Long overshadowed by its trendier and more affluent 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. 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.
297 Massachusetts Ave.
This taqueria is helmed by sous chefs Amanda Howell and Robert Preciado, both of whom came from the popular Harvard Square eatery Alden & Harlow. They bring the same creative flair to Naco’s menu of inventive tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches) that they brought to their former employer. Diners can choose from a variety of taco fillings—from spit-roasted pork with burnt pineapple to fried cod with salted cabbage, avocado, and tomatillo crema. Tortas, sandwiches on pressed telera bread, have equally creative fillings, including one with blistered shishito peppers, chihuahua cheese, a fried egg, and cilantro aioli. In warmer months, check out the restaurant’s large outdoor patio, which draws a lively crowd.
313 Massachusetts Ave.
Darwin’s, the award-winning sandwich and specialty coffee chain opened a Central Square outpost in 2015 (adding to its Cambridge locations on Mt. Auburn Street and Cambridge Street). Each store has a slightly different menu of homemade sandwiches, soups, and pastries. The Mass Ave location is known for its Nitro-Cold-Brew coffee, a full-emersion cold-brewed coffee infused with nitrogen and served from a tap. Try a glass with one of the café’s breakfast sandwiches, which feature gourmet filling options like avocado, smoked wild salmon, chouriço, and Brie cheese. The mouthwatering lunch sandwiches have a devoted following. Check out The Bishop Allen (smoked salmon with cream cheese, cucumber, tomato, capers, and red onion) or The Magazine (roast beef with Brie, sriracha, red onion, sun-dried tomato pesto mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato).
Miracle of Science Bar + Grill
321 Massachusetts Ave.
This geek-chic bar’s claim to fame rests on its periodic table chalkboard menu that hangs on the wall behind the bar. The menu gives this watering hole 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. 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 (balsamic-marinated figs, 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 the soups, baked goods, and breads. In addition to the wide selection of homemade products—be sure not to leave until you’ve tried one of their signature pretzel rolls—you can also sip fair trade and organic coffee or teas.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Established in 2008, Central Square Theater hosts under one roof two distinctive and award-winning professional companies, the Nora Theatre Company, which specializes in contemporary plays, and Underground Railway Theater (URT), which is dedicated to creating live performances rich in social content. Each company dates back decades (Nora to 1987, 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 6–13 and youth ages 13–25; 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.
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 from-scratch 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) and a separate gluten-free menu. And in the spirit of all great American diners, breakfast is served all day.
464 Massachusetts Ave.
A Central Square staple since the 1980s, this cash only, hole-in-the-wall eatery is known for its tasty Chinese-American dishes and authentic spicy Szechuan specialties alike. On Saturdays and Sundays, the restaurant offers an extensive dim sum menu featuring small dishes like steamed red bean buns, peking ravioli, and chow foon noodles.
The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub
472 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1970 as a Lebanese restaurant, the Middle East & Zuzu Restaurant & Nightclub offers first-rate Middle Eastern cuisine and is a fixture of 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, African/Afro-fusion, ballet, hip-hop, flamenco, belly dance, 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, and the dedicated and knowledgeable staff will help you track down what you’re looking for. 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.
580 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.
This Asian-inspired supermarket offers an extensive selection of fresh goods and groceries. 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, Korean banchan, sauces and spices, dried food, and—of course—ramen. Hmart even carries health and beauty products, small appliances like pressure cookers and electric skillets, and baby products. There’s also a food court, which Hmart 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 of them 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 Farm 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 passed away in 2014, 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 mic, Tuesday’s bluegrass jams, Wednesday’s poetry slams, Thursday’s classic soul and funk, Friday and Saturday’s dance bands, and Sunday’s “all-star” music 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 a spicy 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, slightly sour, fermented flatbread made from either rice flour or a grain called teff. Served at traditional mesobs, large table-like baskets, the meals are hearty and authentic. For a unique experience, try the gored gored: 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 a homemade chai tea blend and a frozen mocha slide—a blended drink made with cold-brewed coffee, milk, cream, and chocolate. 1369 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. The shop also recently added a local delivery service for 64 oz. “growlers” of cold-brewed coffee. Homemade muffins and cookies are baked fresh every morning, and local bakers provide scones, croissants, and cakes. Lunch fare consists of homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and quiche.
765 Massachusetts Ave.
This tranquil café is committed to serving tasty vegan and vegetarian fare. From rice bowls to wraps to salads, Life Alive’s dishes are so tasty, they’ll even appeal to omnivores. Try The Fool, a hot dish comprised of udon noodles, shiitake mushrooms, sweet onions, carrots, tofu, and kale marinated in a house made sesame ginger sauce and topped with sesame seeds. Also be sure to sample one of the restaurant’s many filling smoothie options, like the Harvest Alive, made with kale, avocado, lemon juice, banana, chia, date, and almond milk.
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 labneh, a traditional Arabic breakfast of strained yogurt, olives, olive oil, and spices, served with warm bread. 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.”
Pandemonium Books & Games
4 Pleasant St.
A haven for sci-fi fans and gamers alike, Pandemonium has been a Cambridge landmark for over 25 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 fights all forms of oppression. It 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.
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 with influences of Indian and Chinese cuisine. The atmosphere at Rangzen is tranquil, the waitstaff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and the food is delicious. Try any of the varieties of momo (traditional steamed Tibetan dumplings) or the tsel duluma (oven-roasted eggplant, cooked with onion, tomatoes, cilantro, ginger, and spices).
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. James Beard Award–winning chef and proprietor Tony Maws also serves as the restaurant’s wine director and curates a changing list of “old-world” wines. (The restaurant was named one of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants by Wine Enthusiast in 2015). 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.
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, or the ever-popular B3 (brown butter, brown sugar, and brownies). Flavor selections vary daily and also 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 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 (think Nutella and banana, or sweet red bean, pan fried with powder sugar). There are also dishes inspired by cuisines from around the world, including Mexican-inspired dumpling tacos. 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. Located 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.
This tiny neighborhood Irish pub is a Cambridge gem. Visitors will find a fancifully cluttered restaurant—there’s a suit of armor, a pipe organ, Celtic crosses, and a life-size hanging mermaid. 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 with garlic aioli dipping sauce—alongside 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.
Keezer’s Classic Clothing
140 River St.
Keezer’s first opened in Harvard Square in 1895, and became the go-to place for buying and re-selling high quality formalwear and slightly used menswear. (John F. Kennedy is said to have sold some of his suits there while a student at Harvard.) Forced out of its original location by rising rent costs in the late 60s, Keezer’s moved to its current location on River Street, where it’s continued to thrive ever since. Patrons come from all over the Boston area, drawn by the store’s well-priced used and new suits, outerwear, and formalwear, the latter of which is also available to rent. Less well-known is the store’s treasure trove of affordable, lightly used, vintage and designer ties (think Brooks Brothers, J. Press, Rooster, and Atkinson’s).
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, which can include everything from bouillabaisse to pan-roasted salmon and seared hake.
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. Many head to the Palace, its miniature white porcelain brick building a relic of the White House hamburger chain, for delicious falafel or chicken and lamb schwarma. When owner Moody Kassar retired in 2003, his cousin Khaled Seffo took over. He has since expanded the menu with more of the cuisine of his native Syria. Moody’s has a reputation for both its late-night hours and its tasty fare. Although the tiny 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 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.
This story originally ran April 3, 2008; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.+ Comments