Cambridge’s Newest Café Invites You to Slow Down and Unplug
Wine-and-dessert bar Zuzu’s Petals adds screen-free café service with delicious treats and live-in-the-moment vibes.
By night, Zuzu’s Petals is a hidden gem in Cambridge’s Inman Square: a no-cellphones wine-and-dessert bar where you can savor the moment, enjoy impossibly rich chocolate mousse (or delicate tiramisu), and sip a glass of something unique. Now, two years after its opening, owners Alexandra Whisnant and Bobby MacLean are welcoming customers by day, too, in hopes of bringing back café culture—and creating the type of café you might find in Europe, with table service and a relaxed pace. (And like Zuzu’s evening service, no screens are allowed—this is not the place to park with a laptop.)
“We want to have a place where people can really sit down and enjoy things and use real plates—beautiful china—and eat quality food, slow food,” says Whisnant. The vision is an alternative to the pervasive counter-service cafés built like fast-food restaurants—as well as an invitation to linger and read a book, perhaps, or catch up with a friend, or journal. It’s a lofty goal in 2023 to foster a café space so welcoming that people will willingly stop scrolling and put their laptops away for a couple daylight hours, but at Zuzu’s Petals, the ambiance (complete with a genre-hopping vinyl soundtrack) and the irresistible baked goods just might do the trick.
A driving force behind Whisnant and MacLean’s stellar menu—a mix of house-made items and some carefully curated goods from other producers—is an obsession with the sourcing of ingredients. The wholesale foodservice supplier Restaurant Depot is a dirty word here, and everything comes from “real people, not corporations,” as MacLean puts it. (MacLean previously founded the now-closed specialty grocery shop Picnic & Pantry, which was located at Somerville’s Bow Market, so product sourcing plays directly to his strengths.) You’ll find seasonal jams from V Smiley Preserves in Vermont; an herbal tea from Missoula, Montana the duo discovered at a favorite café in MacLean’s New Hampshire hometown; and buttery croissants baked very locally, from new East Somerville bakery Michette. (Whisnant and Michette owner Thomas Ferté go way back; Whisnant actually stayed at Ferté’s family’s place in Paris when she lived there a decade ago.)
The daytime menu at Zuzu’s Petals could be described as light brunch. There are a handful of savory options, like a local cheddar toastie (on Michette sourdough) and a “croissantwich” with scrambled local eggs, comté, and local peppers and onions (on a Michette croissant). On the sweeter side, wild Maine blueberry pancakes are topped with Vermont maple syrup and a butter brightened up with orange zest; “Kandy’s scone,” a surprisingly light take on the often-too-dense baked good, is made with persimmon, pecan, and cardamom, served with seasonal jam and whipped cream. Whisnant is particularly excited about the scone, named for a family friend, Kandy, who’d order her scone with a side of whipped cream. “I thought it was so cool,” recalls Whisnant, noting that this happened right across the street at S&S Restaurant some 35 years ago.
While all of these dishes make an impression, you’d be forgiven for skipping right to the Gâté Comme Des Filles section of the menu, Whisnant’s brand name for her chocolate bonbons and other treats, like almost impossibly fudgy dark chocolate brownies and several varieties of delectable cookies. (Her Bow Market storefront under the Gâté Comme Des Filles name is now closed, part of Whisnant and MacLean’s consolidation of their talents at the Zuzu’s space. Don’t worry: The popular bonbons will be available for pre-order around holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Sign up for the Zuzu’s Petals newsletter so you don’t miss them.)
When in doubt, order anything chocolate, particularly the ultra-thick, Parisian-style chocolat chaud—hot chocolate—with whipped cream or house-made rainbow marshmallows. Optionally, add chartreuse. (We recommend this.)
Zuzu’s Petals feels timeless. The eclectic décor includes everything from a hanging disco ball to classical composer busts (the ones piano teachers loved to gift their students in the 1990s) to a special unicorn tapestry on loan from Whisnant’s mother to a watercolor of the Zuzu’s Petals storefront painted by a customer. On a recent Thursday, customers read—gasp—actual newspapers, and MacLean’s soundtrack bounced from the Cars to Talking Heads to Loretta Lynn. Whether you’re making a deliberate effort to unplug for a few hours or you’re just drawn by the smell of chocolate wafting down Hampshire Street, you’re sure to find something special at Zuzu’s Petals, by day or by night. Might we suggest trying both: a pancake-and-hot-chocolate brunch—and an after-dark bite of truly special crème brûlée and a glass of something pink?
Zuzu’s Petals is currently open Thursday through Sunday for café service and every night for wine bar service; reservations available for both via Resy. 204 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-945-7749, zuzuspetalscambridge.com.