Long overshadowed by its trendier and more prosperous neighbor, Harvard Square, Cambridge’s Central Square is a diverse neighborhood featuring an eclectic array of ethnic eateries and retail shops, as well as upscale restaurants and bars. Nearly demolished during the 1950s—officials planned to build an eight-lane highway directly through it—Central Square was spared, only to suffer from increasing crime and general decay throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
But the neighborhood experienced a renaissance and today boasts a range of establishments, from cute cafés and trendy nightclubs to technology start-ups and pharmaceutical companies like Novartis. Still, Central Square retains a certain grittiness that lends it an air of unpolished authenticity—which is precisely what makes it so appealing.
If you go to Central Square, be sure to check out the following places.
Miracle of Science Bar + Grill
321 Massachusetts Ave.
This geek-chic bar’s claim to fame rests in its periodic table chalkboard menu that hangs on the wall behind the bar. The menu gives the watering hole a quirky charm, with items color coded into five unique groups—sandwiches, quesadillas, appetizers, desserts, and skewers—and organized just as if they were on a true periodic table. It’s best to make sure that you’re seated within view of the chalkboard, as there are no physical menus to be had. The place draws a mixed crowd of computer wonks, scientists, and artists.
403 Massachusetts Ave.
Breakfast, lunch, and brunch never looked so good. This small café specializes in fabulous omelets (fig, prosciutto, and goat cheese or chipotle black bean and avocado are two of their standouts), French toast stuffed with chocolate and marshmallow crème, and chocolate chip pancakes with caramelized bananas and pecans. From specialty breakfast wraps to double thick Belgian waffles, Café Luna’s four-page weekend brunch menu is packed with so many mouthwatering options that it’s almost impossible to decide what to order. And best of all, their weekend brunch is served from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (good news for anyone who likes to sleep in), but it’s best to email or call well in advance to make a reservation.
424 Massachusetts Ave.
One look at Mariposa’s chalkboard menus, and you’ll see a trend: everything’s homemade, including their soup, baked goods, and bread. In addition to the wide selection of homemade goods, you can also sip fair trade and organic coffee or tea, but be sure not to leave Mariposa until you have tried their signature pretzel rolls.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Established in 2008, Central Square Theater is a collaboration between two nonprofits: Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater. Each company dates back decades (Nora to 1978, URT to 1988), but growing audiences and the high cost of production space prodded the move to this joint home. Besides performances, URT runs acting classes for children (ages 6–16), workshops for schools, museums, and cultural groups, and artist-in-residence programs. The collaboration won a “best practice” nod from the Boston Foundation. Check out ticket options and special student pricing here.
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Moksa is best known for its Pan Asian tapas, which allow guests to sample a multitude of flavors and styles in one meal. Small plates include ribs, lamb shish kebab, and chicken yakitori. The restaurant also features more typical fare like spring rolls, edamame, and miso soup, as well as an extensive sushi selection and a nationally recognized “top 100 wine list.” The front bar has become a popular place to gather for drinks after work. Moksa also has an online takeout menu.
450 Massachusetts Ave.
With its assortment of booths, counters, and stools, Veggie Galaxy has the feel of a classic diner. It also has a classic diner menu—omelets, pancakes, fries, burgers, sandwiches, and pies galore—but with a twist. As its name suggests, you won’t find a club sandwich with bacon, a tuna melt, or a beef hamburger here. What you will find is baked mac and cheese, mushroom chickpea burgers, and a club sandwich made with grilled tempeh bacon, smoked tofu, balsamic roasted tomato, romaine, red onion, basil pesto, and roasted garlic mayo. The restaurant also has oodles of vegan options (vegan cheese can be substituted for any of the cheeses) and a separate gluten-free menu. And in the spirit of all great American diners, breakfast is served all day.
