The New York Times likes Toscanini’s, Central Square and Cambridge, Mass.
The New York Times
December 22, 2011
36 Hours: Cambridge, Mass.
By FREDA MOON
WHEN the leaves have fallen and the winter chill has set in, many small cities slip into a prolonged hibernation. But Cambridge barely misses a beat. During the holidays, tree branches are strung with tiny white lights, and local theater productions celebrate the season. A city of bookstores and coffeehouses, art-house cinemas and eclectic neighborhood bars, the People’s Republic of Cambridge has traded its Puritan past for a dynamic, cosmopolitan present. Spread out along the tree-lined shore of the Charles River, the city is a dense collection of grand Federal and Greek Revival mansions and modest century-old bungalows, modern office towers and brick dormitories. Nicknamed Boston’s Left Bank for its bohemian image, Cambridge is easy to caricature, but hard to dislike.
1. A BEAUTIFUL MIND
Famous for turning out brilliant graduates, world-altering innovations and jaw-dropping pranks, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a secular temple to the sciences. The M.I.T. Museum (265 Massachusetts Avenue; 617-253-5927; web.mit.edu/museum; admission, $8.50), which was expanded in 2007 to include the new 5,000-square-foot Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery, celebrates the institute’s creative output and offbeat culture in exhibits on everything from an emotive robot and motion-sensitive holograms to model ships and Polaroid cameras.
2. BUNDLE UP
Grab your coat and gloves and take a spin around the amoeba-shaped rink at Kendall Square Community Skating (300 Athenaeum Street; kendallsquare.org/play; admission, $5, $1 child; skate rental, $8 a pair). The Frog Pond, across the Charles River in Boston Common, is better known, but Cambridge’s comparably humble slab of ice — surrounded by high-rise buildings and trees draped in white lights — has its own charm. For a stunning sunset glimpse of the Cambridge-Boston skyline from above the water, stay bundled and take a walk across the Harvard Bridge, at the southeast end of Massachusetts Avenue.
3. JACKET AND TIE
Warm up with an old-fashioned cocktail at Cuchi Cuchi (795 Main Street; 617-864-2929; cuchicuchi.cc), a mood-lighted, belle-époque-themed bar that serves vintage drinks like the Pendennis Club Cocktail (gin, apricot brandy, lime juice and Peychauds bitters, $10), borrowed from the 1928 menu of a Louisville, Ky., men’s club. For dinner, splurge on a multicourse prix-fixe meal at Craigie on Main (853 Main Street; 617-497-5511; craigieonmain.com), where well-heeled Cantabrigians are treated to the locavore vision of the chef, Tony Maws, who won a James Beard award earlier this year. The restaurant has a jacket-and-tie (not required) clientele and the prices to match: the six-course “Craigie Experience” tasting menu will put you out $95, while the eight-course “Ultimate” experience is $115.
4. OF GODS AND ICE CREAM
Loosen your belt for a stop at Toscanini’s (899 Main Street; 617-491-5877; tosci.com), where you’ll find impossibly rich house-made ice cream in flavors like salted saffron or double chocolate stout (from $3.50). Afterward, settle into one of the thronelike chairs at River Gods (125 River Street; 617-576-1881; rivergodsonline.com), a neighborhood pub where D.J.’s spin an esoteric mix of music, from ’60s French pop to Bollywood funk, surrounded by gilded angels and stuffed nun dolls in a scene that’s not unlike a house party at a Bizarro World rectory.
5. THE BRIGHT SIDE
Arrive early to snag one of the seven tables at Sofra Bakery and Cafe (1 Belmont Street; 617-661-3161; sofrabakery.com). Despite an out-of-the way location on the border with Belmont, this tiny Eastern Mediterranean bakery-restaurant overflows on weekends, when locals line up for exotic dishes, like a poached egg in a delicate nest of fried phyllo dough ($9) or flatbread stuffed with red lentil kofte (spiced meatballs) with zhoug (hot chili sauce) and a celery root slaw ($7). On crisp, clear winter days, the sun shines through the bakery’s windows and patrons sip Turkish coffee from miniature cups. Sweets like Aleppo peanut bark ($16) and preserves like green tomato chutney ($10) make delicious gifts.
