CAMBRIDGE (CBS) – “Can we, like, come here all the time and plot rebellions and stuff?” a college student asked his friend as they ducked inside the basement cafe looking for change for a dollar. Something about Cafe Pamplona does evoke a revolutionary feeling, although it’s unclear just what gives that impression at first glance.
There’s no hiding the fact that it’s in a basement: the ceiling is almost uncomfortably low, even for me, and I barely reach five feet. It’s held up by square pillars, and pipes are visible around the edges. The floor, black and white checkers, is scuffed and uneven; the pale yellow walls are decorated by just one painting, a mural faded by the years that cigarette smoke was allowed and embraced indoors.
Yes, it’s been around that long. The grand opening? 1959. Josefina Yanguas, the original owner, modeled the cafe after coffee houses in her native Pamplona, a city in northern Spain. Aside from a brief hiatus in 2004, she continued to operate the cafe until her death at age 90 in 2007. In the early days, it operated as a salon; Cambridge’s artists and intellectuals would gather and sit for hours to philosophize over coffee. Now, it seems a bit more subdued, although the history is lurking there somewhere. Something about the cramped underground space makes you feel suspended in time as you slowly nurse a pot of tea.
I’ve found myself in Cafe Pamplona on several occasions, always before a show at Club Oberon, which is just around the corner. On the most recent visit, taking place on a rainy and gloomy day in late June, I made my way through a pot of yerba mate while enjoying a special from the chalkboard, a simple yet fantastic spinach salad with goat cheese, candied walnuts, and dried cranberries. I eventually finished with a limoncello gelato, which was heavenly.
The close quarters lend themselves nicely to fantastic eavesdropping, and although the talk might no longer be of bohemian revolutions and the like, there are still plenty of interesting things to hear. Of the conversations appropriate to share here, I can tell you that the chocolate mousse is apparently to die for.
Cafe Pamplona is somewhere between a cafe and a restaurant; you can stay forever over just a pot of tea, reading or chatting or staring into space, or you can order a meal. Either way, there’s table service, and you won’t be rushed. It’s like a slower-paced (and better) Tealuxe, and the staff adheres to the European tradition of remaining aloof until you ask for your check. Despite the tiny space, be prepared to be dutifully ignored if you’re too shy to flag a server down.
Perhaps the glory days of Cafe Pamplona are over – I never experienced it firsthand back in the day, so I don’t know for sure – but nowadays it’s still worth a visit if you’re looking for a cozy, hidden spot to sit uninterrupted, brooding over a pot of tea or a cup of espresso.
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Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.