Gleam and grit

Central Square thrives with new bars and old veterans
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  August 18, 2006

In Central Square, red-cheeked, swollen-faced homeless men sit shirtless on benches. Socialists hawk their newspaper, collect signatures, and try to lure Cambridge lefties even farther left. Pearl is a grocery store for art supplies, and Harvest Co-op can be like walking into Burning Man. On the corner of Mass Ave and Brookline Street, rock-star kids with skinny limbs, so-tight jeans, and statement haircuts populate the sidewalk. African drumming calls from the second floor of the Dance Complex. And every now and then you pass someone in a CENTRAL SQUARE IS FOR LOVERS T-shirt.

People mourn the loss of the old Central, but it’s not gone yet. There’s a Gap, yes. A Starbucks, sure. New shops and restaurants replacing older storefronts: that’s happening, too. But there’s grit left. Central still has spunk — it’s not all tailored and clean-cut and gentrified beyond recognition. It feels more like a neighborhood, a community. Central, unlike Harvard and Davis Squares, has been able to accommodate both the new spots and the older ones without completely losing its identity. In a half-mile stretch of Mass Ave, you can still eat Indian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Chinese, pizza. You can hear bluegrass, blues, indie rock, hip-hop, house. And you want to go out drinking in Central Square? Here are some of your newer options — and some old friends worth keeping.

The Enormous Room (567 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.491.5599), a few years old, and Middlesex Lounge (315 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.868.MSEX), which appeared about a year and a half ago, represent the sleekest of the new Central Square. Both feature DJs, well-mixed drinks, inconspicuous signage, and nontraditional seating — raised platforms and cushions at the Enormous Room (recline!), stools on wheels at the minimalist Middlesex (sitting doesn’t have to mean sitting still!).

Then there are Tavern on the Square and the adjacent Wish (730 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.868.8800), which have established themselves near the intersection of Prospect Street and Mass Ave. Wish is the quieter half of these Siamese twins, a restaurant more than a bar, with wine specials like Feudo Monaci Primitivo zinfandel ($7/glass; $28/bottle) and Columbia Winery chardonnay ($6/glass; $24/bottle). Sit at a sidewalk table with the baked shrimp diablo ($19) or chicken Marsala ($17) and watch a Cambridge night unfold.

The Tavern is much more of a bar, loud and often crowded. With flat-screen TVs, sand-colored ceilings, and a black bar and tabletops, it draws both neighborhood residents and folks from across the river. It’s got some good bottled beer, including Franziskaner ($7.50), Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA ($5), and Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale ($10). For a summery citrus drink, try the ruby-red grapefruit martini ($8) with Belvedere Pomarancza, grape-fruit juice, and a splash of cranberry juice.

Green Street (280 Green Street, Cambridge, 617.876.1655) is no new face on the Central Square scene — it’s been around for more than 20years. And its new incarnation, open since April, has retained the neighbor-hood feel of the old joint. Because it’s tucked a block behind the rush and shuffle of Mass Ave, and because it’s still got a humble exterior, the place has a hidden-gem feel and a no-pretense vibe, and it draws a representative mix of Central Square types. The low-lit bar area is intimate and amicable. The bartenders, expert and friendly, chat with customers as they serve up tropical drinks — and by tropical we mean truly of the islands, not fruity-tooty drinks with umbrellas in ’em — like the Air Mail ($8.50), with Cava, Barbancourt 5 Star Rhum, fresh lime, and honey syrup; and the East India cocktail ($11), with Delamain Pale & Dry cognac, Grand Marnier, fresh orange and pineapple juices, and angostura bitters.

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