Harvard Square

Grendel's Den, the Harvard Square restaurant that took its battle for a liquor license all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, won that license yesterday, 12 years after it first applied for it and nearly six years after its court fight began.

The Cambridge License Commission voted 2 to 1 to award a liquor license to Grendel's, whose owners had thought the restaurant's long dry spell was over back in December when the Supreme Court, in an 8-to-1 decision, held unconstitutional a Massachusetts law that gave churches veto power over liquor licenses for establishments located within 500 feet of them.

The Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church across the street had turned thumbs down on liquor at Grendel's. The restaurant, capitalizing on its proximity to the university, managed to enlist the aid of Harvard Law School professor--and Grendel's patron--Laurence H. Tribe, one of the country's most prominent constitutional scholars.

After the Supreme Court victory, however, Grendel's found itself battling other area residents who complained that there already were enough places to drink in Harvard Square, a mecca for the tens of thousands of students in the Boston area.

Tribe, who is more accustomed to arguing before the Supreme Court than in front of municipal agencies, pleaded his clients' case at a commission hearing last week.

"I'm delighted," Tribe said after the vote. "A potentially pyrrhic victory has resulted in a concrete victory for a restaurant that was victimized for so long by an unconstitutional veto."

Grendel's owner, Herbert Kuelzer, said the restaurant needs a liquor license to survive.

"Liquor is where you make the money," he said. "We have lost $120,000 in the last five years because it can't serve drinks."

But the vote came to the consternation of members of the Harvard Square Defense Fund, an association of area residents and merchants that noted that the number of liquor licenses--now 39--has increased by nearly 40 percent in the last four years and argued that issuing new permits would bring crime, vagrancy and rowdiness.

While Grendel's, with its exposed brick walls and classical music playing in the background, is more the type of place that attracts bearded graduate students than rowdy jocks, some members complained that issuing a license would just add to the dirt and congestion of the square, where the problem of finding a parking place approaches the same magnitude as in Georgetown on a Saturday night.

"I've lived all my life in Cambridge, and so did my father and my grandfather, and the changes I have seen have just been tremendous," said fund secretary Mary Commas. "That's not to say that all the changes are bad, but I think we should maintain an aura of a very old historic college town, and if we ruin it with a lot of small liquor places all over Harvard Square we are destroying our heritage."

In fact, the fund won a victory today as well, when the board voted unanimously to deny a beer and wine license to Ruggles, a new pizzeria in the square, on the grounds that Grendel's had purchased an existing permit, whereas letting Ruggles serve alcohol would add to the total number of liquor licenses.

The Defense Fund's fight against bars is part of its continuing struggle to preserve the area's potpourri of eccentric independent shops against the encroachment of large developments.

The fund has won some battles, most notably preventing the building of the Kennedy Library a few blocks away.

But there is no doubt that Harvard Square is changing. Two of its oldest shops, Schoenhof's Foreign Books and Pangloss Bookshop, have announced that they will close to make room for a new office complex.

The Defense Fund's next skirmish comes Thursday, when it will fight a zoning permit for Dream Machine, a video game parlor.