Ron Saccoccio has been cutting the hair of Davis Square residents, denizens, and college students since 1967. Dente’s, his barbershop at 417 Highland Ave. in West Somerville, has been around much longer, since 1912. Saccoccio, who moved from Italy to Massachusetts when he was seven, isn’t related to the original proprietor, but was a good friend of the family, and little about Dente’s has changed over the years. The space is open, the mirrored walls reflect a row of old-school barber chairs, and (of course) a spinning candy-striped pole swirls outside.
But the view from his large window has transformed in the past two decades.
“Years ago, there was nothing down here,” Saccoccio says. “Little by little, different kinds of stores, coffee shops, restaurants opened up. There are all different people here. Nice people, a lot from Tufts and Harvard. At nighttime, it really comes alive. A lot of bars. After 6 o’clock, it’s like a different place. It gets crazy.”
Saccoccio says there’s not much crime in Davis Square, but homelessness and panhandling are evident, particularly around the subway. He doesn’t have many quibbles with his old stomping grounds (he now lives in Reading). One thing he’d change: “The parking, it’s bad. It’s 25 cents every 15 minutes. And it’s hard to find a spot.”
Davis Square has become a destination. Some residents trace (or lament) the genesis of that transformation to a 1997 Utne Reader article anointing the square as one of the 10 hippest places in America. Others go back to the opening of the Red Line T station in 1984. Historians might flip all the way to 1850, when wealthy grain dealer Preston Davis first strode into town and threw up an estate near the intersection of Elm and Grove. Today it’s the stomping grounds of students from nearby Tufts University, and on weekends they usually fill the bars.
No matter where on the timeline your finger stops, at present Davis Square—fed by five asphalt tributaries—is a crackling ball of artistic, entrepreneurial, and culinary energy, with a rich blend of mom-and-pops, hip eateries, quirky shops, public art, and a pulsating nightlife.
To get your Davis on, try out some of the following:
381 Summer St.
One of the few diners that offers griddle fare and a fully stocked bar. But don’t mistake the mimosas and bloody Mary specials for a license to linger. “No newspapers, no doing the crossword,” says a veteran waitress. “You eat and you’re out.” But the WWII-era train-car eatery—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is cozy, the service quick, and the food tasty and cheap. Lines out the door are common. If you come alone, don’t even think of taking a booth; you’ll be chided, then seated at the counter. The diner’s hours are Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to midnight. And check out the “back room,” the Rosebud Bar, behind the boxcar, for more victuals and potables. Orson Welles look-alikes welcome.
The Painted Burro
219 Elm St.
This Latin American gem will impress any and all margarita lovers with its menu boasting more than 100 craft tequilas (try the “El Diablo,” mixed with jalapeño-infused tequila). The restaurant also features an array of exciting dishes using local ingredients. Dubbing itself “upscale casual,” the Painted Burro is committed to maintaining the tradition of Mexican street-style food, but with a modern twist. Do your taste buds a favor and chow down on a street-style hot dog—an all-beef Pearl dog topped with savoy cabbage and jalapeño slaw, chicharron, chipotle ketchup, and agave mustard on a grilled roll—or one of 10 innovative taco choices. The eatery is also a great Sunday brunch destination (options include thick-cut French toast with caramelized plantains). Now that your mouth is watering, make a reservation at this stylish Mexican kitchen, open daily from 5 to 11 p.m. The bar is open until 1 a.m., brunch begins at 10 a.m. on Sunday, and lunch is served from 11 a.m. on Saturday.
237 Elm St.
247 Elm St.
If you’re looking for something more down and dirty, sidle into Sligo, self-described as the “last dive bar in Somerville.” It’s cramped and smelly, with drinks on the cheap. At least that’s how some regulars affectionately paint the dim watering hole. And a couple of doors up, another bar that harkens to the wilder Irish west coast, the Burren, offers traditional Irish music seven nights a week. Sligo is open from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Saturday, and noon to 1 a.m. Sunday. The Burren is open from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Amsterdam Falafel Shop
248 Elm St.
Move over, McDonald’s. Fast food has a new name in Davis Square and it’s Amsterdam Falafel Shop. Servers guarantee you’ll have your order in two to five minutes, and they’re true to their word: they’ll even fry it fresh, right before your hungry eyes. With 21 sauce and topping options, customers have their work cut out for them. (Hint: you can’t go wrong with the yogurt-dill sauce or the fried eggplant.) Inspired by similar shops throughout the Netherlands, evidenced by the Dutch concert posters on its walls, this Somerville spot is addictive. Amsterdam Falafel Shop is the perfect place for a quick lunch or a late-night snack. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, and 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday to Saturday.
