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CHEAP EATS

Elegance amid hallowed halls

(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / March 3, 2010

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There is something inexplicably cool about eating at the restaurants tucked inside the Boston Public Library. Maybe it’s the happy pairing of books and food, the modest vision of bookstore cafes wrought on a grand scale. “Dine With Shakespeare, Aristotle and Dante,’’ exhorts the website for the caterers behind the food. Or maybe it’s the chance to have a meal in these hallowed halls, the country’s first large, free municipal library, famously designed as “a palace for the people.’’

The rooms for each of the restaurants are themselves works of art. In The Courtyard Restaurant, tables covered in white linen sit beneath a soaring ceiling and arched windows that look out on the library’s courtyard on one side, Old South Church on the other. The MapRoom Cafe is cozier and still dramatic, with brick walls and arches and old maps of the city and beyond. As in the rest of the library, free Wi-Fi is available to anyone with a library card.

Last year, the restaurants came under new management: The Catered Affair in Hingham took over from Sebastians, which had run the restaurants since they opened in 2003. The result is a more elegant menu, especially in The Courtyard, previously called Novel.

The winter menu includes poached salmon and a cassoulet, salads, and pasta. Duck confit ravioli ($9), an appetizer drizzled with a dark and earthy porcini veloute, is one of the best things we eat here. Mediterranean chopped salad with shrimp ($14, pictured) is less dramatic, but still good, with a few plump shrimp atop a mound of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and excellent feta. We are intrigued by one of the specialty drinks, a cinnamon apple sparkler ($4), which tastes like a lighter, fizzier version of spiced cider.

The Courtyard, only open for lunch on weekdays - and afternoon tea Wednesdays through Fridays - is filled with ladies who lunch and with young people, teenagers, and twentysomethings who look like they’ve been brought here by an older patron. The restaurant takes the unusual step of adding an 18 percent tip to all checks. “That’s too much,’’ sniffed a woman sitting at a table near us.

The MapRoom, where food is served cafeteria-style, is open weekdays and Saturdays. The food here is more predictable: sandwiches and salads and soups. Our favorite sandwich is The Boylston ($7.75), with grilled eggplant, mozzarella, basil, and artichokes. One afternoon we try one of the soups of the day, Hungarian mushroom ($3.50 cup, $4.50 bowl), creamy and rich and packed with mushrooms floating cap to cap. Even these more modest offerings are popular. On a Saturday afternoon, as we evacuate our table, several people are waiting to swoop in.

THE COURTYARD RESTAURANT AND MAPROOM CAFE, BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY 700 Boylston St., Boston, 617-859-2251, www.thecateredaffair.com/bpl. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Courtyard entrees $12-$16; MapRoom $3.50-$9.95.

Hours Courtyard, Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; MapRoom, Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Liquor None

May we suggest Duck confit ravioli, Mediterranean chopped salad with shrimp, Boylston sandwich.