The Best Restaurants in Central Square Right Now

Find rich Ethiopian stews, zippy hamachi crudos, hand-rolled pastas, and much more at this culinary crossroads.


Dinner at the Dial. / Photo by Brian Samuels Photography

Cambridge’s Central Square is a true culinary crossroads—here, you’ll everything from rich Ethiopian stews to zippy Hamachi crudos to hand-rolled pastas (hello, lobster ravioli). Before you head over, have a look at our list of must-visit restaurants that earn their spot at the center of our attention.

Asmara Restaurant

The injera bread at this stalwart Ethiopian and Eritrean eatery, a neighborhood fixture since 1986, is worth the visit on its own. Delightfully soft and spongy, the wheat-based bread is part of the meal as well as the utensil; use it to sop up every last drop of rich sauces, from mild yellow curries with fresh tomato, to the spiced butter sauce with onions and peppers in the house beef specialty of asmara tibsy. (Go ahead and lick your fingers, too—we promise no one will notice). While you’re welcome to pull up a chair at a standard table, you can also make the most of a communal experience by eating while seated on the floor around a mesob, a traditional woven basket that bears your party’s feast.

739 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-864-7447, asmararestaurantboston.com.

Cloud & Spirits. / Courtesy photo

Cloud & Spirits

Inside lush digs with a wall of foliage and exposed pine beams, executive chef Ron SH rains down bold flavors on seasonal menus that fuse Western and Pacific-inspired cuisines: Check out the bright hamachi crudo accented with savory fire-roasted sundried tomatoes, as well as the Hainan chicken arancini, which marries an Italian fried rice ball to the rich spices of the Chinese province. The creative drinks, meanwhile, are a breath of fresh air—consider the Cloud 9, a spin on an old fashioned that is topped with a tuft of cotton candy. One of these and you’ll feel like you’re floating.

795 Main St., Cambridge, 617-945-1158, 617-945-1158, cloudandspirits.com.

Donut Villa Diner

This nostalgic eatery dishes out breakfast and lunch bites in a laid-back, diner-like setting. In particular, the namesake donuts earn starring roles—they’re not merely crammed down with coffee, but dipped in honey and griddled as French toast, used to prop up poached eggs for the “Donut Benny,” and sliced in two to sandwich a bacon cheeseburger. On top of all that, there’s a broad offering of vegan bites, from scrambles with house-made seitan sausage to waffle confections topped with coconut whipped cream, making Donut Villa a reliable home for plant-forward fare.

20 Prospect St., Cambridge, 617-714-5018, donutvilladiner.com.

The Dial. / Photo by Brian Samuels Photography

The Dial

At the Dial, executive chef Justin Urso cranks up the flavor by culling inspiration from around the world: local favorites, such as the cod cheek fish and chips with crushed peas, share menu space with far-off feasts, like the Thai-inflected pan-seared scallops with coconut rice and green curry broth. The sexy, lounge-y interior, on the other hand, is the kind of place you’ll want to unwind with your pals as you feast on small plates and peck your way down the cocktail menu. Is a margarita your mainstay? Get rebellious with the “Rage Against the Tajin,” which sees tequila tricked-out with mango, kicking ghost pepper tincture, and tajin spice. Enjoy it on the expansive patio, or fly upstairs to sibling spot Blue Owl, an industrial-hip rooftop bar that overlooks Central Square.

2 Columbia St., Cambridge, 617-349-2967, thedialcentralsq.com.

Photo courtesy of Little Donkey

Little Donkey

James Beard Award-snagging chefs Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer pack small plates with big punch at this bright and brick-walled beauty. Come for the cult-favorite Istanbul meat ravioli, pockets of perfection topped with sour cream and red pepper butter, and the light-as-air Parker House rolls with green goddess butter; stay for the creative raw bar selections, including Hamachi crudo with the sweet-sour spike of pickled Japanese plum. Oh, and the oodles of oysters? Crown them with caviar—you know, when you’re not packing that roe into a potato roll sandwich with whipped butter and chive. This Donkey knows decadence.

