Although growing fancier by the year, 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. Once you’ve had your fill of Central Square, check out our guides to the best restaurants in Boston, best live music in Boston, and best museums in Boston.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston
Where to go in Central Square
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. Today, there are multiple venues of varying sizes. The Downstairs room, like many of Boston's basement clubs, was once a bowling alley. In the restaurant, musicians play the Corner stage without a cover charge, and in keeping with the Middle Eastern theme, there are also belly dancers. ZuZu sits in-between Upstairs and Downstairs, offering food, hip DJ nights and bands.
Local “snout-to-tail” pioneer Tony Maws remains at the top of his game at his flagship operation. The chef-proprietor uses the best local and organic ingredients for his culinary creations. Locals and culinary tourists fill the dining room, where only a four course prix-fixe menu is served. The casual, welcoming bar area, known as COMB (Craigie on Main Bar), offers an a la carte menu and monthly-rotating burger specials, along with the classic, grass-fed Craigie on Main Burger (sold in limited quantities nightly).
The Plough has been going strong for some 30-plus years. In the daytime, it offers some of 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%.
You really don’t want to get into the discussion of what qualifies as a real Irish pub in this town. Suffice to say, the Field does—perhaps because it doesn’t try too hard. The staff pours a good Guinness, and some of the best beers in the area are always on tap. As a result, its two rooms fill up each night with a mix of Irish imports and Cantabrigian townies. Darts, anyone?
Consider this one of the granddaddies of the comedy scene. ImprovBoston has been making Bostonians double over since 1982 and has since grown into a huge web of both comedy shows and comedy classes, the latter sought out by every aspiring humorist in the New England area. Having outgrown the original Inman Square space, ImprovBoston moved into the heart of Central Square, with multiple shows happening Wednesdays through Sundays.
The New York Times once called Toscanini's the best ice cream in the world—just one of the many accolades the Cambridge shop/café has collected since it was founded in 1981. Toscanini’s continues to push the flavor boundaries with such intriguing and satisfying options as "B3" (brownies, brown sugar, brown butter) and salty caramel. For an exercise in portion control, order a “micro sundae,” a small scoop in an espresso-sized container topped with house-made hot fudge, whipped cream, nuts and sprinkles.
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. Be sure to check out a big soccer game on weekend mornings.
This delightfully dive-y Central Square haunt offers everything from bring-your-ax blues jams to singer-songwriter open mics. A well-stocked jukebox fills in during quieter moments at the bar, which draws a diverse clientele ranging from twentysomethings to grizzled barflies. The one Cantab constant throughout is high-quality musicianship and an undeniably unpretentious vibe.
It’s the dream diner for the vegetarian crowd—all of the down-home classics with none of the guilt (or grease). The menu is a marvel of meatless innovation: corned-beef seitan hash, vegetarian-gravy poutine and octo-lavo takes on the BLT, Reuben and shepherd’s pie. Then there’s the vegan bakery, which somehow manages to churn out Boston cream pies, chocolate layer cakes and donuts without using eggs, milk or butter. Even the carnivore crowd is too busy gorging on the delicious grub to notice what’s missing.
Pagu is helmed by Tracy Chang, a wunderkind who got her start at O Ya and made a name for herself while manning Guchi's Midnight Ramen, an underground ramen pop-up. The sleek, two-story loft space is patrolled by familial servers. Dishes include ikura avocado toast, pork belly bao, and sea scallop sashimi. Chang’s famed ramen features house-made alkaline noodles, pork belly, umami oil, nori, and a six-minute egg.
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.
What’s more bonding than throwback arcade games with a side of grilled cheese? The Area Four team has struck again, this time with a speakeasy arcade filled with ‘80s classics (Galaga, Ms. Pacman) and a distinctly grownup cocktail menu that includes the There’s No Crying in Skeeball drink. As for that food menu, what’s better on a first date than a couple of gooey wonders from Roxy’s Grilled Cheese with a soft-serve chaser?
Little Donkey is the latest restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette of Boston’s beloved Toro, Coppa and Toro in NYC, Bangkok and Dubai. Located in the heart of Cambridge’s Central Square, Little Donkey offers a welcoming, day-to-night dining experience that features market-driven, global small plates, inspired by the chefs’ world travels.
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.
A Central Square classic since 1998, Central Kitchen maintains the elements—intimate seating, lovely staff, a solid wine list—that have made it a bright spot amid the chaos of Mass Ave. The menu is packed with skillfully-executed dinner favorites such as steak frites and seared bluefish.
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.
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.
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 of accessible comfort fare is laid out like the periodic table.