Unlike at their regionally inspired restaurants Toro, Coppa, and newcomer Faccia Brutta, James Beard award-winning chef-owners Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette are unconventional and unapologetic in the best possible ways at Little Donkey. Their only Cambridge concept is centrally located on Massachusetts Ave., and its eclectic, meant-to-be-shared menu is packed with small plates influenced by every corner of the globe. Take the Manti for example: meaty ravioli from Istanbul. Crudo, sashimi, and tartare get bold additions like umeboshi, crispy rice, and gochujang. And we would be remiss to not mention the Burger: dry-aged beef topped with spicy buffalo pickles, onion soup mayo, foie gras, jalapeño chips, and cheese, it’s a mic. Drop. For dessert, the memorable Cookie Dough served right on the beater should round out your meal. The global trip doesn’t end with the food, either: Beverage director Jodie Battles has a one-of-a-kind palate and curates an ever-changing roster of wines and thirst-quenching cocktails at the Donk.
The Best Restaurants in Central Square, Cambridge
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Positioned between two world-class universities, Central Square is a destination with ethic diversity and bustling energy. There is no shortage of restaurants and watering holes around Harvard and MIT, from health-conscious grain bowls to late-night comfort food and culinary delights from award-winning chefs. On the Red Line and eminently walkable, Central Square has plenty of restaurants worth exploring.
Inspired by the feel of an Italian getaway, Pammy’s is simply idyllic and unpretentious. With splashes of color and botanicals between the airy and crisp dining room with its lively communal table and the romantic lounge with cozy fireplace, this “New American trattoria” gives us all the feels. Husband-and-wife chef Chris and namesake Pam Willis make you feel like you are seated at their own kitchen table with easygoing, polished service and inspired food. Settle in for handmade pasta like the Lumache Bolognese rendered spicy with Korean gochujang, and seasonal crudo, salads, and cocktails. Reservations in the dining room are for Pammy’s “Choose-Your-Own Adventure Prix Fixe” menu. While reservations can be tough to snag, keep in mind the bar area is open for walk-ins with the a la carte menu available daily. Perched between Central and Harvard Square, we love this gem so much, you’ll find it on both neighborhood guides. Cin cin!
Founded on the pillars of food, community, and collaboration, Pagu is an izakaya meets tapas restaurant just outside of MIT. Chef Tracy Chang is not only inspired by travels around the world, but she also draws from experiences right at home. A menu of juxtapositions features Spanish classics like Pan Con Tomate and Boquerones along with Asian dishes like Guchi’s Midnight Ramen and an assortment of bao buns. Pagu is most dynamic and transformative. Even the beverage program tangos with fusion ideas, such as in cocktails like Pica Pika—a tequila and mezcal margarita with peach jam and Thai chili syrup—and Kyoto Temple, which uses green tea-infused Japanese whisky, fino sherry, and applewood smoke; plus sake and Spanish wines. As far as community is concerned, locals love bringing home meal kits and more from the Pagu market.
This self-proclaimed “urban oasis” welcomes everyone into its inviting environment, vegetarians and carnivores alike. Life Alive Cafe is here to provide plant-based nourishment and a comfortable place to relax. It’s never quiet, however: The Central Square cafe is literally (and figuratively) buzzing with not just residents and visitors, but also blenders whirling for smoothies and açaí bowls. The Life Alive experience centers on organic, vegan meals and the overall vibe is living life to the fullest. We can’t deny finding renewed energy in their wholesome, warm grain bowls and restorative greens and juice. Life Alive is vibrant, satiating, and a perfect reason to slow down.
It’s been 20-plus years since Joanne Chang first became a local hero with the motto, “Make life sweeter, eat dessert first.” Nine locations of Flour Bakery + Cafe and a James Beard award later (Outstanding Pastry Chef, 2016), Chang’s hospitality is unparalleled and her energetic dedication is catching. On the sweet side at Flour, the pastry counter is chock full, but the signature classic Sticky Bun will always be perfect in our eyes. Flour also nails it when it comes to savory bites. Fresh, made-to-order sandwiches and salads rotate seasonally along with fan-favorite BLT, made withNorth Country applewood-smoked bacon on soft sourdough; and the Achiote Chicken with avocado and crunchy jicama. For morning commuters and those in need of an afternoon pick me up, it’s always the right time for Flour.
