'Here Lived Stephen Daye First Printer in British America," says a plaque on the wall. The restaurant's logo is a line drawing of a printing press. For decoration, there are vintage type trays and framed newspaper pages. Harvard Square restaurant First Printer, in the former Herrell's Ice Cream space, has a theme.
Yet the menu itself pays little attention to typeface, dishes described in a meat-and-potatoes font under headings such as "advance copy," "first edition," "second run," "chef's edition," and "footnotes." A restaurant's true heart can be glimpsed in the font used on its menu.
First Printer is perfectly positioned to take advantage of nostalgia's current cachet — witness the outbreak of mustachioed barmen slinging Prohibition-era cocktails in "speakeasies" across the nation. (First Printer could have aimed even earlier. Perhaps it's time to bring back Puritan fashion.) There is real history here, in addition to brick walls, mosaic floors, and a small room located behind a vault door. But First Printer isn't stylized or self-conscious. It's a place for everyone in Harvard Square, not just hipster cool kids or the stylish set. Much of the staff is young and dressed in the everyday clothes of regular students.
The food follows in the same vein. Chef Kurt Vogel (Cask 'n Flagon) has created a menu that's part Southern, part Harvard Yard. Hushpuppies and brisket meet black bean hummus and sandwiches with names like "The Lampoon" (grilled portobello, tofu, avocado spread, and so on, on multigrain bread).
Overall, the Southern dishes win this war. Lobster hushpuppies are a fine snack, springy rounds of dough served with Meyer lemon butter. Any lobster flavor is, however, lost. Grits, creamy and comforting, are enriched with Asiago cheese and a bit of aromatic tomato broth, topped with shrimp and slices of andouille sausage.
The menu's most attention-getting item is the Swamp Bowl. It features fried alligator and frog legs, steamed crawfish, and crisp, frilled pieces of bacon, with an aioli-esque caper-berry dipping sauce. What they say is true, whether it is alligator or frog they are talking about: Tastes like chicken, particularly when deep-fried, as is the case here. The crawfish don't taste as fresh as the ones you might find at a Louisiana boil, although prying the meat from the shells is still an absorbing pastime.
Gumbo is a fair rendition, loaded up with andouille, shrimp, scallops, and mussels and clams that apparently take the place of the promised crabmeat. A flourish of file powder dusts the side of the bowl. It's neither the most flavorful or soulful version ever, but it is good enough to scratch an itch. The meat on a brisket sandwich is too sweetly spiced, but it is tender and flavorful, with crunchy battered onions on a toasted roll.
Andouille appears again atop a focaccia pizza, along with tomato, onion, and smoked gouda. (The kitchen here is adept at recycling ingredients. The same vegetables and starches pop up on multiple dishes.) This so-called pizza is a Stouffer's-esque bread pillow. The tomatoes and onions slide from beneath the cheese when you bite, creating hot, stringy hazards. It's a rare day when bread topped with tomato and cheese adds up to something with so little charm.
The Crimson Reuben does not skimp on corned beef. It is a tower of meat sandwiched between slices of marble rye. It does, however, skimp on Russian dressing and, most egregiously, sauerkraut. One or two shreds do not a Reuben make. Where it is dry, the French Class sandwich is juicy. Shaved prime rib, Swiss, and caramelized onions on a long, toasted roll, with a bowl of jus for dunking, it combines the charms of a French dip and a steak-and-cheese sub.
First Printer's roast chicken is dry in spots, with gummy pan gravy, but it comes with flavorful, mushroom-packed risotto and plenty of green vegetables — spinach, chard, and broccoli rabe. Those sides are also served with a broiled lamb porterhouse. Blackened would be more accurate; the meat is tough and gristly. A little blackening would be in order for a Cajun fish dish. Coming-into-season striped bass on the menu, but swordfish at the moment, doesn't have the spicing to claim the heritage. Topped with a blip of fruit salsa, it is served with those same green vegetables and tasty smashed potatoes.
For dessert there is bread pudding, scented with cinnamon and studded with raisins. It's a better choice than a dry chocolate shortcake with strawberries.
The bar features cocktails such as the Printer's Punch and the refreshing Vault (gin, elderflower liqueur, lime, cucumber, and mint). A good portion of the wine list is available by the glass, many selections at $6 a pour. And the beer list offers a highly drinkable roster — locals from Pretty Things and Slumbrew, UK cider, Irish red ale, Belgian Chimay, and more.
Perhaps First Printer's salient feature is its reasonable pricing. It's an affordable hangout for friends and a potential date spot for undergrads. It's built for comfort more than style. The menu's font will tell you that.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.