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Arts & Entertainment

Nightlife: The Middle East

Great music, authentic cuisine, and oh, yes, belly dancers

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Photos by Kristyn Ulanday

First, an understatement: the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub offers something for everyone. The sprawling complex on Mass Ave in Cambridge is actually four different venues under one roof, each with a distinct flavor. A self-described “eclectic, one-stop entertainment shop offering dancing, comedy, hip-hop, and indie rock,” the club is prized for its programming. The flavorful and reasonably priced Middle Eastern cuisine is a bonus.

A mainstay in Central Square for nearly 40 years, the Middle East has become one of the nation’s—yes, the nation’s—better-known midsize venues for music. This year, the Boston Phoenix named the club Best Hip-Hop Venue. But if hip-hop’s not your thing, don’t be put off. There are lots of styles here.

Upstairs at the Middle East is a small concert space where you can hear electronica, techno, hip-hop, and blues music. Downstairs at the Middle East offers a 575-person concert space that often features nationally known artists. Swan, Baby D, Isobel Campbell, and Mark Lanegan are some of the acts that have performed in recent weeks. There’s also the Corner, an intimate restaurant and bar that features everything from acoustic acts to open mic comedy (Tuesday nights) to the club’s renowned belly dancers (Sundays and Wednesdays). And finally, there’s Zuzu, a sophisticated bar and restaurant that is transformed after 9 p.m. into a dance club, with DJs spinning club music. (The night we were there, the restaurant hosted to a gay-themed dance night.)  

One of the club’s most popular events among college students is "Throwed," a weekly DJ dance night held in the Downstairs venue. Drawing anywhere from 200 to 500 students, the 18-plus event presents some of the country’s best DJs, who serve up indie electro music. Doors open at 9 p.m. and tickets run between $10 and $15.

Two words about the cuisine: it’s wonderful. Classic Middle Eastern specialities, including succulent beef, chicken, and lamb shish kebobs ($10.95-$12.25), a spicy lentil stew called mjudra ($8.95), and grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice seasoned with nutmeg ($11.25), are consistently delicious.

At Zuzu, we made a meal of the Zuzu Pupu Platter ($23), which came with enough spinach dumplings, empanadas, brik (tender chicken with onion and garlic in deep-fried rolls), and kibbe (ground lamb and cracked wheat, served with mint yogurt) to feed two. Don’t miss the fried plantains, served with guacamole, pico de gallo, and a zesty cilantro-lime sour cream. At $7 it’s a steal. And there’s a seafood tagine ($21) that includes salmon, scallops, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a savory red sauce that is hard to resist.

The venues offer a full range of cocktails, a limited wine list, and more than a dozen beers.

For those who haven’t yet made any Halloween plans, consider the Downstairs Halloween Club Night Costume Contest. The 18-plus event, which will feature eight DJs, is on Wednesday, October 27, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Entry is $10, and prizes will be awarded for best costumes.

The Middle East is open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight, 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass.

See a complete list of the Middle East’s programming here. Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office (where you don’t pay a service fee), by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, or at ticketweb.com.

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

This is part of a weekly series featuring Boston nightspots of interest to the BU community. If you have any suggestions for places we should feature, leave them in the comments section below.

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