Mr. Bartley’sCambridge, MAPub/Cafe
4.5 Star Cafe (our ratings)
Simply the best burgers, in a pub / cafe setting.
Review by Johnny Monsarrat
Billy Bartley never stops grilling the entire time we speak. The police officer sitting to my left says he’s only seen someone who’s not Bill on the grill just once in 25 years. Intense with energy, Bill looks a little like Michael Keaton, and it’s easy to believe that he’s secretly Batman. “This is a full contact restaurant,” he says. “I’ve got a motor.”. With his back turned toward me and the noise the restaurant, it’s hard to hear him speak. So I ask him to repeat, and after he does, I say, “Oh, I thought you were saying that you’ve got a boner.”
“Now you’re getting my sense of humor!” he replies.
Mr. Bartley’s is an institution, just like Harvard Square, which is where it’s located. There is a lot of activity, even at 4pm, and the decor is homey, with crap on the walls that isn’t generic like what you’d find at TGI Friday’s. The crap, including a real MBTA subway sign, obviously has a history and a personal connection to the people who work here. The place is only adequately lit and comes with a heavily varnished wood interior, giving it a feel like a pub. It seats 60 but I’ve seen it bustling & packed late at night with what must be more. They have outdoor seating during warm weather, as well, but no public restroom (is that legal?).
Billy’s dad founded the resturant in 1960, the year Billy was born. “I worked here a lot as a kid,” he says. “They treated me like veal cow, put me in a corner and put me to work & didn’t feed me much.” Despite some Irish decor, “There’s no Irish theme to the menu, just to me. I’ve got surliness, interrupt everyone, the great Irish qualities, drink too much…”
“… And loyalty,” I suggest. It’s clear from the way he banters with his staff and customers that Billy’s created an inclusive atmosphere, like the place is his family.
“That’s true,” he says. “Customers have made my life. I’d kill for my customers.”
It seems to be working. With all the activity here, they could clearly raise prices above the college student level, but Billy says they’ve decided not to. “It’s definitely a thought, but we have a great relationship with our customers and we want to keep it.”
The menu of course features burgers, but also has salad, appetizers, and soda fountain drinks. The Ezra’s smores frappe, for example, is thick enough to eat with a spoon and comes with whipped cream and a cherry. I found it a little too sweet.
I ask for the best items on the menu, and while I’m waiting for a burger, they serve me the baked macaroni & cheese. “It’s so good that the people who work there aren’t allowed to have it,” one of the staff says, or else it would all be gone. It’s very thick, too dry for me, and the cheese isn’t interesting — not sharp or overly creamy. And it doesn’t come with bread crumbs. This is the meal they’re proudest of? I think, eyeing a giant banner skeptically.
It says, “Voted one of the best burgers in the USA by Wall Street Journal”.
Then the plate comes. All the burgers here have names, and mine is the Jersey Shore, with bacon, cheese, mushrooms. There’s no way to pick up the burger, though, because the plate’s piled so high with toppings and sweet potato fries.
The fries, Billy tells me, are soaked in water overnight to take the starch out, blanched, then fried. They are surprisingly free of grease. Who ever heard of fries without grease? They taste wholesome and thick. The onions are incredibly juicy, not dead like the onions you find on most pub burgers.
Finally I dig down to the burger. Hot damn! This really might be the best burger in America. The 7oz burger comes with a pepper based topping and it’s one of the few New England burgers that it would be a sin to put catsup on.
Perhaps you should stick to the burger part of the menu, but with low prices and a zany atmosphere, it’s a place I have no reservations rating a must-see the next time you’re near Harvard. Although I could not give it as high a rating as a restaurant (about our ratings), it easily earns 4.5 stars in the cafe / pub category.
1246 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA
Monday – Saturday, 11am-9pm