A Chef’s Guide to Eating Well in Cambridge
Despite laying claim to culinary giants like Julia Child and Joyce Chen, Cambridge hasn’t always been synonymous with the type of progressive, forward-thinking restaurants that now permeate Porter, Inman, and Harvard Square. That of course has changed dramatically over the past decade with a cadre of celebrated chef-owners like Puritan & Co.’s Will Gilson and West Bridge’s Matthew Gaudet joining the ranks of Jody Adams’ Rialto and farm-to-table icon Harvest.
Those type of top-tier, gastronomic getaways are merely a fraction of what you’ll find now though, thanks to exciting destinations for North African, Afghani, and Portuguese cuisine. And we haven’t even mentioned its wealth of burgers and other inexpensive, student-friendly fare. That’s why we’ve asked two of the most respected chefs in the city, Tony Maws (Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter) and Jason Bond (Bondir), to take us around their neighborhood to find the best unpretentious coffee shops (sans eye-rolling baristas, please), authentic Irish pubs, and cheap eats throwbacks where formica tabletops are still in vogue.
Maws: There’s more and more good pizza to be had around Boston, but I’ll always have a soft spot for a neighborhood place with little league pictures and trophies on the wall. When we were at Craigie Street Bistrot, it was a regular Saturday treat for the staff. We were all fans of the classic pepperoni as well as the breaded eggplant, especially when the eggplant was a little extra crispy. It’s nothing fancy, but honest—from the food to the people operating it. Armando himself used to come to the original Craigie, and his grandson Tony made so me proud when I saw him one time admonishing his cousin for not making a pie correctly. “What would Grandpa say?!?” I still tell my cooks that story.
163 Huron Ave., Cambridge; 617-354-8275.
Bond: Maybe I’m a bit biased here, but Brendan Joy’s cooking at Bondir Cambridge is honestly some of the best in town. He’s incredibly talented and passionate. Since opening Bondir Concord, I’ve passed the torch on, if you will. I’ve exiled myself to Concord, mainly because Brendan and Mark, our general manager, are such an excellent team. This winter they held a pasta pop-up with his homemade pastas like the tortelli verdi and veal and saffron lasagnette. People couldn’t get enough of it! His pastas continue to blow everyone away.
279A Broadway, Cambridge; 617-661-0009 or bondircambridge.com.
Maws: Dosa Factory is another good option for lunch. And while the curries and biryani are tasty, it’s all about the dosas, as the name suggests. We usually order the Teekha Chana dosa [spicy chickpeas], eggplant dosa with curry leaf-spiced potatoes, and lamb vindaloo dosa with palm vinegar. It’s long been my Monday treat when I’m trying to catch up on paperwork. At the beginning of the week, you can always find me in front of my computer, dropping dosa bits on my keyboard as I try to write menus.
571 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-868-3672 or dosa-factory.com.
1369 Coffee House
Maws: 1369 has two convenient locations: one in Central near Craigie on Main and the other on my way to Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Inman Square. I’ve been going since I was the sous chef at Clio, stopping there before my morning workout and another long, arduous day in the kitchen. They have solid coffee and teas without the attitude. They don’t roll their eyes if you order an uncool coffee drink like a lot of other places. They just make it and give it to you. Go figure!
757 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-576-4600, and 1369 Cambridge St. Cambridge; 617-576-1369 or 1369coffeehouse.com.
Bond: An afternoon with a pie and a couple beers at Area Four is one my favorite things to do when I have a rare day off. I like the clam and bacon pizza a lot, but honestly, they’re all great. What I love best about this place is that they know how to build the perfect pizza: tasty sourdough crust, quality ingredients, and the right proportion of toppings, so everything doesn’t get soggy. Also, look out for their rotating trio of spreads, which includes things like house tzatziki and white bean and garlic hummus.
500 Technology Square, Cambridge; 617-758-4444 or areafour.com.
Bond: I remember reading about this “up-and-coming” chef named Jody Adams when I first moved out to New England. That was obviously a while ago, but her restaurant’s still got it. I love how she translated her aesthetic sense into Italian food. It’s very pure, and simple, and clean. I think the new renovation over there really reflects that. I usually sit at the bar and have the fish soup, which has been on the menu for ages. I also like to check out the rotating seafood pasta special, which last time was a squid ink tortellini. The food is super creative and it’s just one of the most beautiful and warm environments to relax in.
The Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge; 617-661-5050 or rialto-restaurant.com.
Maws: The Druid is a Cambridge classic. It’s one of the only places to get a real pint of Guinness and a shot of Irish whiskey on this side of the river. And no one looks at me weird when I roll in wearing chef clothes. It’s just a tiny joint with zero pretense, a real Irish accent behind the bar, and an authentic Irish breakfast on the weekends with Irish sausage, beans, and black and white pudding.
1357 Cambridge St., Cambridge; 617-497-0965 or druidpub.com.
Bond: Michael Pagliarini is killing it! I went to this place right when they first opened and loved it. Lately, a lot of my guys have been eating over there and they’ve been raving about the lamb ragu, among many other things. Me personally, I’m just looking forward to a return visit for the pistachio gelato. It has great color, texture and real pistachio flavor, which is surprisingly difficult to pull off.
1682 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-441-2800 or giuliarestaurant.com.
Maws: I live around the corner and I pop in once in a while for a after work beer or a neighborhood family dinner. It’s a no-frills, non-hipster bar that also has a good beer list. So many bars try way too hard these days, so it’s refreshing to be able to just hang in East Cambridge and catch some live music with fish tacos and a cold glass of suds.
877 Cambridge St., Cambridge; 617-864-2792 or atwoodstavern.com.
Bond: Their menu probably hasn’t changed in 20 years, but that hardly matters because I always get the same thing: a Merguean sandwich with an Arabic coffee. They also have really good traditional Arabic pastries like basbousa and baklava. I wouldn’t say the service is particularly great, but it has this really tranquil aura. During non-peak hours it’s one of the few really quiet places in Harvard Square, so it’s a great place to catch up on emails or read a book.
The Atrium Shopping Center, 40 Brattle St. #3, Cambridge; 617-492-1557
Shays Pub & Wine Bar
Bond: I love a good afternoon beer, and when the weather is nice, there’s no better place than Shays. Grab a pint on the garden level patio with some good bar food like the nachos and hand-cut fries, and enjoy some great people watching.
58 JFK St., Cambridge; 617-864-9161 or shayspubwinebar.com.
Bond: Clover serves excellent vegetarian food that makes you forget it’s vegetarian. I come from a family of ranchers, so that is saying something. I’ve told this to Ayr Muir [Clover founder] before, but it actually reminds me of my favorite cookbook, which is The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc, where you eat something and don’t even notice that it’s vegetarian right away. The menus change a lot, but you see a few things that appear again and again in different combinations. I especially like their pita sandwiches, whether and egg and tomatoes for breakfast or with eggplant and red cabbage for dinner.
7 Holyoke St., Cambridge; 617-395-0240 or cloverfoodlab.com.
The Coast Cafe
Bond: This is one of my favorite places to go for staff meals because that way you can try a bunch of different things. When there’s a dozen of us, we’ll tear through a good amount of their menu. It’s classic soul food, so fried catfish, collard greens, mac and cheese, biscuits, and they make a really mean banana pudding. Also, The Coast Cafe is the closest thing I’ve found to the legendary fried chicken places I used to eat at in Kansas.
233 River St., Cambridge; 617-354-7644 or coastsoulcafe.com.
Maws: This is a weird one because lots of stuff on the menu is actually pretty normal—you really need to navigate all the categories a bit to find some hidden treasures. Some of my favorites are the spicy cabbage, the Szechuan beef salad, and the shao xing pork, which is slow-cooked pork belly served with dried Chinese vegetables. But the real highlight here is the addictive suan la chow show, pork wontons that are more like dumplings. They come mixed with bean sprouts and a spicy, soy-based hot and sour sauce. I usually eat them with my bare hands directly out of the to-go container as I’m walking out of the restaurant. Mary Chung’s has been the host of many Craigie on Main lunch meetings; some of our biggest decisions were finalized over those dumplings.
464 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-864-1991 or marychung.com.
Greek Corner Restaurant
Bond: If Monica and I are looking for something outside of our normal realm, we’ll head to the Greek Corner Restaurant in North Cambridge, located just across the street from where the MBTA stores a lot of its buses. It’s just perfect old school Greek with formica tabletops inside, and that type of thing. I love the spinach pie and the stuffed grape leaves, which my grandmother used to make a lot for me growing up.
2366 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617-661-5655 or greekcorner.us.