The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub
472 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1970 as a Lebanese restaurant, the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub offers first-rate Middle Eastern cuisine and is a fixture on Boston’s rock and roll music scene. With four venues, the Middle East showcases local and national acts. Downstairs houses the larger shows, the Upstairs hosts local bands and smaller touring acts, and the Corner contains the larger restaurant and a stage. ZuZu has a separate kitchen; its Soulelujah dance night on Saturdays, when DJs spin soul, funk, and R&B, is wildly popular. With at least one performance every night of the week, there’s always something happening at the Middle East.
536 Massachusetts Ave.
Follow the beat of the drums to the Dance Complex. Established in 1991, the artist-run, volunteer-based center has been heralded as one of the forces that began Central Square’s renaissance. Dance Complex features six studios and offers classes in Iranian, Indian, African/Afro-fusion, ballet, hip-hop, flamenco, and tap, among others. In addition, the complex offers performances by local dance companies, children’s dance classes, and resident and guest artists. Find a schedule of classes here.
538 Massachusetts Ave.
One of the few businesses to survive the neighborhood’s tumultuous history, Cheapo Records has been in Central Square since 1954. Employees estimate the store carries more than 100,000 vinyl LPs and about the same number of 45s, with hundreds of thousands more in storage. Many, both new and used, are collectibles. While the shop specializes in R&B, soul, and oldies, its inventory contains records from all artists and genres. The prices can be a bit steep, so be prepared to open your wallet. CDs, DVDs, and cassette tapes are also for sale.
567 Massachusetts Ave.
If you’re looking for a night on the town, and you don’t mind spending a little cash, stop by Central Kitchen. The food, best described as Mediterranean-inspired comfort fare, combines flavors from Spain, Italy, and the south of France, and the menu, though small, changes constantly. The restaurant features an excellent raw bar and the food’s artistic presentation is complemented by the subdued lighting and candlelit copper tables. Central Kitchen takes only a limited number of reservations, so arrive early on weekends.
Artist & Craftsman Supply
580 Massachusetts Ave.
Employee-owned Artist & Craftsman Supply is an artist’s dream come true. From the paint-splattered steps to the colorful geometric floor to the multicolored ceilings, the store is like a rainbow. You’ll find a wide selection of art products, like canvas, paints, inks, brushes, pastels, charcoals, paper, and markers, as well as a few specialty items, such as exotic papers. There is also a custom framing area.
581 Massachusetts Ave.
A longtime supporter of sustainable agriculture, fair trade, and family farms, Harvest Co-op is a member-owned, board-run natural foods store that offers a huge selection of fruits and vegetables (local and organic when possible) and a huge bulk-food and spice section. Prices are reasonable, and members receive additional discounts.
581 Massachusetts Ave.
Arriving in Central Square just this year, H-Mart is your one-stop shop for an extensive selection of Asian groceries and cuisine. The 18,000-square-foot space is located just steps from the Central Square T stop on the Red Line and boasts a vast range of items, including kimchee, Japanese sodas, seafood, banchan, sauces and spices, dried food, and—of course—ramen. H-Mart even carries health and beauty products, small appliances like pressure cookers and electric skillets, and baby products. There’s also a food court, which H-Mart shares with Sapporo Ramen, Go! Go! Curry, and Paris Baguette.
704 Massachusetts Ave.
True to its name, at Four Burgers you can actually order four different types of burgers: beef, turkey, salmon, and black bean, all hormone and additive-free and topped with fresh ingredients like salsa, cranberry chutney, and guacamole. Sides include hand-cut potato chips and sweet potato fries, and the ice cream is from Richardson’s Dairy in Middleton, Mass. Four Burgers uses only grass-fed beef that is sourced locally, coming from farms in New England and New York.
738 Massachusetts Ave.
In 1957, Little Joe Cook recorded a minor R&B novelty called “Peanuts.” The song was a one-hit wonder, but Cook went on to become a Cambridge legend, jamming every weekend at the Cantab. Cook is retired, but the unpretentious bar continues to thrive, hosting live entertainment seven days a week. Come for cheap beer and stay for Monday’s singer-songwriter open microphone, Tuesday’s bluegrass jams, Wednesday’s poetry slams, Thursday’s classic soul, Friday and Saturday’s dance bands, and Sunday’s blues jam.