257 Elm St.
The seating at Diesel Café goes back as far as the eye can see. Leather chairs and couches, booths, wide countertops—even a large kitchen-style island in the back corner—suggest a warm place to pop the laptop or crack a paperback over a cup of direct trade joe. Along with funky artwork and board games, Diesel offers a large selection of loose teas, baked goods, and sandwiches of the vegan, vegetarian, and carnivorous variety. The staff is friendly (they even hook up the competition, Starbucks, with coffee filters when the chain runs out), and some will draw flowers in the foam on your latte. Break a few racks on the red-felt pool tables or get cozy with a friend in the vintage photo booth. The garage-door-style front rolls up in good weather to let in the sidewalk vibe. WiFi is available, at $4.95 an hour, $7.95 a day, or $13.95 a month. Diesel Café is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.
55 Chester St.
BBQ, beers, and bikes—that about sums up the Redbones creed. Let one of the bicycle valets park your ride (free year-round service no matter your destination), and then gorge on catfish or all-you-can-eat ribs, corn fritters, and hush puppies. Wash it all down with one of at least 24 beers on tap, many from local microbreweries, or an iced tea from a large sweat-beaded mason jar. The Southern back-home feel is enhanced by photos of barbecue glory days and autographed pics of R&B greats. Counter seats at the open kitchen offer a front-row view of the pitmaster’s crew in action; a nice alternative is to nosh at the bar adjoining the dining room. Head downstairs to Underbones for a darker tavern version. Lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. (noon on Sunday), and dinner from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. A late-night menu is also available until 12:30 a.m. Sunday brunch comes with a helping of live bluegrass music.
Davis Square Somerville Farmers Market
Corner of Day and Herbert Streets, behind Redbones
Every Wednesday, noon to 6 p.m., May through November. Local produce, as well as baked goods and breads, honey, meats, farmstead cheeses, herbs, flowers, and chocolate. Performers and cooking demos, too.
Flatbread Company at Sacco’s Bowl Haven
45 Day St.
There was a big gasp when the gourmet Flatbread Pizza Company took over Sacco’s Bowl Haven in 2010. Sacco’s had been a Somerville institution since 1939, but the folks at Flatbread Pizza are keeping the old-school bowling-alley spirit alive. The renovated space offers 10 candlepin lanes, and bowlers can opt to pay either the hourly rate of $25 a lane or $4 a string, each person. Shoe rental is $2 a pair. After slipping back into your street shoes, grab a table and relax. We suggest Jay’s Heart (whole milk mozzarella, parmesan, wood-fired cauldron tomato sauce, and herbs), Homemade Sausage, or one of Flatbread’s organic salads. Word to the wise: the airy crust means that two people can easily split one pizza. Also, sit too close to the brick oven and you may find yourself breaking into a sweat. A full bar is available. The lanes are open from 9 a.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday, and from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday. The pizza is available daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant & Music Club
17 Holland St.
Johnny D’s is a Boston institution, run by the DeLellis family since the late ’60s. In 2008 the establishment lost popular owner and barroom fixture Tina DeLellis; daughter Carla DeLellis has taken over. The Monday night trivia has become legendary, but people show up for the music. Rickie Lee Jones, the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas, and Wilco have all played here. “On any given night you may see Cajun fiddle masters from Louisiana, British folk stars, or some of Boston’s finest rockers,” according to the club’s website. The restaurant serves lunch, dinner, late night, and a weekend jazz brunch, featuring new American cuisine and vegetarian items. Food is served Monday from 6 to 10 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from 4 to 10 p.m., Thursday and Friday from 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Purchase tickets here or at the box office, which is open Tuesday to Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m.
