T-Time: Where to Eat (and Drink) Near Central Square Station
Welcome to T-Time, where local writer Will Gordon breaks down the best options just off the MBTA, stop by stop.
Illustration by Liz Noftle/Boston magazine
Cambridge’s Central Square has the sort of exaggerated reputation for seediness common among the rougher-by-default districts of predominantly smooth cities. Central’s main claim to shame is that it’s neither Harvard nor Kendall; the proximity to fairer squares magnifies the few stray bits of scuzz left in Central as it awaits its next bank or its first dorm. It’s true that the area right around the T stop hosts a robust population of weirdos, Popov-stronauts, and Ruble-rousers, but it’s tough to get too worked up about them when you’re within a 5-minute walk of a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, and an $18 hamburger. Central might be the best square in Cambridge for scoring expired 7-Eleven sandwiches and drinking out of a paper bag, but it’s also a great place to eat and drink indoors with silverware.
THE FIELD: 20 Prospect Street
If you’re the type who thinks a glass of Guinness varies appreciably from bar to bar, you should start your Central Square adventure at The Field on Prospect Street, where $5.75 nets 20 ounces of the cleanest stout in town. The food isn’t bad for an Irish pub, and if that sounds like a lukewarm endorsement, see above re. Guinness. There’s a back room with pool and darts, and, on weekend nights, too many people to safely enjoy either. The new-ish back patio is perfect, weather permitting: It’s clean and secluded, and patrons are actively discouraged from throwing sharp things.
Tucked behind the other side of Mass. Ave., Green Street Grill is one of the best restaurants in town; that is, if you judge places by their spiced peanuts ($3), rum selection, and overall excellence. The $11 bacon double cheeseburger is nearly as good as the heavily hyped, steeply priced burger at Craigie on Main, and the chicken schnitzel ($18) is even more satisfying to eat than it is to say. My current favorites on the fantastic and underpriced cocktail list are the Daisy Black (Old Overholt rye, lemon, honey, and mint; $7.50) and the Zombie (Matusalem light rum, and Barbancourt 7 dark rum, apricot liqueur, and pineapple juice; $8.50). The 10 thoughtfully selected beer taps include both stout and IPAs of the day and not a single lowest-common-denominator throwaway (but have no fear, you can get Bud and High Life for $3 a bottle).
BRICK & MORTAR: 569 Mass. Ave.
This bar is a vast improvement over the Enormous Room, its predecessor above Central Kitchen. It’s also much more welcoming than you’d expect from a sign-less cocktail place with a record player and a mezcal list; the drinks are uniformly excellent, the food is two steps above typical bar snackery, and the service is outstanding. I’ve liked each of the dozen drinks I’ve tried, particularly the Sister Mary (tequila, Aperol, St. Germaine, and grapefruit; $11) and the Lido Shuffle (Cocchi, Aperol, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon, and soda; $10). Standouts among the solids include the devils on horseback (blue cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates; $8), the apricot-habanero chicken wings ($11), and the mini oyster po’ boys (2 for $10).
CANTAB LOUNGE: 738 Mass. Ave.
The trouble with Green Street and Brick & Mortar is that neither is open for lunch, let alone breakfast. That’s where the Cantab Lounge comes in. With an 8 a.m. first call and a mercifully out-of-service kitchen, the Cantab fills a very specific void in the neighborhood. Maybe you work third shift. Maybe you work no shift. Maybe you just got back from a trip to a weird time zone. Maybe you want to drink your breakfast without being judged, and maybe you’d like to watch Matlock reruns and lose the lottery while you’re at it. Whatever the reason for your early-morning indulgence, the Cantab’s there for you. At night, they have music both upstairs and down, highlighted by the popular Tuesday night Bluegrass Pickin’ Party. The rest of the time, you can entertain yourself with a $3 pint of Pabst and a $5 shot of blackberry brandy.
1369 Coffeehouse: 757 Mass. Ave.
If you favor the more conventional morning liquids, the 1369 Coffeehouse across the street is your best bet in a neighborhood long on caffeine. 1369 has more than 25 different teas, homemade soups, and locally sourced hot cider, but the coffee’s the main attraction. For $1.50 you can get a small cup of freshly roasted and brewed coffee to help you get your head together as you sit in one of the great people-watching stools by the front window and plan the rest of your Central Square tour.
INDIA PAVILION: 17 Central Square
Cambridge’s most diverse neighborhood features several good ethnic options, including the venerable India Pavilion. The recently overhauled IP is now bright and spotless and has a full bar with comfortable seating and above-average renditions of your favorite Indian staples, such as goat curry ($13.95), mulligatawny ($3.95), and all manner of samosas, naans, and pakoras.
Moody’s Falafel Palace: 25 Central Square
Next door at Moody’s Falafel Palace, you can get cheap, quick Syrian food until 3:00 a.m. on the weekends, and the Mr. Aleppo Roll-Up (lamb shawarma, baba ghanouj, and foul; $7.49) is the rare late-night meal that tastes just as good by the light of day.
Have suggestions for T stop surroundings you’d like Will to break down? Let us know in the comments.