Kari Kuelzer, 53, lives in the Cambridge house she grew up in — convenient, since she also runs Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square, her second home since her parents started it in 1971.
She’s been well-known around the neighborhood for decades and even grew up doing theater with Matt Damon in his breakdancing days. In fact, Kuelzer enjoyed a show-biz stint in Los Angeles, too. But, unlike her famous classmate, she returned home to become known on a smaller stage. Now she’s in charge at Grendel’s (with some serving help from her college-age son, another Rindge graduate).
A few weeks ago, she branched out with another cozy pub down the street, Sea Hag. For those who aren’t literary scholars: Both names are nods to “Beowulf.” Her late mom christened the original, and Sea Hag is Kuelzer’s tribute to her.
How did you get into the food industry?
I was pretty much born into it. My parents started Grendel’s Den in 1971, when I was about nine months old. There was almost no time that I wasn’t at Grendel’s. They had been running a couple of other restaurants in the Square previously, with partners, like The Blue Parrot.
I was a little kid growing up in the restaurant business, working myself in the restaurant business through high school and college. I left to go to school in New York, and then in Montreal, and I got a degree in film and communications and moved to Los Angeles. And there, I was working in television.
What did you do in Los Angeles?
I worked as a development executive for TV, mostly movies of the week, which back then was before peak TV. We had what they called long-form television, which was anything between movies and minis, traditionally. This was sort of at the dawn of short, limited series. “The Sopranos” came out around that time, and so it started to get a lot more interesting, because it wasn’t just the movie-of-the-week format. I was an English major at McGill University, with a concentration in film and communication. So where normally you would write papers about literature, we would write papers about movies, and television, and culture. Everything from grunge rock to the dawn of the internet were the subjects of some of my papers back in 1992.
What was it like growing up in Harvard Square?
I graduated from Rindge and Latin. I think most people still call it Rindge now. I was working in Harvard Square as a teenager, at a couple of different spots. I worked for a long time in high school at this little sandwich shop called Stuff-It. On my 14th birthday, I got a work permit, and marched down to start pounding the pavement. And then I got hired immediately as a cashier, and then before I was 17, I was the general manager. I guess I kind of neglected some of my talents, because I went off to college, and I could have just stayed in this business full time.
I want to get back to LA stuff in a minute, but what was Harvard Square like back then? There’s always such nostalgia for what a neighborhood used to be, but that neighborhood especially.
I mean, Harvard Square was happening. In my teenage brain, it was, like, the hottest place on the planet because it was filled with cool music, punk rockers and, of course, all the college kids. We had the alternative scenesters, and the dawn of hip-hop was happening when I was in high school, where people were standing around in the middle of Harvard Square with a piece of linoleum and a boombox, breakdancing, beatboxing and rapping, kind of the way you see it in the movies now. But that was real, you know?
You were there in the era of Matt Damon breakdancing! And you must be roughly the same age …
Yeah. We both graduated together from Rindge. He and I did theater. I wasn’t big in acting, but I did bit parts. I did some production stuff, and props and lighting. And I definitely was in some of the shows, and I did musicals and all that. Actually, the big-man-on-campus sport, at the time, was the theater department because we were very successful. We had a state-of-the-art theater there and impeccable instruction. We took it very seriously. And Matt couldn’t have taken it more seriously. He was very committed to himself as an actor, even back in 10th and 11th grade.
Ben [Affleck] was a couple of years younger than us, and they were really close. And he’d already done a lot of acting professionally by the time he got into high school. And he and Matt lived around the corner from each other. The two of them took it very seriously, and they just kept at it. And it worked out for them, which is pretty exciting. It made us all think we could be big movie stars. I mean, I did go to LA, but not because of that.
What brought you back to Boston from LA?
LA is a wonderful place to live — but I wouldn’t want to visit. It’s one of those places that, unless you really commit to it and become a resident, it doesn’t really reveal itself. It’s very superficial. People complain about the superficiality of LA and the people in it. But that’s just what you see when you’re visiting. LA doesn’t really reveal herself and her true, fun secrets unless you commit.
