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Cambridge Common

1667 Mass Ave (Harvard Square), Cambridge; 547-1228
Open Mon - Wed, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Thurs - Sat,
11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; and on Sun, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
AE, CB, DC, Di, MC, Visa
Full bar
Sidewalk-level access

by Robert Nadeau

It is an upside-down era for restaurateurs. While some still enter the business with a suburban luncheonette and build up to a fancy downtown dining room, the more typical move in the mid '90s has been expanding from peak success to a more downscale, "second-label" effort. One sees the top stars launching a bakery here, a pizzeria there, a tapas bar on the side.

So here we have Charlie Christopher, the auteur of Christopher's -- not a luxury dining room, but a very credible Cambridge bar known for excellent fajitas and memorialized as a meeting place in Sue Miller's novel, The Good Mother. And now the guy and his wife, Holly Heslop, are starting up a bar with family-style food -- meatloaf, mac-and-cheese, mashed potatoes, M-is-for-Mom cuisine. They've followed up on a rather Harvard Square-type bar in Porter Square with this rather North Cambridge (not to say middle American) kind of bar at the gates of Harvard Law School.

It's a joke, right?

No, it can't be a joke. The food is too good. Yet it is obviously planned. For example, any casual expansion would have included the popular fajitas from Christopher's, but they aren't here. The grabber on this menu, at least as far as grabbing me, are the simply amazing sweet-potato fries ($3.95). I've had every kind of bad sweet-potato fry, from greasy shoestrings to burnt wedges, and the only obvious lesson is that whatever you have to do to get great french-fried potatoes, it doesn't work with sweet potatoes. And all I can say, from my side of the table, about what does work is that the perfect sweet-potato fries are crinkle-cut rounds. Get 'em.

Grilled-vegetable soup is often the soup of the day ($1.95, $2.95). It has a roast-tomato flavor, a lot of pepper, and manifest celery, broccoli, carrot, and onion. Clam chowder ($1.95, $2.95) was slightly curdled but well-flavored, full of chopped clam meat and potatoes. The cheese nachos here ($4.95) are the usual mess, but improved by real cheese and a fresh-tasting salsa on the side featuring green coriander.

"Mom's macaroni and cheese" ($5.95) has a breadcrumb topping, which suggests Mom is from the South, but it isn't all that creamy, which means you can enjoy it and live. Fried chicken ($7.95) at a lunchtime visit was nice and meaty, accompanied by skin-on mashed potatoes. At dinner another night, the batter coating was full of tarragon, and it was slightly greasy, but overall a good job. The mashed potatoes had a powerful garlic flavor I really appreciated. (The french-fry option is curly-cut fries, evenly done despite the shape; rice pilaf is cafeteria standard.) Vegetable choices were a routine coleslaw and an underdone sauté of carrots, yellow squash, and green squash. From overdone mixed vegetables to underdone mixed vegetables in a single generation -- that's dining out in a nutshell.

The grilled fish of the day on one visit was salmon ($9.95), an excellent grill job on a fine little salmon steak. Another time it was tuna ($10.95), an even tastier if thinner slice. Baked salmon ($9.95) was a larger portion, but the farmed salmon we get now tends to show its fatty, soft, bland character more when baked. At the price, I'd order it again, but it was the kind of salmon dish you work through at a convention banquet. At Cambridge Common, one should probably stick with the diner food.

There is a nice list of 24 beers on draft, and one un-beer, Woodchuck cider ($2.85), which is a terrific drink with comfort food, though perhaps too sweet on its own.

Dessert turns out to be a very important course at Cambridge Common, which is true to the restaurant's distant diner inspiration, if not to its more direct bar-food parentage. There is both a bread pudding of the day ($3.95), and a fruit crisp of the day ($3.25). The latter was pear-blueberry, distinguished by the surprising crispness of the pear chunks as well as the generous size of the portion and the buttery granola topping. This was good hot, but even better cold at home the next day.

The bread pudding on one evening was banana, which meant that it was plain bread pudding with slices of banana worked into the custard (and not, as one might think, leftover banana bread done up into a custard pudding). Overall, the baked bananas had a nice caramel tang, reinforced by caramel sauce over what was a relatively eggy bread pudding.

Three-layer chocolate cake ($3.95) looked quite ordinary, but delivered a powerful and effective fudgy chocolate flavor. Tea ($1.25) was unfortunately served as a hot mug of water with a tea bag on the side. This looks neat, but real tea drinkers know the water is getting colder by the second, and may not brew up a cup of tea at all. This makes us anxious and fidgety just when the servers ought to want us feeling warm and pampered -- and ready to tip. A word to the wise waitron . . .

Cambridge Common has the basic bar décor, which is darkness, along with some nice paintings in the style of Soutine. Live music is now booked in a few nights a week, and there was a background tape of lively blues -- a little John Lee Hooker in there -- while a promising CD jukebox stood unplugged. Service was reasonably quick even with a full restaurant, and my only complaint would be some cigarette smoke wafting from the bar into the "no-smoking" area.

Without much publicity, the two dining areas are already filling up, so the family-style menu isn't wasted on the singles and dating couples of this fashionable neighborhood. I think Cambridge Common would be a real star in a more residential neighborhood. But, come to think of it, this is a residential neighborhood. And even yuppie children hit an age when they refuse to eat their sushi without ketchup and a side order of macaroni and cheese.

Some of them never grow out of it, and this place is for them.