The scene: The city of Cambridge, more an extension than a suburb of Boston, is arguably the most famous college town in America, home to Harvard University and MIT along with some smaller institutions. If there is one thing college students love, it's burgers, and Cambridge has more than its fair share, with Shake Shack, Tasty Burger and the half-century old collegiate institution, Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers, all within a minute of one another near Harvard Square. That's why it was so surprising when relative newcomer Park, which only opened two years ago, came out of left field to take top honors in the recent March Madness-themed bracketed reader voting competition held by popular Boston Burger Blog. Not only did Park trump its Cambridge neighbors, but all of greater Boston's longtime burger faves, except one (voting ended with Park tied for first with suburban North Shore institution Blue Ox). Surprisingly, Park beat classics and newcomers alike by going retro - its signature burger is a patty melt.
The name Park is a play on parking garage, as in the one in Harvard Square the restaurant occupies at the street level. If ever a restaurant strove to be all things to all people, it is Park – part neighborhood tavern, part upscale eatery, it is much bigger than it looks and broken into several discrete parts. The lively three-sided bar is in the middle, flanked on one side by long high-top bar tables and on the other by the "den," an area with coffee tables set between leather sofas under vaulted brick ceilings. Beyond the den is the small "classroom," its walls adorned with slate blackboards and antique maps, while on the far side of the bar is the main dining room, with an upscale pub feel, heavy wooden booths with red leather cushions. There is another dining room in back, and each area feels unique, one decorated with nostalgic black and white Boston photos, another with Woodstock-era '60s images. Numerous nooks, crannies and niches are hidden throughout, and at Park it is entirely possible to engage in energetic happy hour fun, recreate a relaxed living room ambiance, have a group dinner for 12 or enjoy a quiet and intimate date night.
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Reason to visit: Patty melt, meat pie of the day, tempura mussels, bacon three ways
The food: I went to Park for just one reason, to try its vaunted burger, which, in addition to anonymous voters, local friends had raved about. But I quickly discovered there is much more to the place and almost of all of it is quite good – you could eat here many times without repeating any dishes and have one standout meal after another. But if you only have one shot, the choice becomes simpler, a coin flip: the burger or the meat pie of the day. The one thing these two standouts have in common is that the runaway success of each shocked even the owners. "Neither were things we thought would ever become the iconic dishes of the restaurant," said co-owner Patrick Lee. "But our chef's thing is to put a twist on everything, and there are so many burgers around here he did the patty melt, and it has really taken off." That's a bit of an understatement – it is common for groups of 4, 6 or 8 come in and order exclusively burgers – the record is a table of 12.
Like the patty melt, almost everything at Park is a clever twist on convention. Right from the start, instead of bread and butter there's "house cheese and crackers," fancy flatbread crisps with spreadable cheese, cheddar blended with herbs and topped with a port wine reduction - really good and really addictive. At Park, "bar food" means bacon-gruyere potato skins or confit chicken wings.
The burger gives an old diner standby, the patty melt, a facelift. For starters it's square, cut diagonally into two triangles, eye-catching since rye bread, the traditional patty melt choice, is universally oval. Park uses square organic loaves from Boston's beloved Iggy's artisanal bakery (the same supplier as Cutty's, the gourmet Brookline sandwich shop previously covered in this column). The bread has a very strong rye flavor that stands out. They ordered custom metal dies to shape square patties to fit perfectly, and these are made by New York's famed custom-blend burger supplier Pat LaFrieda. It gets plain old American cheese, which many burger pundits agree has the best melting texture, and adds unique Cholula onions, using my favorite not-too-hot hot sauce. Bacon is optional (recommended by me), but either way it is an excellent combination of quality meat and the pronounced flavors of the rye and onions, served with very good, crispy thin French-style fries. I'm not sure it's the best burger in Boston, but it's a great burger.
I am sure they have the best meat pie in Boston or pretty much any place – it's not a dish you see much, let alone as a featured menu anchor. I'm a big fan of meat pies, but they're normally more of an Irish, British or Australian specialty, far less common in the States. This one is superb by any standards. The crust is king and it is hard to imagine just how good it is – you could eat the buttery, flaky dough on its own and be very happy. There is plenty of this great crust as it is loaf-shaped and fully enclosed, not "lidded" like a pot pie. It is also immense, the size of a medium loaf of bread, easily enough for two. The contents always feature a meat, but have ranged from rabbit to beef, changing every 2-3 days. They do themes, like a buffalo chicken wing version for the Super Bowl, but normally it is more sophisticated – when I visited, slow-cooked pork shoulder with earthy mushrooms and farro. My rule is if you like the sound of the meat pie special, get it.
There are lots of other tasty things, but a few really stand out, especially the mussels starter. Every other shellfish gets fried in New England - clams, oysters, shrimp, scallops, so why not mussels? That's what the chef says he asked himself before doing these in a light tempura-style coating, and they are out-of-this-world good, served artfully as if tumbling from a takeout cardboard fried seafood container. The bacon three ways appetizer changes regularly and is three gourmet uses of bacon. Likewise, the changing "tasting of toast" is three rarefied takes on the humble concept: currently smoked trout with pickled onions and caraway, charred eggplant with preserved lemon, and barbecue brisket with smoky chipotle slaw. Finally, there is another notable burger, the lamb burger, which was added for National Lamb Month (April) but proved so popular it is being kept indefinitely. Conventional only in that is burger-shaped (round), it's a ground lamb patty lamb topped with feta cheese, Kalamata olive relish and lamb bacon. It's strong, but the lamb lover will love it. I loved pretty much everything at Park.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you happen to live in the small world of meat-pie lovers, this one is a must.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 59 JFK Street, Cambridge; 617-491-9851; parkcambridge.com
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Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.