According to people who rank things, Boston is the smartest metropolitan area in the country. While stepping outside for two seconds on St. Patrick’s Day may lead you to believe otherwise, take a trip across the Charles to Cambridge and you’ll see why it’s true. There aren’t a lot of cities in the world where you can get on a bus and find yourself squeezed in between a Nobel Prize winning physicist on one side and a Pulitzer Prize winning author on the other, but Cambridge is one of them.
Unsurprisingly, all the smart people in Cambridge made sure to fill their city up with a bunch of great restaurants. Below, we’ve listed 21 of the very best. If you’re smart, you’ll try each one.
The bathroom at Pagu, which is filled with pictures of pugs, is reason enough to visit this big Japanese-Spanish spot in Central Square. But it’s probably better to go for the uni toast, squid ink oyster bao, or black cod served on a still-smoking piece of cedar. The bar, which is packed just about every night, is really fun, too, so you might as well keep popping in for a drink and a small plate until you’ve tried the whole menu.
Waypoint in Harvard Square is a big restaurant that always feels like a party. That could have something to do with the fact that it offers at least four different absinthe cocktails every night and the music is always blasting. But it’s really because of their exciting seafood dishes that put classic Boston seafood restaurants (whose menus are inspired from the goopy chowder that was served at the Kennebunkport Yacht Club’s 1989 awards dinner) to shame. Don’t miss the uni bucatini, octopus meatballs, and the giant lamb shoulder that’s so good it’ll make you consider moving up to New Hampshire to become a shepherd.
There’s a semi-hidden wine bar in the back of Bisq in Inman Square where the walls are lined with corks and the chandeliers are made from repurposed wine bottles. But don’t assume that this place is for drinking first and eating second. The small plates menu is filled with two kinds of things: stuff you see at a lot of other places that are done a lot better here (like the grilled octopus topped with a mixture of charred onions, broccoli, and mint that’s even better than the octopus itself), and stuff you’ll start looking for more after you’ve had it (that would be the beef heart athichuchos). Having said that, you should still get a glass of wine, because obviously you should still get a glass of wine.
Don’t feel like you need to leave work early in order to get one of the 15-or-so famous burgers that Craigie serves at the bar every night. It’s not a burger to risk losing your job over. The rest of the menu, on the other hand, might be worth at least taking a glance at the Massachusetts unemployment benefits program. Luckily, you don’t need to make that choice - they take reservations in the main dining room and, even though it’s always busy, you don’t need to wait in line starting at 4PM to get a table and sit down for a meal of excellent, New England-heavy stuff like fried clams with barely a hint of grease, heritage pork loin, and roasted bone marrow on toast. It’s a white tablecloth place, but a fun one that you should check out.
The only thing on the menu at Yume Wo Katare in Porter Square is a giant bowl of pork ramen with thick noodles, incredibly rich broth, and so much garlic that even an Olive Garden would be impressed. If not having a choice in what you eat freaks you out, get over it. The bowl here is absolutely worth waiting in line for and, after you finish, you’ll be asked to share your dreams out loud to the other 15-20 diners in this tiny classroom of a ramen shop (yup, that’s a thing that happens here).
Sofra is technically a cafe, but instead of stale croissants and someone sitting on a laptop in the corner, it has a bunch of Turkish mezze plus other specialties. The menu is pretty big but we like the beet hummus, sugar snap peas with pistachio and mint, shakshuka, and sausage pita. This tiny place is always crowded (at least when the patio isn’t open) but that’s because you could easily have three great meals in here every day (though it closes at 7, so you might want to get dinner to-go).
Pammy’s on Mass Ave between Harvard and Central Squares has a spacious dining room filled with Italian antiques and a glass-encased fireplace. It feels a little fancy and they take their Italian food seriously, but it’s relaxed and works well for a fun, unstuffy date. Some of our favorite dishes are the bucatini with grilled shrimp and the raw brussels sprouts salad with pickled egg and parmesan.
Giulia on the edge of Porter Square is hard to get into, which is too bad because we would love to be regulars. Everyone packs into the small dark dining room to make their way through the menu of pasta that’s impossible to get sick of. Luckily, the spacious bar is available for walk-ins only, so you can always try to pop in for some squash and ricotta agnolotti. The dark, brick-walled dining room is perfect for a casual date night, and if you’re with a group, book the pasta table for a family-style tasting menu.
We’ve yet to see Patrice Bergeron splitting the poutine with a table full of Mounties at Cafe du Pays in Kendall Square, but we have little doubt that it happens. This is a French Canadian restaurant and, though it doesn’t feature maple syrup in every dish, the menu is filled with pancakes, maple-glazed pork, and gamey stuff like smoked trout and venison meat pies that you’d assume you’d eat in a rural Quebecois cabin. And with dark, low-ceilinged rooms, floral wallpaper, and a cozy area with armchairs, a rural Quebecois cabin is kind of what it feels like, too.
Oleana on the edge of Inman Square has one of best hidden patios in the city. But don’t wait to go here until it’s nice out. This cozy Mediterranean restaurant has a big menu of spiced eggplant, tamarind beef, and lamb tender enough that you could probably blow it apart. It’s so good that you won’t even be too disappointed about the fact that it doesn’t have a full liquor license (the big wine list will help there, too).
