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."
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.
"You can have Africa, Asia, Australia, as long as you keep your hands off Café Pamplona."