According to people who rank things, Boston is one of the smartest metropolitan area in the country. While stepping outside for two seconds on St. Patrick’s Day may lead you to believe otherwise, take a trip across the Charles to Cambridge and you’ll see why it’s true. There aren’t a lot of cities in the world where you can get on a bus and find yourself squeezed in between a Nobel Prize winning physicist on one side and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on the other, but Cambridge is one of them.
Unsurprisingly, all the smart people in Cambridge made sure to fill their city up with a bunch of great restaurants. Below, we’ve listed 15 of the very best. If you’re smart, you’ll try each one.
The bathroom at Pagu, which is filled with pictures of pugs, is reason enough to visit this big Japanese-Spanish spot in Central Square. But it’s probably better to go for the hamachi sashimi, squid ink unagi bao, or black cod served on a still-smoking piece of cedar. The bar, which is packed just about every night, is really fun, too, so you might as well keep popping in for a drink and a small plate until you’ve tried the whole menu.
photo credit: Emily Kan
Waypoint in Harvard Square is a big restaurant that always feels like a party. That could have something to do with the fact that it offers at least four different absinthe cocktails every night and the music is always blasting. But it’s really because of their exciting seafood dishes that put classic Boston seafood restaurants (whose menus are inspired from the goopy chowder that was served at the Kennebunkport Yacht Club’s 1989 awards dinner) to shame. Don’t miss the uni bucatini, octopus meatballs, and the wood grilled striped bass.
photo credit: Natalie Schaefer
Yume Wo Katare
The only thing on the menu at Yume Wo Katare in Porter Square is a giant bowl of pork ramen with thick noodles, incredibly rich broth, and so much garlic that even an Olive Garden would be impressed. If not having a choice in what you eat freaks you out, get over it. The bowl here is absolutely worth waiting in line for and, after you finish, you’ll be asked to share your dreams out loud to the other 15-20 diners in this tiny classroom of a ramen shop (yup, that’s a thing that happens here).
photo credit: Natalie Schaefer
Sofra is technically a cafe, but instead of stale croissants and someone sitting on a laptop in the corner, it has a bunch of Turkish mezze plus other specialties. The menu is pretty big but we like the beet tzatziki, zucchini pancakes, shakshuka, and sausage pita. This tiny place is always crowded (at least when the patio isn’t open) but that’s because you could easily have three great meals in here every day (though it closes at 5:30pm, so you might want to get dinner to-go).
photo credit: Tina Picz
Pammy’s on Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Squares has a spacious dining room filled with Italian antiques and a glass-encased fireplace. It feels a little fancy and they take their Italian food seriously, but it’s relaxed and works well for a fun, unstuffy date. Don't miss the gochujang-heavy lumache or whatever super in-season greens are on the menu.
Giulia on the edge of Porter Square is hard to get into, which is too bad because we would love to be regulars. Everyone packs into the small dark dining room to make their way through the menu of pasta that’s impossible to get sick of. Luckily, the spacious bar is available for walk-ins only, so you can always try to pop in for some rye orecchiette. The dark, brick-walled dining room is perfect for a casual date night, and if you’re with a group, book the pasta table for a family-style tasting menu.
photo credit: Oleana
Oleana on the edge of Inman Square has one of best hidden patios in the city. But don’t wait to go here until it’s nice out. This cozy Mediterranean restaurant has a big menu of lemon chicken, tamarind beef, and lamb tender enough that you could probably blow it apart.
Go to Muqueca in Inman Square on even a wet, cold afternoon in winter and you’ll probably find regulars inside speaking Portuguese with the waitstaff. Once you try the rich shrimp bobo and the eponymous muqueca (a giant seafood curry with a sweet broth and your choice of fish shrimp, or squid) for yourself, you’ll become a faithful rainy day regular, too. The rest of the seafood-heavy menu at this casual Brazilian spot is good enough to enjoy year-round, though, and when the weather’s nice, switch over from the stews to the juices - they have one with mint and pineapple that you’ll find yourself craving even if craving drinks that lack either alcohol or caffeine in them isn’t usually your thing.
photo credit: Emily Kan
Alden & Harlow
At Alden & Harlow, it should be a rule that no two people at the same table can order the same drink. The cocktails are so good and interesting at this big, fun spot in Harvard Square that you should share them the same way you do with the small plates. Having said that, the small plates are pretty good too. The menu is broad, with things like steak tartare, and smoked clams served with zucchini, pecorino, and pesto, so come here with a group of friends and try as much as you can.
Alive & Kicking Lobsters
If New England ever secedes, President Ortiz will probably place his hand on a lobster roll instead of a Bible when he’s sworn in as the first president of the breakaway republic. Split-top buns filled with fresh lobster meat are that important to us. So it’s bold of Alive and Kicking to serve their “lobster sandwich” on two pieces of buttered toast instead of a roll. But maybe they know better, because it’s excellent. Your other menu options at this little fish market with a handful of picnic tables are limited to whole boiled lobsters, a small selection of chowder and bisque, and plastic trays of steamer clams that will leave butter on your fingers for hours.
photo credit: Natalie Schaefer
The dough at Area Four in Kendall Square ferments for over 24 hours. That’s the pizza equivalent of beauty rest, and it works. This spacious spot with big windows kind of feels like a cafeteria for one of the nearby pharma companies, but you’ll struggle to find a better pizza place in Boston, especially when you factor in the outstanding selection of craft beer on tap. Get any of the pizzas that have meat toppings and you’ll be in good shape.
Puritan & Co.
You’ve probably never considered whether mustard gelato pairs well with swordfish pastrami, just like you’ve never considered whether unicorn fur pants pair well with glass slippers. At Puritan and Company, though, not only will you find things on the menu you never even imagined existed, but you’ll also find that they’re really, really good. This farmhouse-type place in Inman Square focuses on traditional New England food (meaning, a lot of seafood) but it also does a great job with things like burrata with roasted pepper, grilled peaches, basil, and focaccia, and seafood risotto.
There aren’t a lot of delis that have beer on tap, but there also aren’t a lot of delis that have smoked whitefish salad you’d eat twice in the same day, (telling yourself that, since it has the word “salad” in it, it’s healthy). If all of that, plus incredibly crispy latkes, house pastrami bacon, and chocolate tahini sound like your kind of thing, then head to Mamaleh’s in Kendall Square the next time you’re looking for a casual lunch spot, or you want a breakfast menu that doesn’t have eight pages of eggs.
In the same way that wearing glasses doesn’t actually make you ugly, being an uncreatively named sushi spot in a strip mall doesn’t mean you can’t be one of the very best in Cambridge. Cafe Sushi is only available for delivery and takeout where they offer a la carte menu of rolls and nigiri and weekly specials.
Gustazo Cuban Kitchen & Bar
It’s hard to figure out the best part of Gustazo, a Porter Square Cuban spot that started in Waltham. When you first get here, you’ll assume that the best part is how it feels like a Cuban tourism ad come to life. Then you’ll order a drink and think that the best part is the cocktail menu filled with things like a drink made from cigar-infused aged rum. And then you’ll get to the food and find that you just keep ordering all night long, because there doesn’t seem to be a dud on the entire menu, and some things, like the garbanzo beans with smokey almond sofrito, are as good as any version you’ve ever had. Come here with friends (your fun ones, not the ones you constantly have to defend to other people), get anything on the menu that has pork in it, and have a great time.