505 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1008, littledonkeybos.com.

The Mad Monkfish

Creative riffs on sushi, ramen, and pan-Asian plates in a laid-back atmosphere? It’s music to our ears. Then there’s the actual music: live jazz sessions on the weekends, when you can pair steamed pork and shrimp shumai to acts like the Sonny Barbato Trio. The Thai curries are a symphony of flavor too—the panang rolls to a spicy crescendo thanks to red curry cut with peanuts and kaffir lime leaves. Chef Ginger Phomjun’s virtuosic skills in the kitchen also shine through the fairytale-themed sushi selections, such as a Sleeping Beauty roll with yellowtail, salmon, and ripe mango that will leave you feeling full and happy, ever after.

524 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-441-2116, themadmonkfish.com.

Guchi’s Midnight Ramen at Pagu. / Photo by Tracy Chang

Pagu

Chef-owner Tracy Chang’s Japanese-Spanish cuisine charts a course for Tokyo by way of Toledo. On the itinerary: black cod croquetas boosted by zippy chili aioli, salmon ceviche brightened with yuzu, and golden paella tantalizing with shiitake mushrooms and a host of other veggies. If there’s any single stop to make on the menu, though, it might be the cheesy wafflato—a savory waffle concocted with caramelized shallots and smoked mozzarella. Sound a little kooky? Sure, but it’s a honey-drizzled home run.

310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-9290, gopagu.com.

Pammy’s

At chef Chris and Pam Willis’s New American trattoria, rustic salvaged wood and a pristine white-tiled fireplace is a chic yet homey backdrop for the Italian-inflected eats that change regularly, depending on what’s in-season. Sure, you can enjoy them a la cart, but do yourself a favor and reserve a seat for the three-course prix-fixe feats. What to expect? Perhaps luscious lobster ravioli swimming in nettle broth, aged steak tartare alongside Sardinian flatbread, and—with a little luck—lamb chops bolstered by buttered-apple couscous. However the chips land, be sure to bet on the decadent chocolate torta for dessert.

928 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1761, pammyscambridge.com.

The Kendall Square burger at Veggie Galaxy. / Courtesy photo

Veggie Galaxy

At most diners, meats are the main event. (See: heaps of hammy hash, bacon-topped everything.) The twist at Veggie Galaxy is that all the stellar plates are all vegetarian—and modifiable to be vegan—without sacrificing the craving for hearty comfort foods that draws us to diners in the first place. How to pick a single shining star from the all-day breakfast lineup and lunch-through-dinner offerings? Start with the homemade biscuits slathered in southern-style seitan gravy, or swing by for a standout Wednesday-only special: a Nashville hot chick’n sandwich (it’s seitan, too) with enough spicy hot sauce to get you over the humpday slump. Finally, give in to the gravitational pull of the menu’s “Cauli Corner,” where the versatile cauliflower is used for vegan fish and chips with house-made remoulade, Buffalo cauliflower with vegan blue cheese dip, and more.

450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-497-1513, veggiegalaxy.com.

Vialé

We once dubbed this gem one of the city’s best neighborhood restaurants, but don’t take our word for it. The plates of house-made pasta— spaghetti doused in a vibrant green sauce of English peas and mint, the snail-shaped lumache swimming in a clam-studded seafood broth—vouch for themselves. (Plates of wood-grilled strip steak and parsnips, plus octopus drizzled with charred scallion dressing, come in with the assist.) The word may be out on Viale, but its petite patio, shrouded by graffiti-splashed walls, remains a bit of a secret. Discover it in the warmer months by breezing over for brunch, when you can savor breakfast sandwiches made with fluffy, house made English muffins, as well as shrimp and grits with a pleasantly paprika-y Spanish chorizo.

502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-576-1900, vialecambridge.com.


Trisha Anderson

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