Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Davis Square
Eating, shopping, and hanging out in one of the 10 hippest places in America
This story originally ran August 24, 2009; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
Ron Saccoccio has been cutting the hair of Davis Square residents, denizens, and college students since 1967. Dente’s, his barber shop 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 stripe 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.
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. One downside is the $5 cover on weekends, but with a BU student ID there is no cover on Thursday nights.
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.
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 from 11:30 a.m. (11 a.m. on Sunday), dinner from 4 to 10:30 p.m. (11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Late-night menu 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.
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.
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.
Dave’s Fresh Pasta
81 Holland St.
David Jick expanded his pasta, cheese, and wine shop 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.
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.
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, pick up 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.
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.
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.
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 lunch) for non–crepe eaters.
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.