Long overshadowed by its trendier and more affluent neighbor Harvard Square, Cambridge’s Central Square is a diverse neighborhood with 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 cute cafés and trendy nightclubs as well as a growing number of technology start-ups. Still, Central Square retains a certain grittiness that lends it an air of unpolished authenticity—precisely what makes it so appealing.
297 Massachusetts Ave.
Naco’s menu is chock full of inventive tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches on pressed telera bread). Diners can choose from a variety of taco fillings—from pulled pork with radish and cilantro cremato to fried cod with cabbage slaw, chipotle aioli, cilantro, and onion. Tortas have equally creative fillings, like braised turkey leg with jalapeno jam, avocado, and chipotle aioli, or lamb with Oaxaca cheese and guava crema. In warmer months, the large outdoor patio draws a lively crowd.
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-immersion cold-brewed coffee infused with nitrogen and served from a tap. Try a glass with one of the breakfast sandwiches, with gourmet filling options like avocado, chouriço sausage, grilled asparagus, pan-seared spinach, 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). Specialty coffee cocktails are available after 5 pm, along with wine and beer.
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, giving this watering hole a quirky charm. Menu items 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.
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.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Established in 2008, Central Square Theater hosts two distinctive and award-winning professional companies—the Nora Theatre Company, specializing in contemporary plays, and Underground Railway Theater (URT), dedicated to creating performances rich in social content—under one roof. Each dates back decades (Nora to 1987, URT to 1988), but growing audiences and high production space costs prodded the move to this joint home. Besides performances, URT runs acting classes for children ages 7 to 13 and youth ages 13 to 25, workshops for schools, museums, and cultural groups, and artist-in-residence programs. Find ticket options and special student pricing here.
450 Massachusetts Ave.
With 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 baked mac and cheese (available after 5 pm), a portobello patty melt, and a club sandwich made with grilled tempeh bacon, smoked tofu, fresh tomato, romaine, red onion, basil pesto, and roasted garlic mayo. The restaurant also offers 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, it offers an extensive dim sum menu with small dishes like sweet sesame rice balls, 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 and Zuzu Restaurant and 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.
Happy Lamb Hot Pot
485 Massachusetts Ave.
This addition to Boston’s hot-pot scene has had rave reviews since it opened in 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, beef ribeye, shrimp balls, Chinese yam, and udon noodles. For first-timers, Happy Lamb’s menu has detailed instructions on how to order.
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 has 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 whipped mortadella, fried garlic, and 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.
524 Massachusetts Ave.
This creatively named sushi spot has a massive menu to please even the pickiest of eaters. Choose from a wide variety of items like vegetable rolls, seafood rolls (salmon, tuna, grilled eel), seafood, beef, and pork entrees, salads, noodle dishes, and more. The fairy tale rolls are a standout: the Sleeping Beauty Roll ($18.95/ten pieces) is white tuna, crushed pineapple, and tempura flakes wrapped in yellow soy paper and sushi rice, and draped with salmon, sliced ripe mango, and drizzled with a refreshing pineapple-lime mayo. The restaurant features live jazz music, unsurprising given that it takes its name from one of the 20th century’s greatest jazz musicians.
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. It has seven studios and offers classes in African, West African, ballet, hip-hop, flamenco, jazz, tap, and more. Also, there are more than 100 performances a year 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 it 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. It has an excellent raw bar and the food’s artistic presentation is complemented by the subdued lighting and candlelit copper tables. The place takes a limited number of reservations, so arrive early if you’re stopping by on a weekend.
Artist & Craftsman Supply
580 Massachusetts Ave.
Employee-owned Artist & Craftsman Supply is an artist’s dream. 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 large 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 chain has an extensive selection of fresh goods and groceries. The 18,000-square-foot space is just steps from the Red Line T stop and has a vast range of items, including kimchee, Japanese sodas, seafood, Korean banchan, sauces and spices, dried food, and—of course—ramen. The store even carries health and beauty products, small appliances like pressure cookers and electric skillets, and baby products. H Mart shares a food court with Sapporo Ramen, Go! Go! Curry, and Paris Baguette.
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 (these 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.
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, classic soul and funk on Thursdays, dance bands Fridays and Saturdays, and an “all-star” music jam every Sunday.
735 Massachusetts Ave.
This is a relatively new addition to the square’s Asian food scene. In 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, there are tasty takes on staple American-Chinese dishes available.
739 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1986, Asmara is Boston’s oldest Eritrean restaurant. Named after the northeastern African nation of Eritrea’s capital, Asmara specializes in a spicy cuisine 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 or very tender tenderloin beef tips lightly fermented in pepper paste and served with spiced butter.
1369 Coffee House
757 Massachusetts Ave.
Across the street from the main post office and City Hall, 1369 Coffee House was serving the 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. There are numerous varieties of coffee and fine loose-leaf teas from around the world and several varieties of coffee beans for brewing at home. It 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 tasty enough to appeal to omnivores. Try the Fool, a hot dish comprising udon noodles, shiitake mushrooms, sweet onions, carrots, tofu, and kale marinated in a house-made sesame ginger sauce and topped with sesame seeds. Sample one of the 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 curl up with a book or chat with friends. The staff is friendly, and the gleaming hardwood floors, marble-top tables, and Persian rugs offer an old-world elegance. The coffeehouse has 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 of the week, like open board gaming on Sunday nights and miniature games on Mondays.
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. Open to all who identify as a woman, 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. The center provides a community kitchen, computer labs, a crisis helpline, and childcare for all mothers attending activities there.
Rangzen Tibet Restaurant
24 Pearl St.
Rangzen is the ideal 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 is tranquil, the waitstaff friendly, the prices reasonable, and the food delicious. Try any of the varieties of momo (traditional steamed Tibetan dumplings) or any of the excellent shrimp dishes.
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 is 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. Along with the regular dinner menu, there are special five- and seven-course seasonal tasting menus and a popular Sunday brunch.
Great Eastern Trading Co.
49 River St.
If you’re on the prowl for a prom dress, circa 1980, or a 1970s-inspired distressed leather jacket, look no further. Just a few blocks from the Red Line, this charming shop has a comprehensive collection of vintage clothing and costumes for men, women, and those who identify as nonbinary or queer. You’ll find funky jewelry, sunglasses, wigs, hats, Venetian masks, Japanese silk kimonos, Hawaiian shirts, 1920s flapper dresses, feather boas, and cowboy duds. Owned by a former professional belly dancer, the store also boasts a colorful selection of belly dancing costumes.
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 in the Boston area. Try the bacon double cheeseburger or a selection from the ever-changing seafood menu, like lobster fettuccine and pan-roasted rainbow trout.
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 pm, leaving bar patrons to hungrily wander the streets after closing time. Many head to the Palace, its miniature white brick building a relic of the White Castle hamburger chain, for delicious falafel or chicken and lamb shawarma. 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 am, 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.