The Boston Shaker
69 Holland St.
Cocktail enthusiast Adam Lantheaume opened the Boston Shaker out of frustration at the lack of a place carrying everything cocktail enthusiasts need to make their favorite concoctions. His small shop now sells anything the professional bartender or those throwing their first cocktail party may need: barware, vintage glasses, bitters and flavorings, recipe books, and more. After poking around inside, you realize that cocktails could be regarded as a science—after all, who knew you needed a mini angled measuring cup for the perfect pour or a professional ice-crushing bag? The shop also offers classes and workshops for those who’ve been bitten by the cocktail bug and want to learn more. The Boston Shaker is open from noon to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Dave’s Fresh Pasta
81 Holland St.
David Jick expanded his pasta, cheese, and wine shop a few years ago, just before the economy went south, and he says it’s been worth it: “Davis Square is awesome. I love Tufts. I love the Red Line. There’s good energy. And to be blunt, there are a lot of people with disposable incomes.”
Jick has added fresh, local produce, beef, and fish, and a wine and beer section. Known for handmade pasta, ravioli, and sauces, Dave’s also offers breads and baked goods, and cheeses from Cotswold to goat brie to Reblochon. The sandwiches alone are worth a trip—they are that good. Try the Cubano, prosciutto and fig, or after a particularly rough night, the Brazilian Hangover Helper (mortadella, provolone picante, red onion, dill pickle, hot peppers, mayo), a concoction the staff says “works better than anything else.” A few indoor and outdoor seats are available, but they fill up quickly. Stop in anytime from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.
89 Holland St.
Adjacent to Dave’s Fresh Pasta is Spoke, an intimate, refined wine bar co-owned by David Jick (of Dave’s). Lacking any major signage, this cozy nook may easily (and regrettably) be overlooked, but despite its understated exterior, it’s packed with personality. It’s a modern space with a funky flare—and an impressive vino list. Pair your glass of pinot noir from Burgundy, France, with one of the many small plates, such as the peekytoe crab crostini, or a more sizable dish like the goat milk gnocchi. With former No. 9 Park executive sous chef John Paul daSilva heading the kitchen, you can’t go wrong. Spoke’s specialty is wine, but bottled beer and a full bar are available as well. Just try not to spill on the felt-lined walls. Spoke is open from 5 p.m. to midnight (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.) Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.) Friday and Saturday. The place does not take reservations and is closed on Tuesdays.
248 Holland St.
You won’t find anything pretentious about this casual neighborhood spot serving up refreshing margaritas and some tasty fish tacos. And really, with those staples, what more do you need? Oh, right. Fresh tortilla chips and queso. Failure to order the latter, a customer favorite, would be a mistake. Rudy’s is technically located in Teele Square, but it’s just a five-minute walk from the heart of Davis. Head down Holland Street and look for the large mural of a cactus-filled desert. Rudy’s doors are open from 5 p.m. to midnight Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
378 Highland Ave.
Follow the smell of hot butter down Highland Avenue until you get to number 378. Inside is a cupcake lover’s paradise. Fresh-baked favorites include Cinnamon Chai Pecan Sticky (spiced-up cupcake covered with gooey caramel pecan topping), the Mojito (rum-soaked cupcake with sugarcane lime frosting and fresh mint), Berry Crumbly (berries and almond crumble topping baked into a cupcake topped with mascarpone and crème fraîche), and the vegan NuttyNana (chocolate banana cupcake with cashew nougat center topped with chocolate ganache and cashews). For the true sinner: Deep Fried Cupcakes (cream stuffed vanilla cupcake dipped in sweet batter, deep fried to order, and drizzled with chocolate syrup). But as with all sins, there’s a price: $3 for a regular, $4 for an extra-large. You can indulge your sweet tooth from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Five Horses Tavern