With $99 four-course prix-fixe menus and an extensive wine list, The Table in North Cambridge is a good special occasion destination, but one that’s still comfortable and casual enough to pop into on a random Tuesday. The menu constantly changes, but you can expect fancy seasonal stuff like cauliflower ravioli, glazed halibut, and lo mein with pig ear and enoki mushrooms. If you sit at the counter facing the open kitchen, you’ll basically be getting a show to go along with dinner.
Go to Muqueca in Inman Square on even a wet, cold afternoon in winter and you’ll probably find regulars inside speaking Portuguese with the waitstaff. Once you try the rich shrimp bobo and the eponymous muqueca (a giant seafood curry with a sweet broth and your choice of fish shrimp, or squid) for yourself, you’ll become a faithful rainy day regular, too. The rest of the seafood-heavy menu at this casual Brazilian spot is good enough to enjoy year-round, though, and when the weather’s nice, switch over from the stews to the juices - they have one with mint and pineapple that you’ll find yourself craving even if craving drinks that lack either alcohol or caffeine in them isn’t usually your thing.
At Alden & Harlow, it should be a rule that no two people at the same table can order the same drink. The cocktails are so good and interesting at this big, fun spot in Harvard Square that you should share them the same way you do with the small plates. Having said that, the small plates are pretty good too. The menu is broad, with things like lamb belly with dates, and wellfleet clams served with a rich mix of smoked pig’s tail, chili, and parsley, so come here with a group of friends and try as much as you can.
You might feel a little out of place if you’re not exchanging business cards with someone at Benedetto, a high-end Italian place in the Charles Square Hotel that sometimes feels like the dining hall of Harvard Business School. But don’t let all those future CEOs, tech entrepreneurs, and offshore tax haven account-holders intimidate you - Benedetto is a must-try if you’re looking for great high-end Italian food. If it’s nice out, sit on the patio that overlooks the courtyard and order the strozzapreti with pork belly or roasted mushrooms with duck egg.
If New England ever secedes, President Ortiz will probably place his hand on a lobster roll instead of a Bible when he’s sworn in as the first president of the breakaway republic. Split-top buns filled with fresh lobster meat are that important to us. So it’s bold of Alive and Kicking to serve their “lobster sandwich” on two pieces of buttered toast instead of a roll. But maybe they know better, because it’s excellent. Your other menu options at this little fish market with a handful of picnic tables are limited to whole boiled lobsters, a small selection of chowder and bisque, and plastic trays of steamer clams that will leave butter on your fingers for hours.
The dough at Area Four in Kendall Square ferments for over 24 hours. That’s the pizza equivalent of beauty rest, and it works. This spacious spot with big windows kind of feels like a cafeteria for one of the nearby pharma companies, but you’ll struggle to find a better pizza place in Boston, especially when you factor in the outstanding selection of craft beer on tap. Get any of the pizzas that have meat toppings from Moody’s Deli in Waltham and you’ll be in good shape.
You could spend your entire day at Loyal Nine, rolling from one meal to the next in a space that kind of feels like a repurposed mechanic’s garage. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually, but please remember to get up and stretch every couple of hours.) The East Cambridge spot is a cool coffee shop during the day where you can eat things like duck confit on rye or a brisket lettuce tomato sandwich. At night, it’s a restaurant with things like blood sausage, whole belly fried clams, and black bass with apple slaw.
You’ve probably never considered whether mustard gelato pairs well with swordfish pastrami, just like you’ve never considered whether unicorn fur pants pair well with glass slippers. At Puritan and Company, though, not only will you find things on the menu you never even imagined existed, but you’ll also find that they’re really, really good. This farmhouse-type place in Inman Square focuses on traditional New England food (meaning, a lot of seafood) but it also does a great job with things like truffle burrata and short rib pasta. If you don’t have time for both an appetizer and an entree, the phyllo-wrapped cod is served in clam chowder.
There aren’t a lot of delis that have beer on tap, but there also aren’t a lot of delis that have smoked whitefish salad you’d eat twice in the same day, (telling yourself that, since it has the word “salad” in it, it’s healthy). If all of that, plus incredibly crispy latkes, house pastrami bacon, and chocolate tahini sound like your kind of thing, then head to Mamaleh’s in Kendall Square the next time you’re looking for a casual lunch spot, or you want a breakfast menu that doesn’t have eight pages of eggs.
Since Boston is pretty short on rustic farmhouses where you can cook something you chased down in the woods that afternoon, Bondir is the next best thing. There’s a fireplace in the front room where they cook big hunks of meaty things like lamb saddle, duck, and roast beef. With white tablecloths, lots of flowers, and a $68 six-course tasting menu that incorporates a lot of vegetables that might come from the farm they operate outside the city, this is one of the best spots in the city for a romantic meal if you and your date consider yourselves carnivores.
In the same way that wearing glasses doesn’t actually make you ugly, being an uncreatively named sushi spot in a strip mall doesn’t mean you can’t be one of the very best in Cambridge. Come to this casual place in Harvard Square for either the omakase (~$100) or the more moderately priced but still great a la carte menu of rolls and nigiri and congratulate yourself of knowing what inner beauty really is.