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Artifact Cider Project
Photograph: Courtesy Artifact Cider Project

Central Square neighborhood guide

Discover the funky charms of this bustling Cambridge neighborhood

Olivia Vanni
Written by
Olivia Vanni
Written by
Eric Grossman
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Although Central Square has been becoming slightly more elevated year by year, the Cambridge neighborhood has managed to maintain its distinctly gritty identity and artsy essence. Over the past decade or so, the former diamond in the rough has started to sparkle, becoming a desirable location for young professionals—with high-priced condos and elevated establishments quickly following suit. With the area’s recent rise in appeal, it’s kept its bohemian soul, with its colorful hodgepodge of characters, lively underground music scene, swaths of street art and second-hand stores—and now, even some hip, newer restaurants and bars to boot. Once you’ve had your fill of Central Square, find more action with 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

  • Music
  • Music venues
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

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, it offers multiple nooks and crannies for live performances. 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 between the Upstairs and Downstairs, offering food, hip DJ nights and bands.

  • Shopping
  • Thrift stores
  • Kendall Sq
  • price 1 of 4

A source of second-hand and vintage threads for cash-strapped students and rockers since the 1980s, the Garment District shares its crumbling warehouse premises with a costume shop—the perfect combination if you're off to a fancy-dress party. On the ground floor is the fabled By the Pound—literally a pile of clothes, shoes, belts, bags and assorted junk dumped in a pile on the floor. Everything is $2 a pound. (On Fridays, it's $1 a pound.) Head upstairs for a vast array of second-hand jeans, branded clothing and vintage attire, some of it unworn—we loved the immaculate 1950s PJs.

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  • Bars
  • Central Sq

Although rooted in tradition, Artifact strives to take cider into the current century. Amongst its beloved modern brews: Feels Like Home, an unfiltered cider aged in rum-soaked oak barrels; By Any Other Name, a dry, tart and crisp cider made with blueberries, resulting in a rosy hued drink (hence its Shakespearean-inspired name); and Wolf at the Door, a complex, wild-fermented beverage with a bitter bite of tannins. Visit its bustling taproom in the heart of Cambridge’s Central Square, The Station, to get your hands on draft pours and flights of normally canned favorites, as well as its selection of “cellar projects” that aren’t available anywhere else. And, if you’re up for a drive to Western Mass, make the trek out to The Cellar in Northampton, which will bring you close to all of the apple orchard action.

  • Comedy
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

Consider this spot of the granddaddies of the local comedy scene. ImprovBoston has been making Bostonians double over in hysterics since 1982 and has since expanded its reach with a huge web of both comedy shows and classes, the latter sought out by every aspiring humorist in the New England area. Having outgrown the original Inman Square space, ImprovBoston moved to the heart of Central Square, with multiple shows happening Wednesdays through Sundays.

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  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • Harvard Sq
  • price 3 of 4

Situated between Central and Harvard Squares, this hip trattoria has a slightly retro feel thanks to the amber glow of its globe lights and double-sided fireplace. The globally minded menu heavily relies on Asian ingredients, often applying them to Italian preparations and creating fantastically flavored fusion food. Nosh on handmade pastas, like its renowned lumache with bolognese and gojuchang, and strike up a conversation with your dining neighbors at the vintage communal table. Sexy cocktails, including its draft aperitivi, are not to be missed.

  • Shopping
  • Music and entertainment
  • Central Sq

Cheapo Records is a local legend—it's been trading in one form or another since 1954. It still stocks some of the best vinyl in the area, with good prices and solid sections for pop/rock, folk, oldies, jazz, and country, along with CDs and hard-to-find box sets.

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  • Restaurants
  • Central Sq

Situated in Cambridge’s Central Square, The Mad Monkfish is the place to meet for sushi on Mass Ave. An army of skilled sushi chefs can be seen expertly slicing fish behind the front bar as soon as you walk through the door, giving you a preview of what’s to come on your plate. As far as the menu goes, you can’t go wrong with any of the makimono, sashimi or specialty rolls. There are other pan-Asian items available—think build-your-own thai curries and stir-fried noodles—but we’d suggest that you stay focused and simply stick to the raw fish because that’s what The Mad Monkfish does best. Formerly named Thelonious Monkfish as a riff on the famed pianist, this spot is still known for its jazz—whether it be in the form of live performances on the weekends, or piped into the speakers during the week.

  • Bars
  • Breweries
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

On a leafy stretch of Broadway near Central Square, Lamplighter’s taproom is a welcoming spot to sip on some of their impressive beers. The focus here is New England IPAs, with a selection of barrel-aged sours, seasonal brews and funky experimentals. Try a tasting flight or a pint and hang out in the bright front area, in the back or on the patio. Most days feature a local pop-up for a bite, or ask for some free bar snacks. Lamplighter also hosts live music, trivia nights and other events (like Cheese Night featuring local producers).

