Pour one out for another Harvard Square institution: John Harvard’s Ale House will serve its last pint on May 30, after more than 25 years on Dunster Street.
Located in the basement of the Garage Mall building, John Harvard’s debuted in Cambridge in 1992. Spacious, yet cozy with a Colonial tavern vibe, it’s long been a popular spot for Harvard professors, grad students, families, and other Cambridge types, thanks to an affordable menu and ample private-dining options. The on-site brewhouse produced a range of beers to complement the full bar until late 2015. For the past few years, John Harvard’s has served a lineup of local craft beers from the likes of Wormtown and Castle Island.
There are other John Harvard’s Brewery locations in Framingham and Providence (where it brands itself as Union Station Brewery), and it has franchise locations at ski mountains Holiday Valley in New York and Jiminy Peak in western Massachusetts. In 2010, international hospitality company Centerplate took over corporate operations of John Harvard’s. The Framingham, Providence, and ski resort locations are not affected by Cambridge’s closing.
Centerplate led a substantial renovation of the Harvard Square pub in 2012, which revealed the basement location’s original brick walls, stonework, and wood pilings, as well as a set of decorative stained glass windows depicting Bobby Orr, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Joe Namath, and Humphrey Bogart as saints. The pub modernized at that time with an updated sound system and an elevated stage for hosting live music and later, comedy.
John Harvard’s has long been a spot to catch any and every game, thanks to a dozen TVs throughout the space. Following the 2012 renovation, the restaurant also stepped up its food game with menu items like flatbread pizzas made with spent-grain dough, and more seafood specials.
For its first couple decades, John Harvard’s—Cambridge’s second brewpub—was a beer innovator thanks to the leadership of head brewers like Walker Modic, now the environmental and social sustainability manager for Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, and Jason Taggart, cofounder of Democracy Brewing in Downtown Crossing. Alongside house classics like Brattle Blonde Ale and Dunster Pale Ale, rotating drafts poured creamy milk stouts, kettle-soured saisons, juicy double IPA hop bombs, and more.
Mounting maintenance issues contributed to the decision to stop brewing in-house in Cambridge, general manager Ashley Tart McGuire told Boston at the time. This morning, McGuire directed requests for comment to Trinity Property Management, Inc. and Centerplate.
On Tuesday afternoon, a Centerplate spokesperson confirmed the Cambridge closure. “After nearly 30 years in Harvard Square, John Harvard’s Brew House has decided to close its doors permanently. It has been a honor and pleasure being part of the Harvard Square community and we are grateful to everyone in the community for supporting us over this period of time.”
John Harvard’s closing seems like another harbinger of big changes in Harvard Square, which has said goodbye to landmarks like Rialto restaurant, Crema Café, and other local character-filled establishments in recent years. But according to Denise Jillson, the executive director of the local business association, it signifies nothing more than the pub’s time to go.
“Given they have spent [nearly] 30 years here, that’s a long run for a restaurant,” she says. “It’s always sad to see a longtime favorite leave, but it wasn’t unexpected. If you popped in there over the past couple years, the numbers of people enjoying the restaurant were dwindling.”
That’s in part because of all the new businesses in the neighborhood, she says, and even on Dunster Street. John Harvard’s is across the street from the full-service Saloniki meze bar inside Harvard’s renovated Smith Center, and a neighboring restaurant space has been the Hourly Oyster House since 2016.
Much more change is looming: Three prominent buildings in the heart of the square are under new ownership and slated for development, which contributed to the closure of Tealuxe, and recent news that the world’s only Curious George Store is moving to Central Square. It remains to be seen what new dining and shopping options are headed for this new development, Jillson says, but “the soul of Harvard Square belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to the buildings. The people create the character and the vibe, and the people are the ones who ultimately make the decision about who will succeed,” she says. Her organization keeps a close eye on the mix of retail in Harvard Square, and she says 70 percent of its businesses are locally owned.
Jillson is also optimistic that the Garage’s property manager, Trinity, is working to bring something new to the basement pub. Stay tuned for news there.
In the meantime, nostalgic beer fans have about two weeks to pay respects to the original John Harvard’s. It’s business as usual until it closes after service on Thursday, May 30.
John Harvard’s Brewery & Ale House, 33 Dunster St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-868-3585, johnharvards.com.
Editor’s note: The author of this post is a former John Harvard’s Cambridge employee.
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