Rustic charm, legendary burgers only two T-stops away
Restaurant Review: MR. BARTLEY’s
It is hard to miss Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square even if you aren’t looking for it, because passerby can spot the line that snakes out of the restaurant’s door during all but the quietest of hours from blocks away. According to their website, Mr. Bartley’s has been “serving perfect hamburgers for over 48 years,” and that promise, along with the countless awards and accolades the restaurant has garnered over the decades, lures people into that line day after day.
When we arrived at Mr. Bartley’s one sunny day for lunch, I blanched at the length of the line, fearing that hours would pass before my hungry stomach was satisfied. Within moments of entering the queue, an elderly man with a waiter’s notepad ambled up to us and thrust menus into our hand. He walked up and down the length of the line asking people what they would like, and we made our order before we had moved more than a few steps. Mr. Bartley’s system is ingenious, albeit unconventional—you make your order outside, so that by the time a seat is available for you inside, your dishes will be served within moments. Mr. Bartley’s is not a place one lingers over a leisurely lunch; you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers at a long, communal table or up at the bar, and as soon as you have finished eating, you understand that you need to pay and leave. My dining partner and I were in and out of the restaurant in less than an hour—which, considering the length of the line we entered, is a testament to their remarkable efficiency.
Awards and reviews go a long way toward enhancing a restaurant’s reputation, but the sheer volume of customers that Mr. Bartley’s entertains would not keep returning for 48 years if the quality of their food were not remarkable, or so I told myself as I waited for my lunch. My hopes were confirmed upon first bite. I will not hesitate to say that Mr. Bartley’s served me the best burger I have tasted in a long time—a thick, well-seasoned, juicy, pink-in-the-middle patty that oozed with flavors that dreams are made of. Accompanied by their thick, wholesome sweet potato fries or their legendary onion rings—thinner, crispier, and just plain better than an onion ring ought to be—a lunch at Mr. Bartley’s is bound to be one of the most memorable, and certainly one of the most filling, meals you are bound to experience.
One of Mr. Bartley’s most famous characteristics, besides the fact that their burgers are just plain good, is the quirky naming conventions they use on their menu. Each burger is named after a politician, celebrity, or recent culture phenomenon, accompanied by a witty (or bizarre) caption. I got the Michelle Obama burger: “(She’s hot and spicy) blue cheese burger with Cajun seasoning.” My friend chose the Tom Brady: “(Ladies, make a pass at this) with cheddar, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and red onions.” Other gems include the Viagra (“rise to the occasion!”), the Deval Patrick (“will tax your taste buds”), and the Afghan (“attack this and you’ll never leave”). On the day of my visit, a sandwich board proclaimed the day’s special—“Get high on this: Charlie Sheen Burger! Comes with 20 oz. of Coke!”
The interior of the restaurant is as unique and opinionated as the menu. Every inch of the walls is plastered with signs, posters, pictures, plastic Roman busts, and tributes to Elvis. It’s hard to hold a conversation over the din of the packed-in customers and the cooks’ and waitstaff’s shouts to each other. In the end, the noise hardly matters—there is so much atmosphere, and so much delicious burger, that you must take in during your brief time inside Mr. Bartley’s that you can hardly afford to waste time on conversation.
While burgers, which include a vegetarian and a turkey variety as well as the standard beef, are Mr. Bartley’s uncontested specialty, their menu also features a variety of sandwiches; diner-fare dinner plates like macaroni and cheese, fish and chips, and meatloaf; a handful of salads; a cornucopia of desserts, with a heavy emphasis on sundaes; and a selection of appetizers and sides, including the aforementioned sweet potato fries and onion rings as well as regular, Cajun, or cheese fries, nachos, hummus with pita bread, and more. Burger prices (which all include a side) range from $10-$12, or less if you select a more “standard” burger that does not bear a celebrity name. Drinks, including a delightful lemonade, run around $2-$3, and milkshakes (which are all called “frappes,” despite their lack of coffee) all cost $6.50.
They do not take reservations—they’re more than popular enough to thrive without them, and besides, reservations would mess with their system. I would recommend anyone try Mr. Bartley’s at least once, if only for the experience. If you return, I have faith it will be for the sheer goodness of the burger above all.
1246 Massachussetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138
Open 11:00-9:00 every day except for Sunday
– Photos & Review by Devyn Powell