Mt. Auburn Street runs through Harvard Square, where a lot of commerce, tourists, and residents pass through. Stay on Mt. Auburn heading east, and the apartment buildings disappear, replaced by academic buildings and student residences. And then you find The Boathouse, a two-year-old renovation, almost next door to its sister restaurant, Daedalus. Both are owned by brothers Laurence, 44, and Brendan Hopkins, 40, who come from Galway City, Ireland.
The space had a number of lives after a three-decade run of Tommy’s Lunch. (When it closed in 1992, The Harvard Crimson ran an obit that began, “Tommy’s Lunch, of raspberry lime rickey fame, died this week in its home at 49 Mt. Auburn St. It was 34.” The Crimson described the owner’s style “as surly service with a scowl.”)
After Tommy’s, the place changed many times, and finally the Hopkinses, who were already a couple doors down at Daedalus, took over the location with Trata, featuring brick-oven pizza and more. Then two years ago, the brothers renovated the spot into The Boathouse, or what Laurence calls “a casual pub-grill.”
The motif, of course, is boating, with a grand rowing shell hanging from the ceiling, signal flags, a ship’s wheel, and wonderful photos of rowers and other river details. It’s light, friendly, with welcoming flower boxes in big, open windows, a long bar, and high and low tables.
The menu offers many rum drinks (a nod to the nautical theme), craft brews, and items you’d expect, like a good burger ($9.95) on Iggy’s brioche bun, and fish and chips ( $14.95) with fresh haddock fried to a beautiful golden crust with flaky white fish, accompanied by exceptional fries. A savory shepherd’s pie ($13.95) made with ground lamb, and roasted corn tucked in with the carrots and peas, has a smooth topping of buttery mashed potatoes. Sausage and mash ($12.95) is nestled in an onion gravy.
Salmon burger ($12.95) is moist, but seems skimpy in its eggy roll, and calamari ($8.95) tastes like it came to the restaurant already frozen and breaded. The kitchen does have a way with the fryolator because something billed as onion strings ($5.95), which are really plump halved rings, are almost too hot to touch when they get to us and deliciously crisp.
A red beet salad with grilled chicken ($13.95) is piled with uninteresting mesclun greens, fine beets, dry chicken, and predictable toasted walnuts and goat cheese in too much dressing. The Cuban ($10.95), pressed in an Iggy’s baguette (their breads are too chewy and not that good when they’re not pressed) is melty, meaty, cheese-y, and irresistible. A bowl of mussels with chorizo ($10.95) has a lovely broth with a little spicy seasoning from the sausage. Toasted garlic bread is far too pale.
A delicious fudgy brownie with a soft center is topped with Christina’s ice cream and a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce ($5.95).
Your best bets are the fried items. The greens should be just as well made — but aren’t. Little of what we had was seasoned. I mean no salt whatsoever. And while the staff is friendly, they do little things that are not accommodating. One night an Old Fashioned is watered with seltzer and when we ask for another, it’s replaced quickly (but we’re charged for both). Dirty dishes from one course sit and sit on the table and are picked up only when you ask.
The Boathouse does have a place in Harvard Square, which is fast filling up with trendier restaurants. There should be a spot where fish and chips and good craft brews are regulars, and so is the crowd. With a little attention to details, they could get this place shipshape.