739 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1986, Asmara is Boston’s oldest Eritrean restaurant. Named after the capital of the northeastern African nation of Eritrea, Asmara specializes in spicy African cuisine that is similar to Ethiopian cuisine. Be sure to wash your hands before you come; there’s no silverware here. Diners scoop the food with pieces of injera—a spongy, sour, fermented flatbread made from rice flour and teff. Served at traditional mesobs, large table-like baskets, the meals are hearty and authentic. For a unique experience, try the zihla: cubes of raw tenderloin beef tips lightly fermented in pepper paste and served with spiced butter.
1369 Coffee House
757 Massachusetts Ave.
Located across the street from the city’s main post office and City Hall, 1369 Coffee House was serving Central Square’s caffeine addicts long before Starbucks opened down the street. This charming coffee shop prides itself on its specialty recipes, including chai tea blend and frozen mocha slide. The shop brews numerous varieties of coffee and fine loose-leaf teas from around the world and sells several varieties of coffee beans for those who like to sip their coffee at home. Homemade muffins and cookies are baked every morning, and local bakers provide scones, croissants, and cakes. Lunch fare consists of homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and quiche.
Garden at the Cellar
991 Massachusetts Ave.
A self-dubbed “gastropub,” Garden at the Cellar models itself after British gastropubs offering beer and food of higher quality than the proverbial pub grub. Culling its ingredients from local farms and gardens, the place serves dinner entrées like spicy lamb gnocchi, steak frites, and aged duck breast. Flatbreads, soups, salads, and small plats du jour round out the menu in a relaxed atmosphere festooned with locally grown herbs and plants.
Andala Coffee House
286 Franklin St.
Andala (“nightingale” in Arabic) is a cozy place to spend an afternoon curled up with a book or chatting with friends. The staff is friendly, and the gleaming hardwood floors, marble-top tables, and Persian rugs offer an old-world elegance. The coffeehouse offers all sorts of teas, Arabic coffees, and a limited—but delicious—breakfast and lunch menu. Try zeit u zaatar and lahneh, a traditional Arabic breakfast of strained yogurt, olives, olive oil, and spices, served with warm bread. And be sure to order the fresh-squeezed orange juice. Andala describes itself as a place “where America meets the old city of Jerusalem, where history and politics, art and culture are served with the authentic tastes of Palestine.”
TT the Bear’s Place
10 Brookline St.
Opened in 1989, this nightclub hosts up-and-coming music acts in a cozy space. Performers hail from Boston and out-of-town (Smashing Pumpkins and Indigo Girls played here back in their salad days), and there’s a poolroom and bar featuring a number of local microbrews. TT’s has live music most nights and no cover charge, but all shows are 18-plus. Check out the calendar here and find information on tickets here.
Pandemonium Books & Games
4 Pleasant St.
A haven for sci-fi fans and gamers alike, Pandemonium has been a Cambridge landmark for over 20 years. The first floor has a broad collection of new and used science fiction, fantasy, and horror books, and the basement is dedicated to the gaming section. The store hosts different gaming events each night, including Monday night Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments.
The Women’s Center
46 Pleasant St.
In 1971, a group of women seized an abandoned Harvard-owned building to protest racism, sexism, and domestic violence. This led to the establishment of the Women’s Center, a community center that provides crisis intervention and counseling for women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom are uninsured. Monthly workshops focus on topics such as diversity, health issues, personal empowerment, and economic literacy. Volunteer opportunities and internships are available. For more information, call 617-354-6394.
Rangzen Tibet Restaurant
24 Pearl St.
Rangzen is the perfect eatery for vegetarians. Nearly half of the menu is meatless (there are vegan options too) and the food is flavorful and filling. Tibetan food is best described as light, savory fare that will leave you comfortably full without feeling stuffed. The atmosphere at Rangzen is tranquil, the waitstaff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and the cuisine is delicious. Try the oven-roasted eggplant cooked with onion, tomatoes, cilantro, ginger, and spices or the potatoes with cauliflower, cooked with vinegar, onion, tomatoes, and scallions and served in a yogurt and tumeric sauce.
