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
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.