Remembering the Tasty and “bohemian free-for-alls”
Harvard Square has forever been a durable destination with a significant variety of coffee shops, bars, diners, boutiques, and music venues, not to mention some of the best new and used book and record shops in the region. That’s more or less the case these days, even though the area is a mere shadow of itself. Harvard Square, of course, saw its notoriety grow in the late ’60s, as hippies, hustlers, and everyone in between became part of the milieu and common culture.
You could pen a book about the legacy and the importance of this corner of the world, and indeed more than a few people have. One of them, writer Mo Lotman, noted in his 2009 book, Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950, “Beginning in 1968, [Cambridge] Common was transformed every warm Sunday afternoon into a bohemian free-for-all, with drum circles, bead-sellers, tranced-out dancers, and a ton of pot.”
As these things go, through the years old-timers have insisted that the Harvard Square of their day was the way it’s truly meant to be. The Boomer thesis typically goes, You should have seen Harvard Square when it was a square. Or, Today it’s a corporate wasteland. You should have seen it in the ’60s and ’70s, back in my day!
And of course boomers love telling their friends and family members all the tall tales that sprung out of so many legendary Cambridge locales that have left us: the Idler, the Oxford Ale House, the list goes on. There were daily double bills for a dollar at the Harvard Square Theatre, foreign films on JFK Street in another movie house that is no longer, cool used clothes at the Pennsylvania Company, and coffee at the Blue Parrot, where writers filled the tables. Let’s also not forget about Baileys Ice Cream or roast beef at Elsie’s Sandwich Shop. Oh, and of course the venerable Tasty…
Taken from this world in the late ’90s and turned into an Abercrombie & Fitch—a development that till this day peeves many square vets, the loss being one of those perfect early symbols of accelerated gentrification in retrospect—the Tasty was a one-room diner that was about 30 feet long and a quarter that wide. Customers ate burgers and dogs on a yellow linoleum counter that had 16 stools, and somehow busy nights managed to draw 60 to 80 people at a time. On those busy evenings, they could serve anywhere between 300 and 400 patties between midnight and 4 am.
The informal atmosphere and friendly staff at the Tasty drew in longtime residents, college students, and working people. Though it may not seem like such a big deal these days, back then it was one of the few places where locals and visitors from different social and economic classes easily mixed.
Around the mid-’90s, the owner of the building that housed the Tasty, Cambridge Savings Bank, decided to cash in on the chain store boom coming to Harvard Square. Higher rents and changing times forced the owner’s hand, and despite vocal protests from the Harvard Square Defense Fund—as well as from Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi—the joint shut its doors for good in 1997. Gone but always remembered as a spot where you could fill up for cheap around good people.
Today, it’s a row of ATM machines.
Parts of this throwback have been previously published by Dirty Old Boston. This Dirty Old Boston feature is a collaboration between DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and Dirty Old Boston. For more local history visit binjonline.org and dirtyoldboston.com.