Burgers with attitude reign at Mr. Bartley’s, including the MBTA (Most Broken Transit Authority), with blue cheese and pickled red onions, and the egg-topped Taxachu$ett$.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
The latter upheaval, in turn, has bred new loyalists: consumers with long memories and deep attachments to the remaining stalwarts, joined by young newcomers who enjoy a kind of borrowed nostalgia alongside them. Which explains why Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage is about much more than burgers (though they are legendary and legion, all named in winking honor of sports figures, politicians, and scandals—“I’ll have the Kim Jong-Un, rare, and an Admissions Scandal, well done”). The encroaching chains also explain why a burger here will cost you between $12.25 and $20.99: Someone’s got to pay the rent. But if you want a taste of the good-old-days Harvard Square, think of it as dinner and a show.
You may have seen Bartley’s in Good Will Hunting or The Social Network. Then there are the celebrities—or, rather, there are signs hanging over chairs all around the room to let you know where Jackie O, Adam Sandler, Julian Edelman, Johnny Cash, Stephen King, and Mindy Kaling once sat. These are sprinkled in among the license plates, concert posters, sports memorabilia, and newspaper clippings that decorate the walls, evoking a dorm room circa anytime.
All this is by design, the work of founder Joe Bartley, who scraped together enough money in 1960 to buy the Harvard Spa, a convenience store and newsstand with a small grill. By 1962, he and his wife, Joan, realized that the grill was the core of the business and that burgers were their medium. From this perch, they raised their five children and built Bartley’s into an institution.
Now as then, freshly ground chuck is formed into seven-ounce patties that star in such burgers as the Taxachu$ett$—Boston baked beans, sriracha, bacon, and a fried egg—and the cheddar-and-barbecue-sauce-covered double-patty behemoth called the Trump Tower (New Russian Embassy). If we’re reading the menu correctly, this makes the burgers politically agnostic. Anything and everyone is fair game.
At any given time, there are about two dozen burgers in the lineup, and only a handful, such as the Joe Bartley and the Mrs. B, never leave. Sadly, Joe Bartley passed away in 2018, but Joan can still be found here some days, greeting customers and taking orders when the line snakes out the door. Their son, Bill, now runs the place; he’s never worked anyplace else. He still makes the soups from scratch (the chicken noodle is particularly good), as well as the onion rings, the meatloaf, and the bread pudding.
Sit at the center table, where they seat the singles and where the best conversations happen. Eat some fried pickles. And think of all the poets, presidents, and pundits who were once just college kids grabbing a burger.
1246 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA. 617-354-6559; mrbartley.com