Vicky Walz of BU Today profiles Central Square
More images of Central Square are in the slide show above.
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 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 during the last decade and today boasts a wide range of establishments, from cute cafés to trendy nightclubs. Still, Central Square retains a grittiness, an unpolished authenticity that no other square in Cambridge can match. It’s as close to a Manhattan scene as you’ll find in greater Boston — and that’s a compliment.
Check out the following places.
1369 Coffee House
1369 Cambridge St.
Across the street from the 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’s first incarnation remains in Inman Square, and prides itself on specialty recipes, including chai tea blend and frozen mocha slide. The shop brews two dozen varieties of coffee from around the world, as well as over 25 fine loose-leaf teas. Homemade muffins and cookies are baked every morning, and local bakers provide scones, croissants, cakes, and shortbread. Lunch consists of homemade soups, salads, sandwiches, and quiche.
Andala Coffee House
286 Franklin St.
Andala Coffee House brings authentic tastes of the Old City of Jerusalem to Central Square. With more than 30 teas, Arabic coffees, and limited — but delicious — breakfast and lunch menus, Andala (which means 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 old-world elegance. For $20, patrons can enjoy a hookah on the front patio; tobacco flavors include apple, mango, and apricot.
739 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1986, Asmara was Boston’s first Ethiopian restaurant. Named after the capital of Eritrea, a country in northeastern Africa that broke from Ethiopia in 1992, Asmara specializes in spicy African 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, sour, fermented flatbread made from rice flour and teff. Served at traditional mesobs, large table-like baskets, the meals are hearty and authentic. For a unique experience, try the zihla: cubes of raw tenderloin beef tips lightly fermented in pepper paste and served with spiced butter.
Artist & Craftsman Supply
580 Massachusetts Ave.
Walking down paint-spattered steps to the basement-level Artist & Craftsman Supply is like stepping into a rainbow. Artists will find a wide selection of paints, inks, brushes, pastels, charcoals, paper, and markers, as well as specialty items like oil paints imported from Barcelona that aren’t sold anywhere else in the United States. A custom framing area is in the back.
5 Brookline St.
According to its Web site, Buckaroo’s Mercantile has “everything you want and nothing you need.” After all, you don’t need that Our Lady of Guadalupe toilet seat — but you know you want it. Described as a pop culture superstore, Buckaroo’s has a huge inventory of kitschy caboodles, from pinup girl lampshades and Nancy Drew clocks to Jesus packaging tape and Hawaiian-print aprons. While some of the funky merchandise comes from large-scale wholesalers or flea markets, local artists make the T-shirts, jewelry, clocks, photo frames, and night-lights. So buy that vintage collector’s plate from the Grand Ole Opry. It will perfectly complement those retro robot potholders.
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 Central Square’s Cantab Lounge. Cook is retired, but the unpretentious bar thrives, hosting live entertainment seven days a week. Come for cheap beer, and stay for Monday’s open-mic, Tuesday’s bluegrass jams, and Wednesday’s poetry slams.
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 and the south of France, and the menu, though small, changes constantly. The food’s artistic presentation is complemented by the dim atmosphere and candle-lit copper tables. Central Kitchen takes only a limited number of reservations, so arrive early on weekends. Entrees range from $21 to $27.
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Ave.
Established in 2008, Central Square Theater is a collaboration between two nonprofits: Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railroad Theatre. Check out the 2009-2010 lineup, which includes the East Coast premieres of Harriet Jacobs, by Lydia R. Diamond, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor, and Not Enough Air, by Masha Obolensky (GRS’09), and the world premiere of From Orchids to Octopi, by Melinda Lopez (GRS’00). Tickets are $35 for general admission, $25 for seniors, and $20 for students. Student rush tickets are available for $15 on the day of the performance.
538 Massachusetts Ave.
A Central Square institution, Cheapo Records opened in 1948 and has survived the neighborhood’s decades of tumult. 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, new and used, are highly collectible. While the shop specializes in R&B, soul, and oldies, its inventory contains records from all artists and genres. Prices can be a bit steep ($10 to $15 per record), so be prepared to open your wallet. The store also sells CDs, DVDs, and cassette tapes.
536 Massachusetts Ave.
Follow the beat of the drums to the Dance Complex. Established in 1991, the Dance Complex is heralded as one force that began Central Square’s restoration. The artist-run, volunteer-based center for dance has six studios and offers classes in Irish step, African, ballet, hip hop, flamenco, and tap.
704 Massachusetts Ave.
Living up to the eatery’s name, the menu at Four Burgers is minimalist: four types of burgers, four sides, and four desserts. The burgers — beef, turkey, salmon, and black bean — are hormone-free and topped with fresh ingredients like chopped apples, cranberry chutney, and guacamole. Sides include crispy waffle fries and shoestring sweet potato fries, and the ice cream is from Richardson’s Dairy in Middleton.
Great Eastern Trading Co.
