It’s one of those sunny, perfectly crisp fall afternoons on the Boston Common. Dogs chase one another, children totter around in oversize coats, and nearby a handful of political protesters are trying out a public address system. It’s a typical busy Saturday. But Earl of Sandwich, a takeout joint housed in a converted men’s restroom, which opened last month, is deserted. Maybe people are put off by eating where others once . . . well, you get it.
“We’ve had very few comments about that,” says manager Kevin Brown, who runs the restaurant for an Orlando-based group. “We’ve actually had a lot of comments about the store or building itself, which was vacant for many years, and a lot of people that live in the area were very excited that something was able to move into the building to utilize it for something.”
The 1920s-era structure is beautiful, an ornate octagon hut, unused since the ’70s, shaded by tall trees. And the place has another thing going for it: the loquacious Brown, who gleefully approaches his only customers in the courtyard after our meals arrive at the pickup window. He mentions that the crowds are unpredictable and the place was slammed only a few days before. Despite the presence of the Frog Pond, it’ll be a rough winter, he concedes, though he believes summer will bring nonstop action.
Unfortunately, aside from Brown’s charm, the sandwiches aren’t that good. Though the tagline boasts, “The World’s Greatest Hot Sandwich,” these taste very fast food, like a heated version of something from an airport grab-and-go stand. Chipotle chicken avocado ($6.49) lacks the kick the smoky chili usually brings, instead settling for a mild barbecue flavor. The avocado is rendered tasteless beside sharp cheddar, bacon, lettuce, and a shockingly paltry amount of grilled chicken.
The Italian ($6.49) is a slight improvement but fails to live up to the expectations of such a classic. Also served on a diagonally cut “artisan baked loaf,” it’s at best a decent blend of salami, capicola, ham, mortadella, mozzarella, tomato, and Italian dressing. The chain’s signature sub, The Original 1762 ($6.49), a mix of roast beef, sharp cheddar, and horseradish sauce, honors the history of the sandwich itself. The name bears the recognized date of the combination of meat and bread by John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich.
While Earl of Sandwich has a killer location and back story, another expanding sub chain opened Sept. 6 within walking distance of the Common, serving a far superior hoagie. Potbelly Sandwich Shop, located between Downtown Crossing and Government Center, also serves hot subs, piled up in an assembly line, and sent through a toaster. The experience is most akin to Quiznos, except that Quiznos’ franchises have slipped in quality, but this Chicago-based mom-and-pop-turned-chain remains excellent.
At Potbelly, the Italian ($5.60) is a standout, served on regular white or a delicious, nutty, multigrain wheat bread, with mayo, mustard, hot peppers, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles, oil, or Italian seasoning. A turkey sandwich ($5.40) is brightened by fresh tomatoes and lettuce and a jolt of zesty mustard. The Mediterranean ($5.80) is messy and the proportions of hummus, feta, artichoke hearts, cukes, and roasted peppers are off, but it’s solid nonetheless.
Sandwiches are actually quite a reasonable size. There’s no monstrosity (unless you order it “bigs,” which increases the size by 30 percent), nor is it skimpy (although you can order thinly cut bread, which slices a third of the size off).
Mushroom melt, a “skinny” option listed on the company’s website, isn’t available on this menu yet, as they keep items limited at first in new markets. Nevertheless, the staff still takes a crack at it, combining mushrooms with a trio of Swiss, provolone, and cheddar, and charges us for a veggie sandwich ($5.40). An oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie ($1.40) makes a perfect finale to lunch.
For those strolling the Common when hunger strikes, take a gander at Earl of Sandwich’s building and try not to chuckle about its past life. Then when it’s time to eat, walk a few blocks to Potbelly.
EARL OF SANDWICH
1 B Charles St., Boston, 617-426-1395. www.earlofsandwichusa.com. All major credit cards accepted. Fully wheelchair accessible.
Prices Breakfast $2.49-$3.99. Sandwiches, salads, soups, sides $1.29-$6.49. Desserts $1.99-$3.99.
Hours Mon-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
What to order The Italian,
The Original 1762.
POTBELLY SANDWICH SHOP
263 Washington St., Boston,Continued...