CAMBRIDGE — Harvard Square, not known in recent years for its vibrant night life, is getting its groove back.
Just opened on Brattle Street is Beat Hotel, a subterranean restaurant-bar-nightclub run by the owners of the Beehive, the hip South End brasserie and club. The Sinclair, a 500-seat concert venue and restaurant on Church Street, has been booking hot musical acts like the 1975 and Earl Sweatshirt since December. Over on JFK Street, Tasty Burger feeds hungry students and clubgoers until 4 a.m.
And there are other buzzy openings on the horizon: Shake Shack, coming in December, will have a full liquor license and serve customers until 1 a.m., while chef-owner Michael Scelfo will unveil his new restaurant Alden & Harlow this fall, downstairs from the Brattle Theatre.
What’s happening, according to many involved in this nocturnal transformation, is not a sudden convergence of like-minded business owners.
Rather, it’s the fruition of a long-term effort to address two widely held perceptions about Harvard Square: that it was lacking in night life options, and that it had, in the eyes of some, become a sprawling, ivy-accented mall, dominated by chain stores and banks.
“There’s perception, and then there’s reality,” says Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, an umbrella organization representing 256 local businesses. “The reality is, the square’s makeup hasn’t really changed much.”
Indeed, according to the business association’s surveys, the percentage of independently owned businesses in the square — defined as privately owned businesses that operate primarily in Middlesex or Suffolk counties and have 12 or fewer locations — has remained fairly constant in recent years, rising only slightly from about 71 percent in 2002 to around 75 percent today.
However, attracting establishments like Beat Hotel and the Sinclair is what business owners wanted when they were surveyed in 2006 about ways to improve the quality of life — and commerce — in and around Harvard Square, Jillson said.
That report identified 15 priorities, including making the night life scene more vibrant, with more live music venues and more restaurants staying open past 10 p.m. It also called for a review by the Cambridge License Commission of its cap on liquor licenses and of policies governing outdoor and late-night dining.
Jillson keeps a coffee-stained copy of the report on her desk, calling it her “road map.” She recalls at the time there were worries Harvard Square was losing its late-night cachet with both tourists and locals. Along Brattle Street, for instance, there was no outdoor dining or live music to be heard (other than street performers). The whole area “looked beaten up from usage,” as one business association member recently put it.
The House of Blues, a popular rock and blues club, closed in 2003 after 11 years in the square, having outgrown its original 180-person-capacity space. A newer, much larger version opened in Boston on Lansdowne Street in 2009.
The current turnaround, sudden or not, almost seems inevitable now, according to Beat Hotel co-owner Jack Bardy, who had been eyeing a Harvard Square location for years. “It’s a magical, magical place,” says Bardy, “the real center point for Cambridge.”
Beat Hotel, he says, with its supercool, whitewashed-brick-and-psychedelic-colored interior, aims to attract a mix of tourists, Harvard VIPs, tech company workers, and locals who have been dining out or going to hear music elsewhere. Besides food and cocktails, it serves up jazz and blues performances on a small stage and stays open until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Alden & Harlow’s Michael Scelfo, who came to the square five years ago to run the kitchen at Russell House Tavern, echoes Bardy’s view.
“On some level, the late-night energy has always been here,” Scelfo says. “But now more independent owners are coming in with a fresh perspective on entertainment and hospitality, a more personal vibe.”
Scelfo and others credit Jillson’s organization with getting the ball rolling. Improvements in lighting, safety, and general cleanup have helped. Since the late ’90s the city, state, and Harvard University together have put $9 million into infrastructure upgrades, from lampposts and sidewalks to signs and street crossings.
More recently, attractions like free outdoor concerts, free Wi-Fi throughout the square, and looser restrictions on serving alcoholic beverages outdoors have helped bring the buzz back.
Beer and wine licenses have become more plentiful and more affordable, a boon to smaller establishments that cannot afford to pay six-figure fees. In 1986, the License Commission created a new class of no-value, nontransferable licenses allowing beer and wine sales only. In 2008, at the recommendation of a city task force, the cap on such licenses was loosened, making it easier for smaller businesses to obtain one, provided they could demonstrate need and had the approval of their neighbors. Approximately 20 such licenses have been issued citywide since on a year-to-year basis, according to the business association.
“Cambridge is certainly a world-class city, and public officials saw a need and responded to it,” says Elizabeth Lint, head of the License Commission.
Business association president John DiGiovanni, who played a key role in bringing in businesses such as the Sinclair and Tasty Burger, is gratified to see the square more alive after dark. DiGiovanni, president of Trinity Property Management, a major commercial real estate owner in Harvard Square, owns many of the buildings where the new mix of businesses is finding a home.
“Peoples’ perceptions are in the eyes of the beholder, but it’s fair to say that some of the establishments offering live entertainment had left,” DiGiovanni acknowledged in an interview at the business association’s Brattle Street offices. “One of my goals for the square was to bring in enterprises with a live entertainment component.”
Live music venues such as Club Passim and Regattabar, which attract folk and jazz fans but not necessarily younger followers of indie rock or hip-hop, have been around for years, he noted. Meanwhile, Central Square has been better known for its rock clubs, bars, and late-night eats. And yet Harvard Square has traditionally drawn people of all ages and all tastes.
Hence the desirability of a venue like the Sinclair, which DiGiovanni brought into a soaring space once occupied by the Atrium Cafe. Tasty Burger, housed on the ground floor of the Trinity-owned Garage building, could have been a bank instead, notes DiGiovanni, but he preferred a different kind of tenant.
Josh Bhatti, who runs the Boston office of the Bowery Presents, a New York-based booking company, calls DiGiovanni “a champion” of the square’s revitalization.
“He gets what we do and wanted to see this happen,” says Bhatti of the Sinclair’s decision to move into Harvard Square. “A big national real estate company might not have.”
Folk musician and author Scott Alarik, a longtime observer of local night life and emcee of a recent Harvard Square folk-music festival, sees several factors behind the current revival. Among them: the square’s rich cultural heritage, the arrival of a new generation of independent-minded music lovers, and a visitor-friendly geography more welcoming than ever these days.
“When you have numerous venues in one area and it gets a reputation for its night life, a bigger pie is created,” says Alarik. “So many who live within walking distance of the square tend to be night life people. For years, for whatever reason, they didn’t have many places to go. Now they do.”