Central Square neighborhood guide

Discover the charms of Central Square with Time Out’s comprehensive neighborhood guide

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Central Square neighborhood guide: The Middle East

Central Square neighborhood guide: The Middle East Photograph: Michael Young

Although undoubtedly gentrified, Central Square has kept its distinct, rather gritty, identity. Over the past decade or so, the former working-class area has become a desirable location for young professionals—high-priced condos and the ubiquitous chains have followed. On the plus side, so have some great restaurants and bars, making it a popular spot for going out. During the day, the square's sprinkling of unusual shops makes for an interesting browse.

Where to go in Central Square

Andala Coffee House

Andala is a Central Square gem along River Street, just off from well-trod establishments like 1369 and Atomic Bean. Homey and shockingly deserted, this Middle Eastern spot is what Café Algiers might look like if it wasn't in the middle of overcrowded Harvard Square. Head downstairs, snag a cozy pillow-seat and ask for the tea selection: they'll trot out a briefcase with more than 30 aromatic choices, ranging from Moroccan mint to the cardamom-tinged house tea. In the warmer months, grab a seat along the sidewalk and watch the world go by—you can even order a hookah if you’re so inclined. You can't beat the ambiance; just don't tell too many friends about it.

  1. 286 Franklin Street, Central Square
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The Middle East

  • Rated as: 4/5
  • Critics choice

This sprawling venue is one of America's leading rock clubs, and a major player on the national and local music scene. A Middle Eastern restaurant as well as a club, it was the nurturing ground for Boston's alternative and indie music scenes, beginning in the mid-1980s in the smaller Upstairs room. 'Downstairs' was added later and, like many of Boston's basement clubs, was once a bowling alley. In the restaurant, musicians play the Corner without a cover charge, and in keeping with the Middle Eastern theme, there are also belly dancers. ZuZu, the venue's newest addition, sits in-between Upstairs and Downstairs, offering food, hip DJ nights and bands.

  1. 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, at Brookline Street
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Improv Boston

  • Price band: 2/4

Five nights a week, Improv Boston is a clearinghouse for improv, sketch, and standup comedy. Wednesday night, you can get a sampling of all three at the Comedy Lab, which features experimental shows getting ready for a shot at the prestigious Friday night showcase. Recent offerings include "Twitterprov" "The Bigfoot Monologues,” and "Discount Shakespeare: As You Like It in 45 Minutes.” The Comedy Lab lets the top local talent breathe life into their weirdest comedy experiments, and you get to watch.

  1. 40 Prospect Street, at Massachusetts Avenue
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Plough & Stars

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

The spiritual forefather of Greater Boston's thriving Irish pub business, the Plough has been going for some 30 years. In the daytime, it offers the best pub grub in town. At night, the tiny bar is transformed into a hotbed of clashing elbows and live music. Your chances of meeting a novelist just went up by 90%.

  1. 912 Massachusetts Avenue, at Hancock Street
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Phoenix Landing

  • Critics choice

Deep house and Guinness may not seem like the most natural match, but Phoenix Landing pulls off the hybrid pub/club marvellously. The decor is unremarkable, but the no-frills atmosphere fits well with the gritty underground sounds that find their way through the speakers. The floor is tiny, but the variety is huge: hip hop, reggae, house, techno, drum 'n' bass, new wave and dubstep all have a home here.

  1. 512 Massachusetts Avenue, at Brookline Street
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Craigie on Main

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 3/4
  • Critics choice

The buzz surrounding this culinary hotspot has been palpable since renowned chef Tony Maws moved his tiny bistro into a new, larger space. It's retained the quirkiness of the previous location, while expanding its capacity to better accommodate the growing number of devotees who pack the house most nights for Maws' latest Franco-American creations—each born of his intense dedication to using the best local, organic ingredients. Craigie on Main's knowledgeable and friendly staff (including a handful of smiling cocktail mavens) will guide you through the seasonal menus. The ten-course tasting menu is a favorite, and might include crispy Florida frog's legs, hirmasa sashimi salad or rhubarb-hibiscus mousse. And the grass-fed beef burger is the stuff of legend.

  1. 853 Main Street, at Bishop Allen Drive
  2. Main courses $21-$36
Make reservation

Weirdo Records

  • Critics choice

If stepping into this Central Square spot feels a bit like revisiting your first post-college apartment, you may not be surprised to learn that owner Angela Sawyer ran the business out of her tiny Somerville flat until 2009. No Beatles LPs here—Weirdo specializes in experimental and foreign music, from free jazz to Indonesian psychedelia. The store sports a colorful aesthetic, with bobble-head dolls lining the shelves and sky-printed fabrics adorning the walls. Sections display un-ironic titles like “New Sixties” and every price tag is affixed with the slogan, “Get your freak on.” Sawyer occasionally crams people in for concerts that feel, aptly enough, like intimate house shows.

  1. 844 Massachusetts Avenue
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Middlesex Lounge

  • Critics choice

Though the DJs spin the best vintage hip-hop, classic electro and underground dance, and while the clientele has been known to kick off their shoes and fill the floor, Middlesex is still more of a lounge than a full-blown nightclub. The room is filled with little metal benches on wheels that can be artfully arranged to accommodate even the most disorganised of parties, enabling the space to transform to suit laidback hipster hangouts, MIT tech nerd power lunches or downtown hip hop heads that form the sidewalk queue each weekend night.