So I always tell people, if you come to LA, you want to try to get into the industry or whatever you want to do there, promise yourself that you’re going to give it two years. And then, all of a sudden, it opens up. You find all these interesting things and get to understand it as an urban city, which being from the East Coast, on the surface, it just doesn’t make sense. It looks like a big, sprawling suburb. But at its heart, it’s actually a huge city with a lot of industries: tons of exciting, rich, different cultures and ethnic enclaves.
So why come back?
It was 2002, and my mom had cancer that was in remission but had a few flare-ups of issues. All of a sudden, out of the blue, she collapsed and was in the hospital, and they found that she was just riddled with cancer. Within 10 days, she was dead.
It was really shocking. I was 31, and we had a newborn. I was already thinking that, you know, it might make sense for me to come back to Cambridge to be around my mother to help with the kid and all that and to be able to spend more time because it’s a long trip with her health not being great.
And then I had to just move to take care of the business. My dad was running Grendel’s sort of semi-retired and really didn’t have anybody on a day-to-day basis overseeing it. He was like: “Get back here as soon as you possibly can. We need you now.”
What was it like, being back after all that time?
Grendel’s had been in business for 30 years. We had recently reopened after a long hiatus because the whole block had been redeveloped. My role was to not be disruptive, because I mean, Grendel’s does essentially run itself. It’s got really great staff, which we were able to retain through all that upheaval, and then we have a formula that is tried and true. So there wasn’t a whole lot for me to do but stay out of the way and prove to people that I was committed to the brand as they knew it, and not to be somebody who came in and disrupted it at all.
It was kind of like family therapy. My father was savvy enough at the time to hire a business consultant who treated the project like a family therapist in some ways, allowed us to hear each other and be heard, so that everyone knew we were on the same page. That made everyone more comfortable, including the staff. The staff justifiably became a bit anxious, especially at a place like Grendel’s, which is such a family to begin with. They didn’t know me, and they also didn’t really know that I had worked there before they graduated high school. I just had to stay out of everyone’s way and prove to everyone that I knew my stuff. If I had to go on the floor, I would wait tables and do whatever it took. A lot of my job was really mostly repairs, which is the truth of being a restaurant owner.
How has Grendel’s endured?
Well, Grendel’s is a place that embodies a tradition of dining that’s sort of older than time. It’s older than history, in some ways; it’s where people gather on a daily basis that’s not their work and that’s not their home. It’s where they feel at home, where they have friends and relationships, where they can come and just get away. It’s a little something for everybody, and you can be confident that you’re going to walk into someplace that’s welcoming. It’s frictionless; you don’t have to make a reservation, and you don’t have to have a whole lot of money. You don’t have to have a special occasion. It’s there for you on the daily.
There are taverns, and snack bars, and coffee shops, and cafes all over Europe where these are common. Here, you’re going to have lunch and dinner or midday meals or just a drink or just a coffee. You know, that’s sort of the thing that we do. It’s less programmed. It just becomes what you bring to it. And people love that.
What about rents and stuff? Do you own the building?
I don’t own my building. I would be on an island somewhere. Or I don’t think I would, because I’m too much of a workaholic. But the building is very expensive. And we have paid rent there for almost 52 years.
At this juncture, what made you branch out with Sea Hag?
Years ago, we started doing off-site catering, just to explore other revenue streams. We started to do bulk lunches in office buildings all over Cambridge and ending up in Boston and in the suburbs. That whole project ended up taking off as a really good revenue source, a nice way to add revenue in our off hours, which is weekdays, frankly. It was actually pushing us to the limits of what we could really do inside of our walls.
So I started to look around before the pandemic. I wanted to find a little spot that I could expand into. Instead of just finding a commissary kitchen-type location, I really liked the idea of creating a new space. … And then I found this location, which used to be The Boathouse. There’s only a tiny CRISPR gene edit between what The Boathouse was doing and what Grendel’s was doing, and ... I couldn’t resist it.