6. OLD SCHOOL
The Classic Hahvahd Tour (1376 Massachusetts Avenue; harvardtour.com; $10 per person, $20 per family) is a theatrical 70-minute crash course in Harvard history. Undergraduate guides deliver the tour script with comic timing and answer questions with patience and candor. Currently, the tour excludes Harvard’s famous Yard, which has been converted into a campground by student members of the Occupy movement. For lunch, head to Alive and Kicking (269 Putnam Avenue; 617-876-0451) for a classic New England lobster sandwich — two pieces of toasted sesame-crusted white bread overflowing with generous chunks of fresh lobster ($13) — eaten in a no-frills urban fish shack: a converted carport with picnic tables, heating lamps and wood cut-outs of fish and seagulls.
7. THE REVOLUTION LIVES
Walk along Massachusetts Avenue to the narrow, black-painted staircase of Revolution Books (1158 Massachusetts Avenue, second floor; 617-492-5443; revolutionbookscamb.org), a hole-in-the-wall shop run by the Revolutionary Communist Party, where you’ll find everything from mainstream nonfiction to political manifestoes. Afterward, pull up a stool at the People’s Republik (876-878 Massachusetts Avenue; 617-491-6969; peoplesrepublik.com), a Communist-themed bar with Soviet and Maoist propaganda posters on the walls.
8. DOWN SOUTH
Cambridge may not be the first place you think of to indulge in boiled peanuts, shrimp and grits or barbecued beef tongue, but Hungry Mother (233 Cardinal Medeiros Avenue; 617-499-0090; hungrymothercambridge.com) has some of the Northeast’s best Southern food. The chef, Barry Maiden, is a Virginia native, and his restaurant honors his home state at every turn — from the name, which is taken from a Virginia state park, to the Cardinal motif on the menus and the now-familiar grandma-chic aesthetic. Opened in 2008, Hungry Mother was financed, in part, by small donations (donors’ names grace a wall beside the bar), and there’s something in its easy welcome that feels unpretentious and sincere.
9. GET FOLKSY
Since the 1950s, Club Passim (47 Palmer Street; 617-492-5300; clubpassim.org), a dark basement space on an alley off Harvard Square, has drawn musical greats. This legendary spot got its start as a jazz club called Club 47, which later became a folk venue, hosting everyone from Joan Baez, who got her start here at 17, to Bob Dylan, whom Baez would later introduce to her hometown crowd. It’s now a nonprofit; there’s live music every night (ticket prices vary) and, after many dry years, a beer and wine license.
10. DISCO FABULOUS
Dance with the Donkey Show, a shimmering, intoxicating disco-opera adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Oberon (2 Arrow Street; 617-496-8004; cluboberon.com), the new “nightclub theater” that’s the carefree second stage to the American Repertory Theater. The performance is an interactive event where actor-dancers are distinguishable from the audience only by their ’70s get-ups. For a tasty, nongreasy midnight snack or a $3 local Notch beer, duck into Clover Food Lab (7 Holyoke Street, cloverfoodlab.com). Founded by an M.I.T. grad, Clover is a food truck phenomenon turned storefront fast-food joint. The menu — meatless dishes like chickpea patty sandwiches, spicy carrot soup and rosemary French fries — is healthy and cheap enough to sustain the student body.
11. THE UN-DIM SUM
For brunch, try the crispy pork belly, mantou bread with pickled vegetables, or pork and kale shumai (dumplings) with carrot purée at East by Northeast (1128 Cambridge Street; 617-876-0286; exnecambridge.com), where small plates are described as Chinese-style tapas. The Chinese-American chef Phillip Tang makes all noodles and dumpling wrappers there. Wash them down with the brunch bloody mary with Chinese peppercorn vodka and Sriracha ($9) or the pear, ginger and prosecco cocktail ($9).
12. A RESTFUL PLACE
Before leaving town, take a walk among the historic gravestones of Buckminster Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Winslow Homer and the abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, among many others, at the 175-acre Mount Auburn Cemetery (580 Mount Auburn Street; 617-547-7105; mountauburn.org), founded in 1831. The grounds are home to hundreds of varieties of trees and gorgeously maintained gardens.