Harvard Square is world famous for being home to the world’s most prestigious university. Kendall Square is word famous for being the so-called “most innovative square mile on the planet.” And right in between them is the neglected middle child that is Central Square, a place that isn’t even known outside of 128, let alone known around the world.
But what Central Square lacks in Nobel laureates and labs where mice are genetically engineered to speak Russian, it makes up for in live music, legit urban energy you don’t get in the rest of Cambridge, and some fantastic restaurants and bars. Here are the very best of them.
With a menu of dishes like Duxbury oysters, Essex clams, and Maine lamb, Craigie on Main is about as New England as a restaurant can get (assuming Dunks doesn’t start selling codfish munchkins). This place is always busy, but that’s because it’s a white tablecloth place that’s a lot of fun, thanks to a great cocktail list and an open kitchen. Don’t feel obligated to line up early for the famous limited burger (it’s not going to change your life), but keep this place in mind for the next time you really want to impress someone.
Little Donkey is a big place that hits the sweet spot between bar and restaurant. It’s also got a really broad menu of small plates that covers everything from Italian to Thai food, so it’s a great place to bring a group that can’t figure out what they want to eat before heading out for the night. The drinks are especially fun (one of them comes inside of a grapefruit).
There aren’t a lot of Japanese-Spanish restaurants in Boston but Pagu doesn’t make this list based on novelty alone. With a menu of things like uni toast, squid ink oyster bao, and black cod served on a smoking piece of cedar, this is a really good, interesting restaurant where you’ll want to try every dish that comes out of the kitchen. The bar, which is packed just about every night, is really fun too, so we suggest popping in for a drink and a small plate several times until you’ve made your way through the whole menu.
Brick and Mortar is a speakeasy hidden above Central Kitchen that serves daiquiri shots. That’s reason enough to come here, but if tiny little glasses of tropical goodness aren’t enough for you, know that it’s also one of the coolest places in Cambridge to grab a drink, thanks to a small but well-done cocktail menu and a dark, modern space that feels like a loft party filled with people you’re actually interested in talking to. The small menu is great too, especially if you like duck fries with melted gruyere.
Cuchi Cuchi on Main is filled with 1920s burlesque decor that makes you want to wear an entire peacock’s worth of feathers and call someone “barkeep.” They have stained glass lamps, servers wear lace gloves, and there are occasional burlesque costume contests. While the menu of small plates that features everything from sushi to Chicken Kiev is fun, the drinks are better than the food, so this place is best used as a bar hangout.
With a genuinely disgusting bathroom, a cash-only bar, and faux stone walls that haven’t been touched since 1972, most people would call Cantab Lounge a dive. Maybe it is, but this is Cambridge, so the dives here have weekly poetry slams. The drink selection is pretty basic and there’s no food (you can bring it in from outside,) but you’re coming here to have a sloppy good time with nightly live music.
The live music at La Fabrica usually doesn’t get going until about 9pm on most nights. And that’s about when you should try to get here, because while the ceviche-heavy menu is fine, when it’s combined with some fruity cocktails, Brazilian jazz, and the occasional Big Papi sighting (so we hear), then La Fabrica is probably more fun than any other place in Central Square (or at least, more fun than your apartment). If you want to go nuts, order one of the rice dishes that’s doused in rum and lit on fire, because you can’t tell us you’ve never been tempted to douse something in rum in light it on fire.
When you’re thinking of where to go out on a Friday night, a vegan diner and bakery probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your head. But Veggie Galaxy fills up every weekend with people partying and plant basing (that’s like freebasing, but legal and involving a lot more quinoa). The bakery up front is 100% vegan, not that you’d be able to tell from the cheesecake. The rest of the menu is vegetarian (though everything can be made vegan), and consists of dinner standards for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you don’t know where to start, you can’t go wrong with the falafel burger.
Actual speakeasies hid craps tables and illegal booze. Nowadays, speakeasies hide Tetris and skeeball. Walk through the cooler door at Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and you’ll find A4Cade, an arcade and bar filled with people playing Tron, drinking local beers, and nerding out over the Game of Thrones and Simpsons themed cocktails. The food menu is essentially Roxy’s selection of grilled cheese, burgers, and hot dogs, so get the muenster club and try not to think about the fact that you now worry a lot more about exchanging germs while playing Guitar Hero than you did when you were younger.
Sushi is good, and live jazz is good, so by the transitive property, Mad Monkfish, which has both, is good too (we’re pretty sure that’s how the transitive property works, anyway, go ask John Nash to check our work). This Mass Ave sushi place is a great neighborhood spot that’s a lot of fun, even when there isn’t music (Sun-Wed, usually). The two dining rooms are almost always packed, the rolls that take their inspiration from fairy tales and are topped with strawberries and crispy noodles, and there’s a sidewalk patio.
The Plough and Stars is about as comfortable a little pub you’re likely to find, the type of place where you’ll sit down for a beer with a few friends in the afternoon and end up staying all night. It also helps that there’s free live music every night, a $10 burger and beer special during the day, and a menu of stuff you don’t usually find in a pub, like lamb bolognese and smoked gouda mac and cheese.
Asmara is a small, casual Eritrean restaurant where you have the option of eating at a wicker basket instead of a table. Tables are boring, so go with the wicker basket instead and fill it up with meaty stews that have some serious heat. If gluten’s your enemy, call ahead and they’ll make the injira without wheat for you.
As a general rule of thumb, if you see a counter and a handful of booths in the back of an Indian grocery store, you should probably order something from there and eat it - it’s going to be good. For proof, head to the Dosa Factory and get a savory pancake so big it could almost be used as a kettlebell. They have fun varieties like Peking duck and corn and jalapeno in addition to the standard vindaloo and tikka masala. And if you’re not in the mood for a dosa at all, you can explore the large menu that covers just about anything you’re likely to find at an Indian restaurant. Don’t leave without getting one of the pastries (we liked the pistachio roll best).
It’s often hard to get a table at Viale, but you can always walk-in at the bar or a high-top table. That’s good, because the Italian menu at this bright, modern spot on Mass Ave is perfect for when you don’t know where else to go on a Tuesday night. The small plates are our favorite section of the menu (particularly the toast with duck liver mousse), but the pasta gets the job done, too.
You won’t be completely tricked into thinking you’re in the Old City of Jerusalem when you walk into Andala on Franklin Street (after all, there’s an Enterprise Rent-A-Car across the street and a Subway up the block). But with gold chandeliers, Persian rugs, and hookah pipes, this place comes pretty close to the real deal. The menu features big plates of shakshuka, hummus platters, and meat pies, so you can use this place for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just as a casual coffee shop. When the weather’s nice, the vine-covered patio out front is one of the most pleasant outdoor spaces in the city.
Sometimes Phoenix Landing is a European soccer bar. Sometimes it’s an Irish Pub. And sometimes it’s a dance club. In other words, like you, this place is complex. The food isn’t bad, considering it’s a standard bar menu of wings, burgers, and buffalo chicken wraps, and the fish and chips has a right proper beer batter.
Thankfully, the planet didn’t descend into a nuclear winter during the Cold War, so Soviet propaganda posters and unexploded missile shells now work as funny bar decorations. People’s Republik is a great little beer bar on the outer edge of the square that has pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara on the walls in addition to a darts board and (weirdly since no one ever dances here) disco balls. With things like Cuban sandwiches and New York strip steak, the menu is surprisingly broad for bar food, but ultimately it’s still just bar food, so don’t come here for dinner - come here to drink and plot a revolution (or maybe just argue about Medicare For All).