Cicada Coffee Bar
Just on the edge of Central Square and covered in lush greenery, Cicada Coffee Bar brings Vietnamese coffee culture to Cambridge. Try a Sai Gon Latte (Vietnamese espresso and condensed milk) or Sea Salt Shaker (Vietnamese drip coffee with Maine sea salt and sweetened condensed milk). Not a coffee person? Give the Lemongrass Ginger Fresh Brew a go, hot or iced. Chill inside the cozy cafe or outside on the charming, backyard patio. Cicada serves up an all-day menu of noodle dishes and banh mi along with pastries like Passion Fruit Brioche by Cafe Beatrice’s award-winning pastry chef Brian Mercury. But it’s not just a daytime coffee bar: Come back for beer, wine, sake, and dinner with Vietnamese dishes like Black Rice Baked Salmon.
As its name implies, Artifact Cider Project remembers the past, but it doesn’t let nostalgia hold it back. The “forward-looking” cider company respectfully moves beyond traditional practices using local apples. At the innovative, so-called Station taproom in Central Square, choose from up to 14 ciders on tap ranging from fan-favorites like Slow Down, rosé-tinted By Any Other Name, and cozy Feels Like Home, to rotating seasonals and limited-release cellar projects. Want to try a whole bushel of ciders? Ask for a flight and have the taproom crew choose for you. Seating is first-come, first-serve inside the chic space and out on the Mass. Ave. patio. Hungry? Pop-up Mimi’s Chuka Diner is in residence at the Artifact Station, serving bar bites like Sichuan Chili Wontons and Mochiko Lemon Pepper Wings.
New City Microcreamery
New City Microcreamery throws the ice cream rule book out the window. Using liquid nitrogen to freeze its confections creates smaller ice crystals, which gives it a signature smooth, airy texture. Whether or not this is the future of ice cream, we are into it. At the Cambridge scoop shop, available flavors include Chocolate Almond Croissant, Baklava, and Salted Cookies + Cream, plus non-dairy, vegan options like Peanut Butter and Chocolate. There are two additional locations in Hudson and Sudbury, and New City can also be found in the freezers of select local Whole Foods.
In collaboration between the owners of Area Four and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese comes A4cade. Fronted by the grilled cheese shop, this 21-plus speakeasy is also a throwback arcade bar—and a true hidden gem. It is all things fun, nerdy, and nostalgic. Food-wise, Roxy’s runs the gamut from a Classic Three Cheese (fontina, muenster and Vermont cheddar) to Hot Honey Bacon; plus burgers and “multi-player options” of arcade-only appetizers like Poutine Tots and Fried Pickles with vegan ranch. The time warp continues through the cocktail menu with drinks like Princess Peach’s Downfall and Rainbow Road, a bright, juicy, liquid version of watermelon Sour Patch named after the notoriously difficult Mario Kart course. On Friday and Saturday nights, “come see what’s behind the freezer door” (spoiler: it’s sweet beats from live DJs ’til last call).
The unmarked second-story bar in the heart of Central Square is easy to miss, but once you arrive at Brick & Mortar, you’ll be glad you found it. Consistently named among Boston’s best cocktail bars, Brick & Mortar riffs on classic cocktails by showing off spirited innovation. This summer’s hit Don’t Call Me Shirley blends hibiscus-infused Bully Boy vodka with grenadine, lemon, and sparkling wine. The Paloma-like quencher When Doves Cry balances blanco tequila with house-made salted grapefruit cordial, Campari, and grapefruit soda. Beer drinking students haunting Central will find the likes of Guinness,Corona, and local crafts. Brick & Mortar keeps it all simple with a small menu of bar snacks and small plates like Potato Gaufrettes & Goat Cheese Tzatziki (basically, chips and dip) and assorted tartines, olives, and deviled eggs.