Thursday, April 18, 2024

Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

There’s several good reasons to visit Grendel’s Den these days. The old-school Harvard Square institution – one of the few that remains, along with Charlie’s Kitchen, Whitney’s Cafe and Shay’s – is celebrating its 50th year. It’s one of the last places with a crunchy, earthy vibe that has pretty much gone the way of the T-Rex as the square has been made over and gone upscale. The other big reason making big waves is that the boho eatery won a Supreme Court case in 1982 that could become the precedent to flip the recentTexas abortion ban that has many on the side of women’s rights rightfully hopping mad. That law allows almost anyone to sue anyone they say aided an abortion and, if they win, collect a minimum of $10,000. The person in the crosshairs can only win their freedom and must pay the costs for this legalized vigilantism.

A framed newspaper clipping shows how Grendel’s Den helped end a state law in 1982 that could be used to fight vigilantes in Texas. (Photo; Tom Meek)

The Den’s case (Larkin v. Grendel’s Den) was over a liquor license opposed by a neighboring church, which had the right through Massachusetts law to deny the application. The issue that triggered the decision was that empowering of private entities – a toehold for U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and other officials to pursue an end to the unconstitutional Texas ban. The case has been elevated to national news, sparking hope near and wide, and a server at the restaurant told me Grendel’s was receiving love from all around the country via online sales of merch such as mugs, blankets and T-shirts. In just the past three weeks, the bar has made almost four times what its collective all-time online revenue had been to date. 

The other reasons to come to the Den are that funky, retro ambiance, friendly staff and food specials: Monday through Thursday, Grendel’s serves up $1 oysters from 3 to 5 p.m. Weekday  happy hours at 5 p.m. cut appetizer prices in half. And there’s always daily specials, express lunch deals and weekend brunch. Grendel’s just rolled out an Oktoberfest menu with brats (delicious with spicy, whole-grain mustard, kraut and rye toast, and it comes in a vegetarian option) and goulash. The regular menu changes some, but I’ve long been a fan of the Impossible Burger, distinguished by its airy bun and spin on American sauce – a spicy, smooth blend of vegannaise, Sriracha and ketchup. The spinach pie is classic, as are the five-bean chili and loaded potato skins, and there’s a few curios on the menu for those looking to change things up, such as a portobello reuben and a Salvadoran stew with vegetables and tofu. The subterranean enclave, dark and cozy, really does have that ye-olden feel to it, and up on the Winthrop Square green there’s outdoor space to be had. It’s a hippie-era throwback buoyed by good, basic barroom eats. (Since it’s named after a notorious demon out of medieval poetry,  I thought the sign above the door saying it was established in 1271 was in reference to the myth’s date, but no, it’s a mistake Grendel’s decided to adopt and only adds to the endearing quirkiness of it all.) Pop in, share some love and sense of solidarity.

Grendel’s Den (89 Winthrop St., Harvard Square)

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.