  1. 315 Massachusetts Avenue, at State Street
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Cuchi Cuchi

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 3/4
  • Critics choice

It's hard to think of Charo-inspired space could be anything but tacky, but here it is. The decor was inspired by the intensity of the Latin siren's performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the '70s, combined with the belle époque beauty and early Hollywood glamour. The result is surprisingly intimate and romantic, the perfect place to share a cocktail and a few small plates with a date. Just don't call it a tapas place; the owners will be quick to correct you—tapas are from Spain exclusively, while Cuchi Cuchi traffics in globe-trotting international fare.

  1. 795 Main Street, at Windsor Street
  2. Small plates $7-$23
More info

East by Northeast

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 3/4
  • Critics choice

This small Chinese bistro is located slightly outside Inman Square, but it's worth the extra few minutes to sample chef Phillip Tang's nuanced take on his families oldest recipes. Small plates of noodles, dumplings and pickled vegetables make up the bulk of the menu, with daily specials ensuring that there is always something new to try. Bring a few adventurous friends who like to share, and don't forget to check out the cocktail list—it's as inventive as the cuisine. 

  1. 1128 Cambridge Street, at Elm Street
  2. Small plates $4-$12
Make reservation

Brick & Mortar

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

It’s still just as hard to find as its predecessor, the Enormous Room, but once you head through the nondescript door and up the stairs, the similarities end. A giant horseshoe-shaped bar and ample bar stool seating have replaced the low, rug-clad seating platforms and hybrid drink/bathroom line. The cocktails shine and the bar snacks (which include bacon-wrapped dates and deep fried house made pickles) are done just right. 

  1. 567 Massachusetts Avenue, at Norfolk Street
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Central Kitchen

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 3/4
  • Critics choice

At this point, chef-owner Gary Strack’s New American outpost is a Central Square classic. While the bar upstairs has rotated in theme and feel, Central Kitchen maintains the elements that make it a bright spot amid the chaos of Mass Ave.—intimate seating, lovely staff, a kick-ass wine list and a menu packed with skillfully executed dinner favorites like steak frites ($29) and seared bluefish ($25) as well as apps like scallop and shrimp ceviche ($15) and a half-dozen east coast oysters ($13).  

  1. 567 Massachusetts Avenue, at Pearl Street
  2. Main courses $24-$29.
Make reservation

Keezer's

Established in 1895, Keezer's is the oldest second-hand clothing store in the country and a cherished local resource. Max Keezer started the company by going into Harvard dorms in order to buy barely worn fine clothing from allowance-starved heirs. As well as renting out formalwear (they outfit the Boston Symphony Orchestra), the shop sells second-hand and end-of-the-line men's suits, sports coats, overcoats and casualwear, all in good or mint condition, and with at least 75% off. Since stock comes from Neiman's, Louis Boston and Saks, you may find Armani and Zegna among the labels.

  1. 140 River Street, at Kinnaird Street
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Trina's Starlite Lounge

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

Rising from the ashes of the classic-but-grimy Abbey Lounge, the Inman Square space has remained a meeting spot for savvy locals. Trina's low lighting and dark wood paneling are brightened up by retro images just about everywhere you look (the bathrooms are wallpapered in mid-century magazine pages), but it's the menu full of diner-style comfort food that really keeps the clientele smiling into expertly executed cocktails. Head here for brunch on Monday to recover from the weekend's excesses.

  1. 3 Beacon Street, at Dickinson Street
More info

Miracle of Science Bar & Grill

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

The Miracle of Science boasts ultra-modern design, a well-selected variety of beers and a comfortable, sun-bathed interior, thanks to its huge windows looking out over Mass Ave. In honor of the many MIT students who frequent the place, the menu is laid out like the periodic table.

  1. 321 Massachusetts Avenue, at State Street
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Green Street Grill

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

The long narrow bar area becomes a pile of people and high tops at peak hours—show up for last call or on school nights for optimal results. The menu's cocktail list has plenty to choose from, but if you’re not overwhelmed by options, ask the bartender for the “special” cocktail binder for hundreds of more options.

  1. 280 Green Street, at River Street
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Life Alive

Packed with nutritious, flavorful, organic meals, Life Alive is a standout among the vegan-friendly restaurants in Boston. The meals are not heavy but always super filling, and the eclectic vibe makes the dining experience even more amazing. Don’t miss their outstanding and healthy juice and smoothie selections.

  1. 765 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square
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Firebrand Saints

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 2/4
  • Critics choice

During the colder months, sip a well-crafted cocktail at the bar and watch the kitchen at work or the five TVs above that loop and mash up whatever happens to be on. During the summer, bring friends, snag a picnic table on the patio and order draft beer by the pint or pitcher until it's time to go home. 

  1. 1 Broadway, at Main St
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The Asgard

DJ Paul B keeps things moving at this laid-back Irish pub, where newbies and regulars get equal time in the spotlight come karaoke night. The song selection is vast and regularly updated with Top 40 hits. Bonus: the funny folks from ImprovBoston (located a few blocks away) are known to drop by and offer their, um, unique vocal stylings.

  1. 350 Massachusetts Avenue
More info

Clover East Cambridge

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Branches throughout the city. See our review of the Harvard Square branch.

  1. 1075 Cambridge Street, at Elm Street
More info
  1. 1 Kendall Square at 355 Binney St., 02139
More info
  1. 77 Massachusetts Avenue, 02139
More info


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