect that, like Grendel’s Den, the place may be skating, living off their existing goodwill and the people with too much inertia to go elsewhere, rather than growing and changing creatively to attract more customers. The shop is unsettlingly cluttered with signage and goods without any theme or design. The sandwiches seem thrown together without care (nobody’s noticed the too-much-mayo problem, or that the BBQ sauce isn’t spicy?).
Symbolic of the problem is the takeout menu. It’s a single-sided, unfolded photocopy onto white paper, with a computer logo that’s been resized so many times that it’s become ugly and pixelated. In my opinion, the menu should be laid out carefully, double-sided, and professionally printed — which in bulk is cheaper than photocopying. This would add both a touch of class and (by having more room to list items) would encourage sales in-house, by delivery, and through catering. With its limited seating, Darwin’s Ltd is very much a takeout place. They should have an excellent takeout menu.
So… Darwin’s Ltd starts with a great concept, and I like the small mural with the monkey. The name Darwin makes you feel good about nature and want to Save the Planet. I get all that. But based on their execution of this concept, I must give Darwin an underaverage rating in our Pub/Cafe tier.
148 Mt Auburn St, Cambridge MA
1629 Cambridge St, Cambridge MA