The oysters are probably great. Get the double cheeseburger.
There is a certain wariness that comes with a dive bar that has a polished, beautiful web site with a functional, even updated menu to top it all off. From all external appearances, Charlie’s Kitchen feels like it might be a retro-style diner catering to nostalgic boomers, but the reality couldn’t be farther from that truth. Charlie’s Kitchen is a Cambridge dive bar institution within a hamburger’s throw from Harvard’s campus that has been in business since 1951.
While Harvard’s campus can boast some historical rigidity in maintaining the classic appearance of its core buildings and institutions, the neighborhood that surrounds Harvard has evolved continuously over the years. Harvard Square, home to Charlie’s Kitchen, is certainly not immune to that march of time, but Charlie’s Kitchen provides at least a glimpse of the area’s roots.
With all that being said, this is still a dive bar serving diner-style food punctuated with seasonal oysters and lobster on the menu. Is this a traditional, dusty old dive with dollar bills stapled to the ceiling? Absolutely not. And if it were, eating raw oysters would seem like more of a dare than a seasonal special. What Charlie’s Kitchen does capture though is that late night grub spot next to a college campus downstairs paired with the blink-and-you-miss-it college dive bar tucked away upstairs. And anyone that has felt the stomach rumble that comes with an evening of drinking can see the value in a restaurant below the bar that touts double cheeseburgers as its specialty.
The diner on the Charlie’s Kitchen first floor feels like a counter dive crossed with a counter diner, a line of booths running along one wall of the space and the bar extending nearly the full length of the wall opposite. Stationary stools provide counter-style seating at the bar and a front row seat to lighting that can best be described as carnival fun house-style mirrored neon. There’s something about the combination of Christmas lights, mirrored liquor bottle stands behind the bar, pink neon signage above the bar and glistening black & white tile throughout that seems to cause the light to bounce off of every surface at ever increasing speed.
Yes, the menu includes things like a salmon burger and double lobster roll special, but the clear specialty of the house is a set of double cheeseburger offerings, well-proclaimed by Charlie’s Kitchen as the neighborhood favorite with the online reviews to back up the claim. Count this reviewer as part of the adoring crowd, a double bacon blue cheeseburger hitting the spot to lay a foundation for further Cambridge dive bar exploration that evening.
Upstairs, the vibe is almost the inverse of the brightly-lit, inside-of-a-disco-ball feeling of the diner counter below. The lights are dimmed, the surfaces are duller, the speed a little slower. This is a college dive bar perched above Harvard Square that demonstrates clearly why this one-two diner-dive punch has been so effective since the doors opened in 1951. The classic Charlie’s Kitchen jukebox can be found up here, one of the features of the bar most mentioned when locals find out you’re interested in visiting. The CD-based collection provides exactly the type of selection you’d expect from a 1950s-era campus dive bar, in the best possible way.
The ceilings are the clear giveaway in approach between the diner downstairs and the dive bar atop, clean stamped tiling the choice downstairs with a traditional drop ceiling above. Live music has been known to invade this upstairs dive bar space as well, completing the total transformation a flight of stairs can bring to even the most historically-grounded diner-dive bar in Harvard Square.
The dive bar’s evolution has continued in the form of an outdoor beer garden attached to the space, the newest face of this now three-headed dive bar experience. The bar here takes on the form of beer gardens you’ve seen before, a combination of wood beams, outdoor taps and light metal chairs, but it’s hard to argue with an extension that provides outdoor drinking opportunities without sacrificing access to neighborhood-acclaimed double cheeseburgers.
Some dive bars feel old & dusty and some feel vintage & retro, a captured memory of drinking days gone by and in that respect, Charlie’s Kitchen is a success along two fronts. The diner downstairs feels every bit of its 1950s-era longevity in appearance and in the menu’s core items. Upstairs, the college dive bar fits in well with the Harvard community that surrounds Charlie’s Kitchen. Together, this is a difficult dive bar-diner combination to beat and one that has earned its institution-level respect from the Cambridge dive bar community.