Where does the name come from?
So that’s the thing. I decided not to stick with The Boathouse name, because I just really wanted to honor the brand and honor my mom’s contribution to all of this, which was her naming of Grendel’s after the character from “Beowulf” who was killed in the beginning. Shortly after that, Beowulf finds out that Grendel’s mother is not happy. He’s worried that she’s going to come for him, so he goes looking for her, and then he kills her. I felt like the second chapter really had to be the Sea Hag, which is what Grendel’s mother is known as in the book — she doesn’t have a name. It was irresistible. I really just felt like I had to do that for my mom.
What’s different about Harvard Square now versus when you were growing up?
Well, one thing that hasn’t changed is that people, since I can recall, have always complained that Harvard Square isn’t what it used to be. That seems like the one constant. It’s just never what it used to be. In some ways, though, if you really think about it, in the long view, it really is exactly what it always has been, which is this Main Street that centers around Harvard, and Harvard is pretty much the perpetual factor here that hasn’t really changed much.
When I was growing up, it felt like there was just no end of fun stuff to do. When I was eight or nine years old, there were toy stores and places to buy really cool laces for your roller skates. I mean, whatever the trend was, there was some place that had that. There were music clubs, and there were comedy clubs, and there was all kinds of nightlife that appealed to young people, not necessarily teenagers or children, but there’s a little something for everybody, right? And it feels like in the past 10 or so years, it just doesn’t have a lot that’s accessible or interesting to the younger set.
But then again, I have to tell you, I walk down the street and I hear college kids just oohing and ahhing about all the cool stuff here. Maybe it’s just that I’m not cool anymore. I can’t see it.
Never! What restaurants do you miss the most in Harvard Square that aren’t around any longer?
Honestly? It’s gotta be The Border Café. Their food was great. I would get fajitas; that was my favorite. And I’m just one of those people who loves to share food, so it would always be something we could all dig into. It was cheap. You could just show up with a crowd of people. You didn’t have to spend a lot of money. And it was just incredibly fun and festive. It had all those things that I value, and that Grendel’s tries to do; anybody can show up and be a part of it.
Did you always eat at Grendel’s, or did your parents ever take you out to eat?
This is going really way back to Harvard Square. My grandmother used to take me to Bailey’s ice cream on Brattle Street. It may be a Patagonia now. Anyway, my grandmother was from Columbus, Ohio. And she would come visiting and insist on taking me to Bailey’s because it was the cutest, most old-fashioned little ice cream parlor with those little wrought-iron seats and all the brass and shininess. And she would order me ice cream. I would say, “I want a vanilla ice cream cone with jimmies.”
And she would go up to the cashier and say, “Can I get a bit of ice cream with Johnnies? Can you put those little Johnnies on there?” And I would say, “Grandma, no, it’s jimmies!” I think she was just messing with me.
Any favorite places now?
I don’t go out much, because I just opened up a new restaurant, and I’m already running a fairly large one. But I did go to Season to Taste a couple of times last year, and I think it’s fantastic. Now, I’m closer to a bunch of stuff that I never went to before. I’m loving Hokkaido Ramen up the street.
Last but not least, what’s your food vice? What can’t you resist?
I love food. But this is weird: I love salad if it’s wilted and has sat around. I’ll make it at the beginning of dinner and not eat it as an appetizer. I’ll let it just sit and mellow in the bowl until dinner’s over, and then I’ll kind of eat my salad as dessert. I love a wilted old salad that’s been sitting around for at least an hour.
That’s one of the more unusual ones that I’ve heard. Is there … dressing on it?
Yeah! Or there doesn’t have to be. It depends on the dressing and the salad and the lettuce. It’s an art form to make to make a wilted, old salad. An aged salad, like a fine wine.
Interview has been edited and condensed.