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Memories of Border Cafe come flooding in as word spreads that it has closed for good

‘The whole notion of them being gone is disorienting,’ mourns one Cambridge regular. So many others seem to feel the same.

Firefighters responded to a fire at the Border Cafe in Cambridge on Dec. 1. 2019. That fire was the start of the restaurant's troubles. Then COVID hit.
Firefighters responded to a fire at the Border Cafe in Cambridge on Dec. 1. 2019. That fire was the start of the restaurant's troubles. Then COVID hit.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

When the news broke on Wednesday that the Border Cafe in Harvard Square would not reopen due to the pandemic, we felt we’d both been sucker-punched. The Tex-Mex joint, whose lines always snaked out into the street, had closed in 2019 after a fire. Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, confirmed the shutdown on Thursday.

We never had a chance to say goodbye.

Quickly, the tequila-soaked memories from the past three decades came flooding back.

Back in my junior year of college, the boy that I (Janelle) had been crushing on for years finally asked me out. Being my impatient self, I waited three days before calling him up and saying: How about that date?

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“You wanna go to Cambridge?” he said. I swooned. How enlightened.

We took the 86 bus, and inevitably, ended up at the Border Cafe.

I ordered a massive stuffed Burro. He got fajitas. We nervously noshed on chips and guac and I desperately tried not to spill salsa on my white tube top and cardigan (I know). Then we began telling stories: Scenes from his semester abroad, memories from my volunteer trip. Somehow, amid the din of the restaurant’s margarita-soaked chaos, it still felt intimate. Like we knew this basement table covered in a sticky oilcloth would be a place we’d always come back to.

After dinner, we walked to the Charles River, found a bench, and had our first kiss. Today he’s my husband.

I (Kara) also met my husband during junior year of college. I fancied myself a city girl from the mean streets of Acton; in fairness, my husband is from Western Massachusetts, so compared with him, I was basically raised in Times Square. Early in our courtship, we took one another on personal field trips. He showed me his family’s cottage in the Berkshires, and, well, I introduced him to the Border Cafe.

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We traveled from our Pioneer Valley colleges down Route 2 into the big city. Somehow we managed to find a parallel spot on Church Street. I ushered my wide-eyed, rural beau into a jam-packed restaurant that reeked of tequila, salt, fry grease, and Calvin Klein perfume. I ordered mango salsa (an off-menu item, if I recall; I was very proud); he had fajitas. Over guacamole and those hot, crispy chips, I spun tales of Edie Sedgwick and the Harvard Coop. I felt very bohemian and sophisticated.

Our stories are two of many.

“My husband and I went to Border Cafe in 1999 for our very first date, during which he promptly asked me if I wanted to have kids (dude, it’s our very first date!!),” Melissa Sullivan recalled. “Twenty years later, we took our three kids there and grossed them out with our love story!”

“My wife and I had our first date there, too. Seafood enchiladas and Coke. Closed the place down,” Kevin Knight recalled. “Now we’ve got 3 kids.”

Among the most devastating aspects of the pandemic is not just the fact that our beloved restaurants are closing. It’s the sense that we’re losing a piece of our history. And let’s be honest, the Border Cafe has plenty of history. Within hours of the news, an outpouring of memories seeped out on social media.

“My post college BF lived nearby, we *always* went there, even though my mom owned a real Mexican food restaurant,” wrote Bessie King, whose family owns Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston. “He loved the jerk chicken, I (secretly) loved the guac and warm chips. We had Valentine’s there, post-Thanksgiving margs, pre-breakups. It was everyone’s living room.”

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“As a Texan in Boston, Border Cafe was a little slice of ‘back home’ and, even if the food was not quite like our Texas favorites, after two margaritas on the rocks, you didn’t care at all,” quipped James Sheppard.

That’s a common theme about the Border. The margaritas were strong, if you could remember them. “My friends took me there so my husband could set up a surprise party at our apartment and we had such a blast that we were 3 hours late for the party,” said Erin Murphy.

For many, walking through the darkened doorway into the Border Cafe felt like a first taste of adulthood.

“When we all got our drivers licenses, the world opened up for us, and we were able to “go into the city,” recalled Marc Garrigus of his teenage years. “One of our favorite places to go to was Harvard Square, and the rallying cry was, ‘Let’s Make a Run to the Border!’ "

“When I was a wee teen usher at the Harvard Square Theatre, there was a delightfully reciprocal exchange of movie passes for chips and salsa,” recalled Ian Judge.

“Went on a date with my girlfriend from BC who ordered a margarita, while I ordered a glass of milk, and that’s how she found out I was only 20,” Don Seiffert said.

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For others, its familiarity was an embrace in a city sometimes considered less than welcoming to outsiders.

“When I moved to Boston in the early 90s, Border Cafe was a staple outing,” Diana Pisciotta recalled. “It was cheap enough for a college budget, always loud and fun. For a sheltered girl from New Jersey, it was big-city living to endure the long line and slide into a seat for (free!) warm chips and salsa.”

“Border has been a staple of my life for the last 20 years. It traced my time from a young twenty-something starting life in a new city to a cornerstone of my years in grad school and a growing family. It has been a touchstone for every phase of my life since 2002,” said Joy Lamberton-Arcolano, echoing the sentiments of many: Border grew along with us. It fit the bill for wild night out, to a budget-friendly meal, to a family-friendly haunt.

No judgment, no pretense. Anything went at the Border, or so it seemed.

“In 2009, I had lunch there on a Friday after a work event nearby. Several of my team members used the restroom afterward, and I waited by the front door for them. The bar was right by the door, and an older gentleman apparently skipped out on his tab to loud shouts from the management. As he literally ran out the door, he held margaritas in each hand, spilling limes (and margarita) as he left. His car was parked in [the] alleyway, and he hopped in and sped off. My colleagues emerged immediately afterward and I told them about it while they stared incredulously. I pointed out the limes and puddles on the ground to bolster my crazy story,” recalled K.C. Kourtz.

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“The number of bad decisions by both myself and my friends that happened there in our early 20s could fill a book,” joked Drew Starr. “But if any of us wrote that book, we’d all have to change our identities and start new lives.”

It symbolized freedom and fun. The place was no-frills for sure, but that was part of the charm.

“Smelly cashmere sweaters the day after, the most delicious margaritas, and the best Cajun etouffee outside of Louisiana,” rhapsodized Tonya Mezrich, echoing a common sentiment about the Border’s signature smoky scent.

“My whole crew from Harvest took me out to celebrate my birthday one year. Unbeknownst to all of us, the Harvard Choir were also there,” said chef Mary Dumont. “Apparently they got wind that there was a birthday in our group and they all stood up and sang happy birthday to me with the most magical voices. It was incredible.”

Now, it’s hard not to look back on one restaurant’s closing and not simultaneously feel the sheer weight of all we’ve lost.

“Like so many things that built the gentle rhythms of stability and comfort in our lives, like grandparents, neighbors, and friends who are now lost to us forever, we can only reflect about how good those times were and how we did or didn’t appreciate them while we had them,” said Lamberton-Arcolano.

Abby Altman, club manager at Club Passim, lamented the loss. “There were SO MANY post-show hangs with staff, artists, and [the] audience. They were always welcoming and very accommodating of a group of musicians traipsing in with instruments and gear in tow,” she wrote. “The whole notion of them being gone is disorienting. How are we going to tell new folks where to find us when we can’t say ‘across the street from the Border’?”





Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin. Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.