49 River St.
If you’re on the prowl for a prom dress circa 1980, or a ’60s-inspired distressed leather jacket, find Great Eastern Trading Co. Less than a 10-minute walk 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, silk Japanese kimonos, 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.
Home of Cambridge’s oldest active liquor license, this fixture dates to the Great Depression. Reinvented and reinvigorated by owner Dylan Black in 2006, Green Street Grill is best known for sophisticated pub grub (try the spicy clam stew or the braised pork shoulder) and its talk-of-the-town cocktails (the variety is more extensive than most dinner menus). Caribbean flair and fare have come and gone and come back again over the years; the present kitchen is in fine, spicy shape.
581 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. The Co-op parking lot is also home to the Central Square farmers market Mondays, through November 22. Merchants sell baked goods, plants, organic vegetables, fruits, meat, chocolate, soap, and more. Look for the vendor who dresses up like a tomato to attract customers.
The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub
472 Massachusetts Ave.
Opened in 1970 as a Lebanese restaurant, the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub is a fixture in Boston’s rock and roll music scene, and the original family retains an exemplary sense of community. With four venues, the Middle East showcases local and national acts. Downstairs houses the larger shows (tickets $10 to $25), while Upstairs hosts local bands and smaller touring acts (tickets $8 to $20). ZuZu (21+) has a separate kitchen, and The Corner contains a larger restaurant and a stage. The Middle East features at least one performance every night of the week.
Moody’s Falafel Palace
25 Central Square
Boston isn’t exactly known for late-night eats. Most restaurants aren’t open past 10 or 11 p.m., leaving hungry bar patrons wandering the streets after closing. Thanks to its delicious falafel — billed by ’hood success story Ben Affleck as the “best falafel ever” — as well as wraps, gyros, and baklava, Moody’s Falafel Palace has gained a reputation for tasty fare more than for its 3 a.m. closing Thursday through Saturday. Proof? Expect a line anytime.
Pandemonium Books & Games
4 Pleasant St.
A haven for sci-fi fans and gamers alike, Pandemonium Books & Games has been a Cambridge landmark for nearly 20 years. The first floor has a broad collection of new and used science fiction, fantasy, and horror books; the basement is the gaming section. The store hosts events, including Sunday night’s Pathfinder event, Monday’s Dungeons and Dragons tournaments and Thursday night’s Warhammer matches. For a calendar, click here.
Rangzen Tibet Restaurant
24 Pearl St.
Rangzen Tibet is a vegetarian’s dream. Nearly half the menu is meatless, the food flavorful and filling. Tibetan food is best described as light, savory fare that will leave you comfortably full, not stuffed. The atmosphere at Rangzen is tranquil, the staff friendly, the prices reasonable, and the food delicious.
125 River St.
River Gods is a few blocks away from Central Square’s main thoroughfare. Fancifully cluttered — there’s a suit of armor, a pipe organ, Celtic crosses, and a life-size hanging mermaid — this tiny neighborhood Irish pub is a Cambridge gem. The food selection is as eclectic as the décor. You’ll find common bar fare — patrons rave about the fries and garlic aioli dipping sauce — along with vegan sushi, marinated Thai chicken skewers, fancy salads, and macaroni and cheese. If you arrive early, you can even sip your double chocolate stout sitting in a throne-like velvet chair.
698 Massachusetts Ave.
Don’t walk into Rodney’s Bookstore unless you have a good 30 minutes to browse its huge inventory. Open since 2000, this used bookstore features more than 100,000 titles, as well as posters, calendars, and cards. While its fiction section is small compared to that of megachains, its collection of art, architecture, and photography books is enormous, and its proximity to Harvard and MIT ensures a comprehensive selection of academic books. Prices vary, and patrons can sell their books for store credit only.
548 Massachusetts Ave.
Like Cheapo Records, Teddy Shoes is a Central Square landmark. A family-owned business since 1957, the store prides itself on customer service and a promise: the shoe will fit. Best known for a vast selection of dancing shoes, it sells everything from ballet slippers and tango and tap shoes to boots, sneakers, and men’s dress shoes.
Toscanini’s Ice Cream and Coffee
899 Main St.
Cold, sweet, and creamy are appropriate adjectives for Toscanini’s Ice Cream and Coffee. A Central Square fixture since 1981, Toscanini’s is renowned for its uncommon flavors. While cucumber sorbet, Guinness, or Khulfee — an exotic blend of cardamom, almonds, and pistachio — might not be what you’re craving, sample each, just for kicks. Flavor selections vary daily, but old favorites such as cocoa pudding, burnt caramel, and gingersnap molasses are always available.
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 provides crisis intervention and counseling for women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Monthly workshops focus on topics such as diversity, health issues, personal empowerment, and economic literacy. Volunteer opportunities and internships are available.
Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line inbound; at Park Street, take the Red Line outbound toward Alewife and get off at Central Square Station. By bus: pick up the 47 bus at the BU Bridge and take to the end. By foot: walk across the BU Bridge heading into Cambridge. Continue one mile up Brookline Street to Central Square at Massachusetts Avenue.