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WALK THIS WAY | HARVARD SQUARE

Where Cambridge meets

Writer Margo Howard finds joy in the gelato, gyros, shops, and boites of Harvard Square

Email|Print| Text size + By Hayley Kaufman
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004

Margo Howard lives in a posh Cambridge building where Christie's auction house catalogs -- not dog-earedNewsweeks -- adorn the foyer. It's library-quiet here and serene, words rarely used to describe anything in Harvard Square, where Howard, the nationally syndicated advice columnist behind "Dear Prudence" and daughter of the late Ann Landers, first moved in the mid-1980s.

Sure, there has been an influx of chains in the last few years, and plenty of longtimers bemoan the loss of institutions like the Tasty diner to such conglomerates as Abercrombie & Fitch. But after all these years, Harvard Square's delicious quirks and juxtapositions are what keep her here: Nobel Prize winners and high-school dropouts rub shoulders in the coffeehouses, tables in no-name sandwich joints are as sought-after as those in swanky boites, and the language spoken next to you is as likely to be Japanese, French, or Farsi as it is English.

"I think I've programmed myself to like the chaos," Howard says of the square. "Genteel it ain't."

Still, she remains transfixed. "When the weather is nice, I love the street musicians, the guys with their hands out. It's home."

Though Howard is happy to share her favorite Harvard Square haunts with visitors, don't expect to bump into the petite redhead during convention week. "It's going to be crowded beyond crowded," she says, rolling her eyes. "I'm going to Maine."

The renowned Rialto, helmed by chef Jody Adams, is a mainstay for Howard, who doesn't exactly pine to spend time in her own kitchen. "When it comes to cooking, I am emerita," Howard says, smiling. "My mother used to call me at dinnertime and give me the needle. She'd say, 'What are you warming tonight?' "

She dines guilt-free at Rialto -- always at table 84, tucked in the room's front corner, near the restaurant's sleek bar. "You get the VIP Harvard community, the few movie people that straggle into town. And [Gallery NAGA director] Arthur Dion rolls stuff in -- so you could buy a piece of art with your créme brulée."

Across the street and a world away from Rialto is the Greek Corner Express, packed with hungry college students on a recent afternoon. "It is the proverbial hole in the wall," Howard says of this gyro shop, where she and her husband frequently duck in for takeout. "I don't even know the name."

So, does she have her favorite menu selections memorized, at least? Sort of. "I get a salad with -- not dressing, but with some kind of Greek sauce on it. That's our salad. They ask if we want silverware. I say, no, we have silverware, just no food!"

Howard swears by the panettone at Caffe Paradiso, at the corner of Winthrop and Eliot streets. Today, however, she opts for something cooler -- lemon gelato, one of several flavors beckoning from a glass cold case. "Mmmm," she says. "This was a great idea."

She admits it's not the coffee that draws her here. "What's really wonderful here are the accents floating around," she says, surveying the chattering crowd. "It's a very international place. You really think you're somewhere else. Cambridge is as European a city as we have."

Howard continues down Winthrop to a shocking pink-and-gold sign trumpeting the restaurant Up-Stairs on the Square. "Doesn't this look like a whorehouse?" she deadpans. "But it's fabulous!"

Up a flight of leopard-print stairs, she sweeps into the bar area, done up in kelly green, with swatches of pink and purple. She scans the room, known as the Monday Club, and steps out into a bright, zebra-carpeted sun room. But the piéce de résistance -- the restaurant's swank dining level, called the Soirée Room -- is another flight up.

"It's fancy schmancy -- muy expensivo," Howard exclaims, turning and gesturing at the room's pink-angold finery as if she were Julie Andrews and the hills were alive. She points out an elaborate flower light fixture (she has one just like it), a gorgeous glass vase, and a gilded lily-pad mirror overlooking the dining room. "It's very un-Cambridge," she says. "And the food is extraordinary."

A cosmopolitan woman cannot live on Italian pastries and Greek takeout alone -- shopping, too, is a necessity. Howard's vote for two of the best boutiques in the square are MDF, or Modern Designer Furnishings, and its sister store, Motto, for chic handmade jewelry, purses, and textiles.

"It's worth coming to the square just for this," she says, walking into MDF. She's obviously a familiar face here. "Hi dear!" she cries to Scott Seltzer, the stores' merchandising guru, who comes over to chat.

"It's great for gifts or if you need a specific thing for your house," Howard says amid a sea of lighting fixtures, blown-glass objects, and picture frames. As it is, she thinks of the cozy stores as extensions of her own space. "My house is an annex."

In a striking blue tunic, jeans, and buffalo-hide shoes, Howard knows her fashion trends, which is what brings her to upscale clothing store Tess and Carlos. But those who swoon at sticker shock might want to steer clear.

"Rob a bank and come to Tess," Howard says as the heavy glass door closes behind her. Ahead are racks filled with clothing by some of the biggest names in the fashion world: Prada, Jil Sander, and Etro. Most male conventioneers won't find quickie gifts for wives or daughters here. But those who can afford it will discover a sartorial fantasy come true.

"It's not for the kids," Howard says slyly, "unless they're rich."

Hayley Kaufman can be reached at hkaufman@globe.com.

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