By Matt Robinson, Contributing Writer
CAMBRIDGE – Though many of its legendary haunts are gone, Harvard Square still has enough historical hangouts from its storied past for older people and still feels hip for the current generation. Especially given its literary inspiration, perhaps the most storied of these is Grendel’s Den.
Founded in 1971 by Herb and Sue Kuelzer, Grendel’s is now managed by their daughter Kari Kuelzer, who sees her edified eatery as a mirror of the times in the Square.
“My folks were running a cluster of other restaurants in Harvard Square during the 1960’s with several partners,” Kuelzer recalled, citing such past favorites as The Idler, The Blue Parrot, The Ha’penny Pub and Ferdinand’s Restaurant. “When the Pi Eta Club building became available, they fell in love!”
Since her father hailed from Germany, he and his wife had travelled extensively in Europe, and they were fans of the tradition of the gasthaus.
“These are full-service restaurants that serve the general population with freshly-made food at a price and in a setting that is suitable for everyday visitors from all walks of life,” Kuelzer explained.
Since their latest location was in the basement of a castle-looking building, Mrs. Kuelzer (who was an English major) was reminded of the English 101 classic “Beowulf.”
“In that story,” the literary-minded mother’s daughter reported, “the creature Grendel lives in a den below King Hrothgar’s mead hall.” And while the storybook monster eats many of the guests in the hall, Kuelzer suggested that, in her family’s version of the story, “Grendel…was less of a marauding monster and more of a quirky outsider who was just looking for a nice meal.”
Podcast celebrates 50th anniversary
The venue and the family behind it have served so many “quirky outsiders” and lived through so much of Harvard history and they are constantly evolving to stay on top of changing tastes. It seems fitting that they marked their 50th anniversary by hosting a popular podcast called “A People’s History of Food and Drink: Five by Ten in the Den.”
As the name suggests, each of the five episodes gives a sense of what it was like to live (and eat) in the Square in the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc., and also offers recipes and reminiscences from people who had meaningful relationships with Grendel’s. The restaurant is also a favorite of actor and director Ben Affleck, who shot scenes from his 2010 movie “The Town” there.
“Usually we would have just thrown a great party,” Kuelzer reasoned when asked why the podcast became the main means of marking the milestone, “but the pandemic made us get creative.”
Supreme Court case and other challenges
While the story of Grendel’s is storied indeed, one of the greatest chapters came in 1982, when a local church tried to block the venue’s liquor license. After asking some neighbors at Harvard Law School for support, the Kuelzers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court (Larkin v. Grendel’s Den, Inc.) and as far as the outcome―let’s just say the beer list is great!
In addition to cranky neighbors and challenging zoning rules, Grendel’s has also survived renovations and even a pandemic, and come back stronger every time. In addition to opening an online store where fans and supporters can still pick up Grendel’s swag and other treats, Kuelzer has recently opened a second location that is also named for a Beowulf character―The Sea Hag.
“After business returned to normal in 2022,” she recalled, “I decided that I needed to keep up the momentum and do something more, [so]…when I found this new location, it felt like a natural fit for the type of restaurant that I know I can do best, which is essentially the same vision that my parents had.”
Traditions old and new
While the new place offers many of the flavors and feel that have made Grendel’s such a long-lasting legend, Kuelzer is also working on offering live performances and a package she calls “Adult Swim” that involves TV, fries, and beer.
“I’d like it to be like one of those mid-century West Village coffee house joints that might have a folk act playing in the corner or poetry reading or magic show,” she mused. “Stuff that is too offbeat for a major venue.”
No matter which venue you visit, Grendel’s and the Sea Hag still offer that classic Cambridge feel, thanks to a regular clientele of chatty students, diligent professors, first daters, and locals galore. Perhaps more importantly, no matter when you drop by, even if there is a line out the door, there is always a seat ready. Even if it is one in the nearby park where you can sit and chat with other fans while you wait to enjoy.
“Our food is still a great value,” Kuelzer attested, “made fresh from scratch from high-quality ingredients, and drawn from cuisines the world over.”
Among the most popular (and enduring) items on the menu have been such international stand-outs as Grendel’s famed hummus bi tahini and spinach pie ―both of which have been made exactly the same way for 52 years and have satisfied and sustained thousands of students and others throughout that time.
“At the Sea Hag,” Kuelzer noted, “we have resurrected a spice blend known as Zig spice that was the signature seasoning for beef skewers on the original Grendel’s Den menu.” Such a sense of tradition is what has sustained Grendel’s in a neighborhood that has changed (and, many might argue, lost) a great deal.
“Grendel’s is guaranteed to be exactly the same as the last time you went there for another 10 years at least,” she pledged, citing that “Grendelly” vibe that you can enjoy nowhere else.