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Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Central Square

A guide to eating, shopping, and hanging out in Cambridge’s other square

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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 through 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.

Naco Taco
297 Massachusetts Ave.

This taqueria is helmed by sous chefs Amanda Howell and Robert Preciado, both previously at Harvard Square’s Alden & Harlow. They bring that same creative flair to Naco’s menu of inventive tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches on pressed telera bread). 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 have equally creative fillings, one with blistered shishito peppers, chihuahua cheese, a fried egg, and cilantro aioli. In warmer months, check out the large outdoor patio, which draws a lively crowd.

Darwin’s Ltd.
313 Massachusetts Ave.

Award-winning sandwich and specialty coffee chain Darwin’s opened here in 2015 (adding to its Cambridge spots on Mt. Auburn Street and Cambridge Street). Each has a slightly different menu of homemade sandwiches, soups, and pastries. This one 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, with gourmet filling options like avocado, smoked wild salmon, chouriço, and Brie cheese. The mouthwatering lunch sandwiches are popular. 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 hanging on the wall behind the bar, which gives this watering hole a quirky charm. tems are color coded-into five groups—sandwiches, quesadillas, appetizers, desserts, and skewers—and organized as if on a true periodic table. The place draws a crowd of computer wonks, scientists, and artists.

Mariposa Bakery
424 Massachusetts Ave.

One look at Mariposa’s chalkboard menus, and you’ll see a trend: everything’s homemade: soups, baked goods, and breads. Besides the wide selection of homemade products—be sure to try one of the signature pretzel rolls—you can also sip fair trade and organic coffee or teas.

Boston University BU, nearby neighborhoods, Central Square, restaurants food entertainment culture shopping

Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave.

Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.

Established in 2008, Central Square Theater hosts 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—under one roof. 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.

Veggie Galaxy
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.

Mary Chung
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.

Boston University BU, nearby neighborhoods, Central Square, restaurants food entertainment culture shopping

The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, 472 Massachusetts Ave.

Happy Lamb Hot Pot
485 Massachusetts Ave.

This addition to Boston’s hotpot scene has earned rave reviews since it opened in spring 2016. Diners first select a broth—the house original, house spicy, or half and half—to simmer their choice of proteins, vegetables, and noodles, among seemingly endless options: lamb shoulder, kobe beef ribeye, shrimp balls, Chinese yam, and udon noodles. For first timers, Happy Lamb’s menu has detailed instructions on how to order.

Little Donkey
505 Massachusetts Ave.

James Beard Award–winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette (the duo behind popular restaurants Toro and Coppa) teamed up to open this “global tapas” restaurant, named the Boston Globe’s 2016 Restaurant of the Year. The menu items feature cross-cultural influences: matzo ball ramen is made with spicy chicken, corn, burnt onion, and a schmaltz-based tare (the base sauce for ramen), while Parker House rolls are served with Chinese sausage and yellow chives. And don’t forget the sweet stuff. The tasty and whimsical chocolate chip cookie dough dessert, using pasteurized eggs, is served right on the beater with a side of milk foam, and has been popping up on Instagram feeds since the restaurant opened.

Dance Complex
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 seven 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.

Cheapo Records
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.

Central Kitchen
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.

Boston University BU, nearby neighborhoods, Central Square, restaurants food entertainment culture shopping

Central Kitchen
, 567 Massachusetts Ave.

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.

Harvest Co-op
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.

Hmart
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.

Mainely Burgers
704 Massachusetts Ave.

What began as a single food truck in Scarborough, Maine, in 2012, has morphed into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Since opening in 2016, Mainely Burgers has attracted a devoted clientele. We recommend the Mainah burger, with a choice of a beef or veggie patty or chicken breast, topped with sweet sautéed onions, bacon, cheddar, sliced apple, and maple mayo, the restaurant’s most popular burger for good reason. All burger options can be had either on a bun or as a bowl. The hot dogs are also excellent and the sides go beyond standard fries (though those are tasty here, too, and come with or without truffle oil). For a real flavor kick, try either the quick-fried brussels sprouts coated with tamari, garlic, brown sugar, and sprinkled with sesame seeds, or the fried cauliflower, tossed with olive oil, lemon, capers, and parsley.

Cantab Lounge
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 singer-songwriter open mics on Mondays, bluegrass jams on Tuesdays, poetry slams on Wednesdays, dance bands Thursday through Saturday, and an “all-star” music jam every Sunday.

Boston University BU, nearby neighborhoods, Central Square, restaurants food entertainment culture shopping

Andala Coffee House, 286 Franklin St.

Shanghai Fresh
735 Massachusetts Ave.

Shanghai Fresh is a new addition to the square’s Asian food scene. Within the trendy, dark-walled dining room, you can dig into authentic regional dishes, like lion’s head meatballs, made with pork and served with baby greens, or the Shanghai steamed pork buns—chewy, salty, and satisfying soup dumplings. If you’re craving General Gao’s chicken or sesame beef, the menu also features tasty takes on staple American Chinese dishes.

Asmara Restaurant
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.

Life Alive
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.

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 open board gaming on Monday nights.

Pandemonium Books & Games, 4 Pleasant St.

Pandemonium Books & Games, 4 Pleasant St.

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 earned a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator in 2016). 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.

Toscanini’s Ice Cream and Coffee, 899 Main St.

Toscanini’s Ice Cream and Coffee, 899 Main St.

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.

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 Castle 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.

Explore other neighborhoods around Boston here.

This story originally ran April 3, 2008; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.

1 Comments

One Comment on Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Central Square

  • Priscilla on 04.06.2017 at 10:53 am

    Rangzen Tibetan Place is my favorite restaurant in the Boston area. It’s located at 24 Pearl Street in Cambridge’s Central Square, less than less a block from Massachusetts Avenue. It’s open Monday through Saturday, and closed on Sunday. The restaurant has a daily lunch buffet from 11:30am-3:00pm. The buffet usually has 9 hot dishes with both meat and vegetarian entrees, 2 soups, 2 teas, 1 or 2 breads, fruits, salads, and pickles. The selection rotates regularly. Some of the items may include vegetable momos (dumplings), Brussel sprouts, cabbage slaw, squash, beef broth, kale and escarole salad, green beans and chicken, potatoes, noodles, rice, broccoli, apple slices with mango sauce, chicken with mushroom, chicken teriyaki, eggplant, chicken wings, curry chicken, beef, several types of bread, pickled vegetables, sautéed greens, tofu, chickpeas, milk tea, green tea. Some of my favorite accompaniments: green cilantro/jalapeno sauce and the tomato chutney. Dinner hours are from 5:30pm to 10:00pm. Friendly and attentive staff — water glasses are promptly refilled and dirty dishes cleared away immediately. The place is great at accommodating vegans and meat-lovers, and everyone in between. Serene and calming ambience — dark wood floors and furniture, an intimate space with a large picture of a mountain on one wall. Clean restaurant, clean bathrooms. Owners are very kind, gracious people.

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