400 Highland Ave.
The only downside to Five Horses isn’t really a downside: there are too many delicious options. Open the menu and you’ll be hard-pressed to get past the mouthwatering appetizers, which include perfectly seasoned buttermilk fried chicken tenders served with a red dragon chile sauce and papas fritas with a red pepper–garlic mayo. If you do venture as far as the main menu, you’ll encounter a similar problem: there is much to choose from, including okra gumbo, a duck meatloaf, even pork belly tacos. And we haven’t gotten to the beer yet. The place offers 37 rotating drafts and more than 130 bottles, and touts its selection by way of a mounted chandelier made from various beer taps. The tavern is justifiably popular for its weekend brunch. Be sure to try the Paula Deen, a dish consisting of Anson Mills cheddar grits, crispy pork belly hash, two sunny-side up eggs, scallions, and toast. Five Horses Tavern is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Friday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. (brunch is served until 3 p.m.) Saturday and Sunday.
409 Highland Ave.
This small gift shop on the quieter side of Davis Square sells fun gifts for adults, children, and the home. Opened in July 2007 and independently owned, the store sells unique handmade items like vases, toys, books, tea, shea butter soap, and big paper flowers. On your way out, grab a Davis Square T-shirt (although we imagine the townies wouldn’t be seen in one) or a more discreet option, the Davis Square coaster. Pick up any of these knickknacks from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Mike’s Food and Spirits
9 Davis Square
Stop in here for a quick, cheap bite before a show at the Somerville Theatre. There is a bit of everything, from meat lasagna to a chicken parm calzone to a gorgonzola and walnut salad. Best of all is the cheap beer, from Geary’s London Porter to Sierra Nevada Torpedo. Service is a little gruff, but it’s fast. Stop in anytime from 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Boston Burger Company
37 Davis Square
This burger joint opened in 2009 and has added yet another good, affordable dining option to Davis Square. It offers 24 different types of creative eight-ounce certified Angus beef burgers, like the Waikiki Beach Burger (grilled pineapple, ham, bacon, and teriyaki) and the Bruschetta Burger (marinated tomatoes, provolone, and basil pesto mayonnaise). Not in the mood for beef? It also has chicken sandwiches, boneless wings, paninis, soup and chili, and gumbo. The restaurant makes its own handmade potato chips, and it serves beer. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
51 Davis Square
This crepe-teria offers breakfast and lunch pancake fare, with stuffing from spicy African lamb to salmon to chutney, as well as desserts (can’t beat the Nutella classic). Teas, coffees, soups, salads, and ice cream also available. The large glass windows reveal the square’s epicenter, offering prime people-watching. But be careful not to exceed the 30-minute table limit (on weekends and during lunch) for non–crepe eaters. Mr. Crepe is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
55 Davis Square
Beer and wine. Real butter on your popcorn. Cheap tickets. U2. What more could you ask from a movie theater? Built in 1914 (stage and screen legend Tallulah Bankhead was once a member of the Somerville Theatre Players), the theater offers five screens of second-run films. Matinee tickets dip as low as $5 and are no more than $8 on holidays and weekends. The venerable venue also pulls in such music acts as Bruce Springsteen, Joe Jackson, Bruce Cockburn, and They Might Be Giants. U2 played a surprise show and gave a Q&A at the 900-seat venue in 2009. The theater also hosts the Independent Film Festival of Boston—a week of indie narratives and quirky docs, plus merch and cast Q&As. And while you’re waiting for the show to start, check out the Museum of Bad Art.
Somerville Community Path/Minuteman Bikeway
Access behind the Davis T station
Year-round, traffic-free recreation (strap on skis in winter). From Davis Square to Alewife (.8 miles), it’s part of the Somerville Community Path. At Alewife, it becomes the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway and runs to Bedford, snaking along an old rail bed and past Revolutionary War sites.
Getting there: Parking is tight around Davis Square, especially during the evenings and weekends, so driving is not recommended without painkillers or a rabbit’s foot. But the T will drop you smack in the heart of the action: take the Green Line inbound, change at Park Street to the Red Line outbound (Alewife), and get off at Davis Square station. By bus: pick up the #47 bus at the BU Bridge and take to Green and Magazine Streets, hop on the Red Line outbound (Alewife) at Central Square.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Davis Square area.