café latté

Café Pamplona

Café Pamplona, located at 12 Bow St. beside the intersection of Bow and Arrow Streets near Harvard Square, is an unusual and renowned café. When it opened in 1959 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it was the first café in the Square. The owner, Josefina Yanguas, claimed the café had the first espresso-maker in the city. Down a short flight of exterior stairs, past a patio with tables, customers enter the café's subterranean interior. The once austere decor includes bright yellow lights which make the thickly-plastered walls glow under low ceilings, and a black and white checked floor. Having survived the changes that have taken place since the mid-1980s, it has become a staple of the "Old Square."


Josefina Yanguas, who arrived in America in 1947, roughly modelled the café after those of her native Pamplona, Spain. The café became a home away from home for Josefina and a special part of the Cambridge ambience. Yanguas opened the café as a place for people to meet openly and express themselves in public. This philosophy was deeply molded by her formative experiences in Franco's Spain. Known by the staff and the public simply as Josefina, she was an integral and loved part of the Cambridge community for over fifty years. The café is sustained almost entirely by foot traffic and word of mouth, as she never believed in advertising. Even the black sign over the door is hardly visible, compared to the myriad of signs found today on public thoroughfares.

From 1959 until her death in 2007, Josefina Yanguas was the only owner of the café. She was also responsible for opening "Iruña," the Spanish restaurant set back off JFK St. in Harvard Square. Opened in the late 1960s, Iruña is named after the Basque term for Pamplona. Yanguas was inspired by a sign at the outskirts of her native city that included both the Spanish and Basque renderings of the name. Yanguas, who was Basque by descent, embodied this duality, as an integral part of her adopted homeland, yet decidedly Spanish.

The menu is a combination of strong coffee, dessert, and Spanish main courses supplemented by grilled Cuban sandwiches. Menu staples include American coffee (until recently still a dollar), Café con leche (similar to a latté for the uninitiated), Medias Noches (the grilled Cuban sandwich with ham, pork, and cheese), and a delicious and authentic flan. The menu has unfailingly remained the same for the last 40 years. Apart from a brief experiment serving tapas from 2002-2004, the menu is identical with only a modicum of additions.

The café is now non-smoking, in accord with Massachusetts law. For years the café was smoke-filled, until a partial smoking ban was put into effect by the City of Cambridge in 2000. Smoking is now permitted only on the terrace.

Pamplona is unusual for its full table service. The uniformed waiters don white shirts, black ties, and black pants and shoes. The waitstaff has always had unique latitude in their outlook toward the public. As owner, Yanguas maintained a laissez faire philosophy toward her employees' interactions with customers. She staunchly believed the relationship between waiter and customer was "50/50", as she put it. The Zagat guide has always noted the staff's eccentric service style, often with tongue in cheek.

Shortly after the café's inception Yanguas and her loyal Cuban chef Juana Rodríguez began preparing and serving food. As business grew Yanguas began to hire only men, in accord with Spanish habits. This practice lasted until 1999. In the Fall of that year this policy was revealed by the Harvard Crimson. This hiring practice, known tacitly for years, was in keeping with the common Spanish tradition of hiring entirely one sex or the other. At the time of the article, a disgruntled Cambridge citizen threw a brick through a window of the café. Due to necessity and forward-looking manager James Timberlake, Jenny Follen was hired in late 1999, the first female employee in 40 years. Since that time the café has observed standard, more sensitive, hiring practices.

The café proudly acknowledges the diversity of its clientèle. The interaction between customers and staff forms an integral part of the café's appeal. Café regulars have included an endless number of neighborhood devotees returning daily for the past 20 to 30 years. It is well-known for attracting both bohemians and academics from both nearby Harvard University and the greater Cambridge community. Notable patrons of the café include Amanda Palmer.

The small mural on a wall in the cafe was painted fresco-style directly on site, by local artist Conger Metcalf, a friend of the owner. Completed some time in the late Sixties, its yellowed background is due to years of exposure to cigarette smoke. During this period the walls in the café needed to be repainted every four years as they would significantly yellow from smoke. While the central figure looks strikingly like Yanguas, she claimed it was not her portrait.

In December 2004, after 46 years, Yanguas decided to close the Pamplona. Intent on selling the café, the process dragged on with no significant prospects. Finally in May 2005, she reopened the Café. Yanguas died on August 1, 2007 at the age of 90.

Pamplona references

Throughout the years the café and Josefina's house have been mentioned by a variety of media outlets. It has won best café in the Boston area in Improper Bostonian, and other local publications. In 2000 an architectural exposé was written about Josefina's apartment in the Boston Globe Magazine. The café has been mentioned on NPR and in variety of artists' reflections. Because of its atmosphere and history, Pamplona served as the inspiration for a variety of artists and thinkers. Reminiscent anecdotes of reading, working and talking in the café are recounted by a number of Harvard and Cambridge luminaries.

  • The location for one of the scenes in the film version of Prozac Nation.
  • Accounts of the café regularly appear in memoirs, including Pepper White's The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT.
  • In April 2004 painter and sculptor (and former head waiter 1999-2005), Jeffrey P. Smith, built an art installation for the Boston Museum School 5th Year program. Called "Space for Solitude", it was largely based on architectural details of the café. The door which had been on the café since its opening (1959-2004) was the same door used in Smith's installation. In his catalogue essay he dedicated the work in part to owner Josefina Yanguas.
  • In January and February 2006, the café's courtyard was the site of a temporary public art installation by DeWitt Godfrey titled "Pamplona," and sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council.
  • Café Pamplona is mentioned in The Dresden Dolls' song "Truce".
    "You can have Africa, Asia, Australia, as long as you keep your hands off Café Pamplona."
  • Café Pamplona is also mentioned in the 2003 Jhumpa Lahiri novel The Namesake
  • Café Pamplona appears in the background of the rooftop photo of Claudia Gonson in the booklet accompanying the The Magnetic Fields' CD box set of 69 Love Songs


  • Cafe Pamplona & Cambridge Iruna Cookbook, by Josefina Yanguas,, February, 2005, ISBN 1411623568 ISBN 978-1411623569


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