Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Central Square
A guide to eating, shopping, and hanging out around town
This story originally ran April 3, 2008; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
By now, you know Kenmore Square better than your hometown and you’re tired of catching movies at Fenway. You need a change of scenery. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far. Greater Boston is known for its vibrant neighborhoods, all accessible on foot, by T, or by bus.
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 of late and today boasts a range of establishments, from cute cafés and trendy nightclubs to technology start-ups and pharmaceutical companies. 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.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Established in 2008, Central Square Theater is a collaboration between two nonprofits: Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theatre. Each individual 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 youth (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.
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 as well as being 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, while the Upstairs hosts local bands and smaller touring acts. ZuZu (21+) has a separate kitchen, and the Corner contains the larger restaurant and a stage. The Middle East features at least one performance every night of the week.
502 Massachusetts Ave.
The prices are not the cheapest, but Rendezvous offers elegance and tasty food for your date night. The creative cuisine has included dishes like a bollito misto of spring vegetables-cum-truffled polenta and Gascon-style duck. The restaurant’s walls provide exhibit space for a constantly changing selection of paintings and photographs by local artists.
536 Massachusetts Ave.
Follow the beat of the drums to the Dance Complex. Established in 1991, it has been heralded as one of the forces that began Central Square’s restoration. The artist-run, volunteer-based center for dance features six studios and offers classes in Irish step, African, ballet, hip-hop, flamenco, and tap, among others.
538 Massachusetts Ave.
A Central Square institution, Cheapo Records opened in 1948 and is one of only a few businesses to have survived the neighborhood’s tumultuous history. 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 highly collectible. 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. The store also sells CDs, DVDs, and cassette tapes.
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 and the south of France, and the menu, though small, changes constantly. The food’s artistic presentation is complemented by the dim atmosphere and candlelit copper tables. Central Kitchen takes only a limited number of reservations, so arrive early on weekends.
Artist & Craftsman Supply
580 Massachusetts Ave.
Walking down the colorful, paint-spattered steps to the basement-level Artist & Craftsman Supply is like stepping into a rainbow. Here, artists will find a wide selection of products, including paints, inks, brushes, pastels, charcoals, paper, and markers, as well as a few specialty items. A custom framing area is in the back.
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. The Co-op parking lot is also home to the Central Square farmers market Mondays, noon to 6 p.m., through November 21. Merchants sell baked goods, plants, organic vegetables, fruits, meat, chocolate, soap, and more.
704 Massachusetts Ave.
Living up to its name, the menu at Four Burgers is minimalist: four types of burgers, four sides, and four desserts. The burgers—beef, turkey, salmon, and black bean—are hormone-free and topped with fresh ingredients like chopped apples, 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.
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 Central Square’s Cantab Lounge. 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 open-microphone, Tuesday’s bluegrass jams, and Wednesday’s poetry slams.
739 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1986, Asmara Restaurant is Boston’s oldest Ethiopian restaurant. Named after the capital of the northeastern African nation of Eritrea, Asmara specializes in spicy African 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. 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 food and beer of higher quality than the proverbial pub grub. Culling its cuisine from local farms and gardens, the dinner entrées have included braised rabbit rigatoni, buttermilk poached chicken, and roasted cod. Flatbreads, soups and salads, and small plates du jour (they’ve ranged from whole steamed artichokes with butter garlic aioli to chicken and thyme croquettes) round out the menu in a relaxed atmosphere festooned with locally grown herbs and plants.
Andala Coffee House
286 Franklin St.
Andala Coffee House peddles all sorts of teas, Arabic coffees, and a limited—but delicious—breakfast and lunch menu. Andala (which means 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. Patrons can enjoy a hookah on the front patio; tobacco flavors include apple, mango, and apricot. Recommended: Zeit u zaatar and lahneh, a traditional Arabic breakfast of strained yogurt, olives, olive oil, and spices, served with warm bread. Also, be sure to try the orange juice—it’s freshly squeezed. The coffee house 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.”
5 Brookline St.
According to its website, Buckaroo’s Mercantile has “everything you want and nothing you need.” After all, that Our Lady of Guadalupe toilet seat really isn’t a necessity—but you know you want it. Described as a pop culture superstore, Buckaroo’s has a huge inventory of kitschy caboodles; you’ll find items ranging from pinup girl lampshades and Wonder Woman clocks to cowboy packaging tape and Hawaiian-print aprons. While some of the funky merchandise comes from large-scale wholesalers or flea markets, local artists make the T-shirts, jewelry, clocks, photo frames, and night-lights. So go ahead and buy that vintage collector’s plate from the Grand Ole Opry. It will complement perfectly those retro robot potholders.
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.
Pandemonium Books & Games
4 Pleasant St.
A haven for sci-fi fans and gamers alike, Pandemonium Books & Games has been a Cambridge landmark for nearly 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 gaming events, including Monday night Dungeons and Dragons 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. Monthly workshops focus on topics such as diversity, health issues, personal empowerment, and economic literacy. Volunteer opportunities and internships are available.
Rangzen Tibet Restaurant
24 Pearl St.
For a vegetarian’s dream come true, try Rangzen Tibet Restaurant. Nearly half of the menu is meatless, 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 wait staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and the food is delicious.
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 Ice Cream and Coffee. A fixture in the square since 1981, Toscanini’s is renowned for its decidedly uncommon ice cream flavors. While Guinness or Khulfee—an exotic blend of cardamom, almonds, and pistachio—might not be what you’re craving, try a sample of each, just for kicks. Flavor selections vary daily, but old favorites such as cocoa pudding, burnt caramel, gingersnap molasses, and mango sorbet are always on the board.
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 than the Great Eastern Trading Co. Less than a 10-minute walk 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, silk Japanese kimonos, 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 a few blocks from Central Square’s main thoroughfare. 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 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 vegan sushi, marinated Thai chicken skewers, 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 Grill dates to the Great Depression. Reinvented and reinvigorated by owner Dylan Black in 2006, Green Street Grill is best known for sophisticated American fare (try its award-winning cheeseburger or its ever-changing seafood specials) and its talk-of-the-town cocktails (the variety is more extensive than most dinner menus).
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 Falafel Palace 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.
Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line inbound; at Park Street, take the Red Line outbound toward Alewife and get off at Central Square station. By bus: pick up the # 47 bus at the BU Bridge and take 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.