I feel a little weird reviewing Grendel’s since I’ve been going there for years, but in my ongoing quest to be more like my brother (and break into the realm of food criticism) I’m doing it anyway.
Grendel’s is sort of a hole in the wall, and they really like it that way. I think they probably have a website where you can read all about their struggle to obtain a Cambridge liquor license, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now. Needless to say, they serve booze, and now they even serve it outside. Outside! (For the record, I’ve yet to eat or drink outside; I find the noise and cigarette smoking from the adjacent green area annoying.)
Here’s the basic thing you need to know about Grendel’s: You should never pay full price for their food. This isn’t to say that they serve bad food. I’ve really only ever had one thing I wasn’t pleased with there. (The spinach and artichoke dip. Totally underwhelming.) But the fact of the matter is that you should not pay full price for the caliber of food they serve. Thus, I recommend always going during happy hour, which shouldn’t be hard. If you buy at least $3 in drinks all your food is half price. Half price! Note: it will take you two ginger ales to accomplish this, but only one ginger beer. And it doesn’t matter if you’re dining with a total lush–unless you pony up at least three bucks for a drink of your own, your food will be full price. Did I mention that you shouldn’t pay full price? You really shouldn’t.
Some things I’ve had at Grendel’s, which were totally fine but never amazing:
some kind of wrap with bacon and goat cheese
On my most recent visit I ordered the turkey & havarti sandwich, which is perhaps my favorite thing to order. It’s very simple and always pretty much the same–tasty but not really remarkably so. A similar sandwich at Darwin’s, while more expensive (significantly more expensive during happy hour), is notably tastier. The chips that accompany the sandwiches are always disappointing. I suspect they may be a peculiar off-brand. (You can, in fact, choose coleslaw to accompany your sandwich, but I almost never order a slaw in a restaurant. I just don’t like mayonnaise enough to risk it.)
My dining companion got the pork tenderloin, which she described as dry (as she apparently expected) but fine. It came with a massive amount of mashed potatoes and gravy, which were unremarkable, and sauerkraut, which we both loved. Why have I never tried sauerkraut before? Possibly because it always looks vaguely disgusting. It is, nonetheless, tasty.
The real draw at Darwin’s is the drink selection and atmosphere. They simply don’t serve crappy beer, and their chalkboard emphasizes that. They have rotating specials on tap and always have Original Sin, which is possibly my favorite cider. They also carry lambic, which for the uninitiated is a delightful cross between fruit soda and beer. I recommend the cherry. (It’s imported, so it’s kinda ‘spensive.) I once had an insanely tasty spiced cider (by “spiced,” I mean “with rum in it”) on a winter night, and I suspect it might be a regular feature as the weather gets chilly.
As for atmosphere, it’s a cozy place. Both in that you feel vaguely at home, and that you’ll probably end up bumping elbows or knees at some point in the course of the evening. The servers are all quite nice and the service is generally quick. There’s also a particularly great bartender working a lot of the time–the Sig Fig and I once tipped him extra because we saw how politely he handled a rude customer. I should warn underage readers (not that I condone underage drinking, of course) that there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get carded. The addition of outdoor seating seems to have brought strict ID checks at the door at certain times, and I get carded at tables maybe forty percent of the time. We weren’t carded on my recent visit, but a nearby table of several people I vaguely know was. (Granted, one of them is someone who probably gets frequently mistaken for a twelve year old, as she is extremely short. But the three of them were all definitely well above legal drinking age.)
In any event, I rate Grendel’s “Pretty much any time you want to kill time in Cambridge, especially if you don’t want to spend very much on dinner, and if you’re wearing a t-shirt but don’t want to feel self-conscious about it.”