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  • Restaurants
  • Kendall Sq

Just when we thought Cambridge’s food scene couldn’t get any cooler, along comes Cloud & Spirits. Conveniently located right between Central and Kendall, this new eatery is giving us New American fare prepared with a serious Korean-inspired spin. Its menu is strictly seasonal, so you can expect occasional changes amongst the dishes offered, but current highlights include: steak tartare with pear, sesame, gochujang and brown rice chips; spaghetti with kimchi butter and parm; and a 10-oz Wagyu ribeye steak for two that comes with banchan (you know, those tiny, delicious side dishes that pretty much make every Korean meal). Alongside dinner, patrons can peruse a cocktail list that includes soju-forward libations, like the bar’s Vineyard Seoul or 7-9-5, as well as a selection of local craft beers and highly curated wines.

  • Bars
  • Pubs
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

Deep house and Guinness may not seem like the most natural match, but Phoenix Landing pulls off the hybrid of pub and club marvellously. The interior is pretty unremarkable, but the no-frills atmosphere is a fit for 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.

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  • Bars
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

What’s more nostalgic than playing 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 (i.e. Galaga, Ms. Pacman) and a distinctly grownup cocktail menu that still includes playful nods to nerding out, like the Princess Peach's Downfall drink. As for that food menu, what’s better than a couple of gooey wonders from Roxy’s Grilled Cheese with a soft-serve chaser? We'd call that the perfect date night.

  • Restaurants
  • Central Sq

This Central Square shop, which also has a location out in Hudson, lures in ice cream lovers with unique, New England-inspired scoops. While its cases include the usual fan favorites like cookie dough, birthday cake batter and coffee, it’s this spot’s list of original concoctions that make it a must. Among its nostalgic, locally influenced flavors: salted cookies and cream, peanut butter banana fluff and malted milk ball. For dairy-averse customers, New City also offers a handful of vegan options made with a coconut milk base.

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  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

Brick & Mortar may still be 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 stool seating have replaced the low, rug-clad seating platforms and hybrid drink/bathroom line. The cocktails shine and the elevated bar snacks (which include prosciutto-wrapped deviled eggs and ooey goey garlic bread) are done just right. 

  • Restaurants
  • Vegetarian
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

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—think biscuits and Southern-style seitan sausage gravy, vegetarian poutine, vegan mac and cheese, and lacto-ovo takes on sandwich classics like the BLT and Reuben. Then, there’s the vegan bakery, which somehow manages to churn out Taza chocolate layer cakes and cheesecake specials without using eggs, milk or butter. Even the carnivore crowd is too busy gorging on the delicious grub to notice what’s missing.

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  • Restaurants
  • Central Sq

As if Central Square couldn’t get any more hip, along comes Blue Owl and its casually cool rooftop perched atop 907 Main. Overlooking the colorful streets of Cambridge, this chic and sleek spot is coming to us from executive chef Justin Urso. The menu is broken down into an array of alliterative categories—snacks, small plates, skewers, sandwiches and sweets—and features street food favorites from around the world. Savory standouts include a Jamaican oxtail beef patty served with Caribbean slaw and pickapeppa aioli, a podrao Brazilian-style hot dog and lamb kofte kebab. Beverage head Molli Rohland leads the bar program in offering impeccably crafted signature and seasonal cocktails—including drinks cleverly named to reference popular TV shows (i.e. For British Eyes Only and How The Turn Tables).

  • Restaurants
  • Mexican
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

The name is fun, the space is high-spirited and the menu cuts to the chase. Your order basically comes down to this: tacos or tortas? The tortillas are house-made (yes, lard is involved because tradition), and the tequila cocktails are stiff—though the considerable beer list is also a serious draw. Come summer, the 100-seat patio on Mass Ave is the place to be.

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  • Restaurants
  • Eclectic
  • Central Sq
  • price 3 of 4

Great things come in small packages—just ask Little Donkey, the small plates-centric eatery from James Beard Award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette of Boston’s beloved Toro and Coppa. Located in the heart of Cambridge’s Central Square, Little Donkey offers a welcoming, day-to-night dining experience that features market-driven, global tapas, inspired by the chefs’ world travels. The caviar sandwich and lamb bacon BLT lettuce wraps are cherished menu staples.

  • Bars
  • Gastropubs
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

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 overlooking the hustle and bustle of Mass Ave. In honor of the many MIT students who frequent the popular watering hole, the menu of accessible comfort fare is laid out like the periodic table. It's so nerdy that it's actually cool.

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  • Bars
  • Pubs
  • Central Sq
  • price 2 of 4

At this point, The Plough has been going strong for some 30+ 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%.

  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Central Sq
  • price 3 of 4

Pagu is the place to be for Japanese and Spanish small plates, all from chef-owner Tracy Chang, a culinary 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 perfectly jammy six-minute egg. 

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