Beat Hotel is a Harvard Square restaurant that claims as its inspiration the hippie and beat movements. With bohemian decor, live music, and an eclectic menu, it is named for a now-defunct fleabag hotel in Paris frequented by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
If anyone had asked me about the concept, prior to opening, I might have patted them on the head and gently told them to come up with something else. It sounds like a cheesy theme park, I might have said, reframing an era of peace and love for profit. Just pound another nail in the coffin of the old, genuinely bohemian Harvard Square, why dontcha. Then I would have taken small, bitter sips of my Arabic coffee at the Algiers, inhaling deeply from my imaginary clove cigarette and fondling the worn, pulpy pages of my non-Kindle version of “On the Road.”
Here’s the thing: Of late, Harvard Square has done something of a graceful backward dive. The corporate shadow that had begun to fall over the area has receded, with new live-music venues and independently owned restaurants opening. And Beat Hotel feels genuine, warm, and alive, if not particularly bohemian.
Bouncer types greet new arrivals at the door: “Hello, friend!” Hosts smile wide as Cheshire cats. Servers jest cheerfully. It’s the friendliest place in town. Beat Hotel is operated by the team behind the Beehive in the South End, and the formula is similar: a good-looking spot with a focus on the music and bar programs. It’s a long restaurant, one side lined by bars with stools and bar tables, the other in white brick set up for dining. There are psychedelic murals, plenty of macrame, and patterned columns decorated by local artists. The space draws the eye to the end, where jazz musicians take the stage.
Executive chef Rebecca Newell offers a wide-ranging menu, so random it appears dictated by the appetites of a stoned gourmand. Where else in town do French, Mexican, Italian, earthy crunchy, and steakhouse fare coexist? Live and let live, man.
Nachos get worked over, piled high with pulled lamb and apple salsa. It’s a successful reinvention, spicy and savory with just a hint of sweetness. Tortillas are filled with bites of meaty swordfish, shredded greens, and radish, along with tender black beans and rice topped with melted cheddar. Add salsa and a squeeze of lime for acidity and interest. Spare ribs are tender and slathered in smoky, messy chipotle barbecue sauce. These dishes are crowd pleasers.
So is a version of chicken piccata, bright with lemon, briny from capers. Tender broccolini and substantial but not doughy gnocchi round out the dish. It’s a simple but pleasant dinner, much more successful than the eggplant Parmesan served with spaghetti. The Parm needs seasoning, although the red sauce is unusually spicy, a pleasant surprise or an unwelcome one, depending on the taste of the customer.
Beat Hotel serves a plump burger, with cheese and bacon as add-on options; ordered medium, it arrives a tick past raw. Skirt steak, from the mix-and-match steakhouse-style portion of the menu, is slightly overcooked, served with mashed potatoes, peas, and mushroom bordelaise. Other a la carte options include filet mignon, lamb chops, roast chicken, and blackened shrimp. Sides range from standard (frites and pickles) to more creative (quinoa pilaf with cranberries, walnuts, and curried apple).
There is an offbeat side to Beat Hotel’s menu — for instance, an appetizer of nicely grilled octopus and tough baby artichokes with parsley sauce. Seared duck breast, cooked just right, comes with cherry sauce and sweet corn pudding. And, best of all, halibut rubbed with warm Indian spices, served with red lentils and cucumber raita. It is sophisticated, delicious, and perfectly balanced. (It’s now being prepared with different fish.)
The Earth Bowl and the Inca Bowl nod to Beat Hotel’s hippie influences. (Vegan versions are available, but you can also get them with shrimp, chicken, fish, or steak if you’re feeling both crunchy and carnivorous.) The Inca Bowl — satisfyingly hearty, with tofu, tempeh, quinoa, assorted vegetables, hominy, and cilantro lime vinaigrette — takes me back to my college coop days. Only the tempeh there didn’t taste mildewed and off.
Desserts — apple cobbler with salted caramel ice cream, banana bread pudding — are just fine and completely unmemorable.
Wine is on tap, with about a dozen reds and a dozen whites; one can get a half-glass of Dancing Coyote gruner veltliner or a carafe of Gotham Project’s cabernet franc, for instance. The beer list has less to offer — six selections on tap, from one called Grateful Ale (predictable!) to Pretty Things Fluffy White Rabbits — and a few more canned brews. The cocktail list dusts off the Harvey Wallbanger and tequila sunrise, but also offers house drinks like the Dharma Cocktail (kaffir lime vodka and aloe juice). Drinks don’t come cheap here; a take on an Old Fashioned is $12.50, excellent on one occasion, not so much on another. On the other hand, there’s no cover charge.
And so people flock here. Beat Hotel can accommodate 360, and it’s nearly always hard to find a seat. It doesn’t feel bohemian. Those days are gone. But it does feel right for the neighborhood today. Harvard Square has a scene again, and Beat Hotel fits right in.
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