Craigie on Main
853 Main St.
At Craigie on Main, the ingredients are found first and then the menu is created, which is why it changes daily. Nearly everything served is organically grown and locally produced. In fact, 80 percent of the wine list is from organic and biodynamic vineyards. An open kitchen allows customers to see their food being prepared. In addition to the regular dinner menu, the restaurant offers special six- and eight-course seasonal tasting menus and a popular Sunday brunch. Chef and proprietor Tony Maws has a blog that includes recipes.
Toscanini’s Ice Cream and Coffee
899 Main St.
If you’re in the mood for something cold, sweet, and creamy, make your way to Toscanini’s. A fixture in Central Square since 1981, it’s renowned for its decidedly uncommon ice cream flavors. Try Khulfee—an exotic blend of cardamom, almonds, and pistachio. Flavor selections vary daily and include old favorites like burnt caramel, gingersnap molasses, and banana sorbet.
Patty Chen’s Dumpling Room
907 Main St.
Unlike its predecessor, Pu Pu Hot Pot, it’s probably safe to say that Patty Chen’s will probably never make it into a book of the world’s best restaurant names. However, it could easily be featured in a book about unique dumplings. Customers can choose from a selection of both savory and sweet dumplings (nutella and banana, or sweet red bean pan-fried with powder sugar). There are daily specials inspired by cuisines from around the world—there’s even a Mexican dumpling. Patty Chen’s also offers a cooking school, where you can learn to make your own dumplings.
Great Eastern Trading Co.
49 River St.
If you’re on the prowl for a prom dress, circa 1980, or a 1960s-inspired distressed leather jacket, look no further. Just a few blocks from the Red Line, this charming shop has a comprehensive collection of vintage clothing and costumes for men and women, as well as funky jewelry, sunglasses, wigs, hats, masquerade masks, Japanese silk kimonos, Hawaiian shirts, and cowboy duds. Owned by a former professional belly dancer, the store also boasts a colorful selection of belly dancing costumes.
125 River St.
River Gods is less than a 10-minute walk down River Street from the square. Fancifully cluttered—there’s a suit of armor, a pipe organ, Celtic crosses, and a life-size hanging mermaid—this tiny neighborhood Irish pub is a Cambridge gem. The food selection, which includes a separate vegetarian and vegan menu, is as eclectic as the décor. You’ll find the usual bar fare—patrons rave about the fries and garlic aioli dipping sauce—along with a seafood cake sandwich, homemade tacos, and fancy salads. If you arrive early, you can even sip your beer sitting in a throne-like velvet chair.
Green Street Grill
280 Green St.
Holder of Cambridge’s oldest active liquor license, Green Street dates back to the Great Depression. Reinvented and reinvigorated by owner Dylan Black in 2006, Green Street is best known for its sophisticated American fare and its A to Z cocktail menu, one of the most extensive to be found anywhere in the Boston area. Try their award-winning cheeseburger or a selection from the ever-changing seafood menu.
Moody’s Falafel Palace
25 Central Square
Let’s face it—Boston isn’t exactly known for its late-night eats. Most restaurants aren’t open past 10 or 11 p.m., leaving bar patrons to hungrily wander the streets after closing time. Thanks to its delicious falafel—billed by actor and former Central Square resident Ben Affleck as the “best falafel ever”—as well as its wraps, gyros, and baklava, Moody’s has gained a reputation for both its late-night hours and its tasty fare. Although the tiny Greek eatery stays open until 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, expect a line any time of the day or night. Owner Khaled Saffo, who took over when Mr. Moody retired in 2003, is from Syria and has introduced Syrian cuisine into the menu as well.
Getting there: By subway: take a Green Line trolley inbound to Park Street, then a Red Line train outbound toward Alewife, and get off at Central Square station. By bus: pick up the #47 bus at the BU Bridge and take it to the end. By foot: walk across the BU Bridge heading into Cambridge, continue one mile up Brookline Street to Massachusetts Avenue.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to Central Square.