Rooted in Cambridge: Darwin’s LTD
Tucked between the brick facades and hustle and bustle of Harvard Square stands Darwin’s Ltd.’s first location on Mount Auburn Street — a Cambridge business to it’s roots, and a successful neighborhood sandwich and coffee shop for over 24 years. Inside, you can order some of the best coffee in the city along with sandwiches that quite literally burst at the seams with flavor.
Darwin’s Ltd. was founded by Steven and Isabel Darwin in 1993, and year after year they are evolving while staying true to their unique history. Since opening the first Darwin’s in 1993, Steve and Isabel have expanded with two more locations, both in Cambridge. In fact, Cambridge is the only place in the world you’ll be able to sample the goodness that Darwin’s has to offer — something that is deliberate and stems from their incredible love for this city of squares.
Much like our city, Darwin’s Ltd. and the owners themselves are wonderfully creative, and passionate. Together these ingredients embody the true spirit of Cantabrigians. We had the opportunity to sit down with Isabel and Steve to learn more about the story behind those famous sandwiches and expertly brewed beverages. We wanted to know: how did Darwin’s start? Why Cambridge? And how did they come up with the names for their most memorable menu items? Read on to get to know the story of Darwin’s and the couple behind its doors:
What inspired you to open Darwin’s LTD 24 years ago?
Steve: We lived down the street from our original Mount Auburn Street location, which was the former Mount Auburn Market. We would reluctantly go there or to Sage’s Market in Harvard Square to pick up cream for our coffee or explore the neighborhood on a Sunday morning searching for a decent coffee shop. We already had some previous deli/cafe experience elsewhere, but now we needed jobs so we thought, why not us? The neighborhood needed a place like Darwin’s.
What is your background, and how did Darwin’s get it’s start?
Isabel: Steve is the finance guy, and I had a lot of experience in restaurant industry. So after we decided to go for it and open Darwin’s, I came up with the menu and started making soups off of a hot plate, as well as sandwiches and salads.
Steve: We didn’t have a kitchen when we first opened, so we had to cook everything on an electric hot plate for the first few months.
Isabel: But we built everything in here, all of the counters, painted the walls, everything! There just wasn’t any other way. We were young and foolish enough to actually do this.
Darwin’s boasts an impressive selection of menu items — how did you come up with the recipes for some of your most popular sandwiches?
Isabel: Some of them are sandwiches I made as a kid — like the Italian sub for example. Some recipes were made after past memories: the Hot Pastrami sandwich with Russian Dressing and coleslaw was named after a high school boyfriend . I didn’t appreciate it back then, but now it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
How did you come up with the names of your sandwiches?
Isabel: We thought it would be a clever idea to name the sandwiches after the neighborhood streets. It made sense for us to bring the neighborhood around us inside our doors and nobody had done it yet.
Naming the sandwiches after streets was kind of random, but I did take inspiration where I could. There was a Gerry Street after which the previously mentioned hot pastrami sandwich; the chicken salad sandwich had apples in it, and there was an Appleton Street in the neighborhood. It just worked, and the neighborhood loved it.
We had to ask: why did you choose the name Darwin’s Ltd.?
Isabel: Steve shares an official bloodline with THE Charles Robert Darwin. Charles and Steve’s father, Roy West Darwin, are two of many descendants of William Darwin and Jane Wilkinson. So yes, Steve and Charles Darwin share a family tree and some of the same ancestors.
Steve: We chose the name Darwin’s because simply, that’s our name. We fiddled around with adding obvious words to it like “evolutionary” but we opted out because less is more in this case. We added the English suffix “Ltd.” in place of the standard American “Inc.” to relate to our English ancestry. And Darwin’s Inc. was already taken, anyways.
You’ve been a Cambridge business for 24 years and have successfully opened three locations, most recently on Mass Ave. Could you share what you feel has made Darwin’s Ltd. such a success?
Isabel: Deliciously messy sandwiches.
Steve: When we first opened and for many years afterward, we had a lunch line out the door because we were the only ones around offering unique, local community as well as award-winning coffee and sandwiches.
Isabel: We also like to give our managers and employees the relative freedom to to foster their own creativity, and it’s that authenticity that has proved successful over the years.
Why do you enjoy being a Cambridge business?
Steve: I love the city of Cambridge! I flat out love this city and it has been so good to our family. Our daughter went to school here. Everyone has always been so nice and so kind to us.
Isabel: We get offers to open a Darwin’s in Boston all the time, but if Steve can’t get there on his three-speed English bicycle, it’s too far.
Steve: We decided a long-time ago that we would be a Cambridge-specific business. No question. We fit it and it fits us. Cambridge is a culturally unique place.
What is your favorite thing to do in Cambridge?
Steve: We love to go out and support other local businesses! Whether it’s going out to eat at places like Puritan & Co., The Druid, or Cafe Luna or visiting the Harvard Museum of Natural History, we like to get out in the city — especially if we can walk or bike there.
Darwin’s on Mass Ave is now offering coffee cocktails! What inspired this new menu addition?
Isabel: When we opened the third store, we wanted a pouring license....And then we decided to sell cordials. Not many coffee shops are serving cordials, so it’s something that differentiates us from others. The Shoeless Joe is my favorite!
Steve: I’m more of a beer guy, but I think all the cordials are great!
In what ways do you feel Darwin’s Ltd. has changed the most since you first opened?
Isabel: I think the word is...We’ve evolved.
If you’d like to try one of Darwin’s Ltd.’s famous soups, sandwiches, coffees and coffee cocktails (21+ only please!) for yourself, you can find your neighborhood location here. Share your visit with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @darwinsltd!
photos by: Kyle Klein Photography
cover photos via Instagram: @britanycaruso_sennere @jonahnkane @darwinsltd