For all their legendary progressiveness, Cambridge residents spend a great deal of time looking back in longing. They'll tell you that Harvard Square was never the same after the Tasty closed and Barnes & Noble colonized the Coop, that rescinding rent control has shattered the city's famous ethnic mosaic, that marketing consultants are Starbucking once-gritty enclaves like Central Square. But, then, Cantabrigians have always trafficked in nostalgia. It's de rigueur to note that this street corner or that neighborhood was vastly more interesting before—and a town this old has piled up a staggering number of befores. But for once the cranks may be right: it's hard to recall a more dramatic reinvention than this. Harvard Square still fends off McDonald's, but its musty old student haunts are yielding to flashy bistros and boutiques. (Flashy?02138?) Look instead to the outlying squares—Inman, Porter, Central, and Kendall—to provide the funk and flair. With so many distinct neighborhoods emerging, the city's dining, shopping, and nightlife options have never been more varied. Of course, this is still the weird, quirky town where you'll run across a famous chef buying yams at a dingy Brazilian market, an MIT astronomer test-driving his plastic unicycle beside the Charles, or an Afghan cabdriver reading Ionesco at a red light.
WHERE TO STAY Location, location. The Charles Hotel (1 Bennett St.; 617/864-1200; www.charleshotel.com; doubles from $350) remains the obvious choice for its proximity to Harvard Square, its smart, Shaker-themed rooms, and a full slate of services: the Le Pli spa, the Regattabar jazz club, a new Legal Seafoods, and Rialto, still the city's best high-end dining room.• The boutique trend has finally landed here, thanks to the Hotel Marlowe (25 Edwin H. Land Blvd.; 800/825-7040 or 617/868-8000; www.hotelmarlowe.com; doubles from $229), a hyper-designed East Cambridge property from the Kimpton Group. Jaguar-print bolsters and velvet chaises may not seem to jibe with this zip code, but no one's complaining about the Frette linens, Aveda bath products, or floor-to-ceiling windows. • At the opposite end of town—and the design spectrum—the Victorian B&B A Cambridge House (2218 Mass. Ave.; 617/491-6300; www.acambridgehouse.com; doubles $99-$290) has 15 rooms decked out in period prints and ruffled canopies, some with gas fireplaces, just a quick subway ride from Harvard Square.
WHERE TO EAT With classics like Rialto, the Blue Room, East Coast Grill, and Harvest, Cambridge's restaurant scene has long challenged Boston's. Lately, a new generation is getting even more creative. At the note-perfect Oleana (134 Hampshire St.; 617/661-0505; dinner for two $70), chef Ana Sortun blends unusual flavors from Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and Armenia to create a vivid cuisine that's all her own. An ethereal pumpkin soup with chorizo and fried dates is splashed with frothy almond milk; ouzo-marinated shrimp are well matched with spicy peppers and haloumi cheese. The splendid outdoor patio is a must in warm weather. • Craigie Street Bistrot (5 Craigie Circle; 617/497-5511; dinner for two $75) is hidden on a leafy side street north of Harvard Square, though it might as well be in Lyons. Vintage French posters and red banquettes set the scene for Tony Maws's hearty and precise cooking: hanger steak marinated in red chiles, or an expertly roasted chicken breast paired with a thigh confit and braised fennel. • The stalwart UpStairs at the Pudding has moved to Winthrop Park and renamed itself UpStairs on the Square (91 Winthrop St.; 617/864-1933; dinner for two $100). Its zany space resembles a gentleman's club designed by Lewis Carroll, with walls of coral and turquoise, leopard carpets, fireplaces, and rococo chandeliers. The formal Soirée room serves indulgent dishes such as "rabbit two ways" (a savory rack coupled with an escarole-stuffed loin); the Monday Club Bar is where well-shod ladies lunch on apple-smoked duck salad or brioche panini with Gorgonzola dolce and fresh figs. • At the casual bistro Salts (798 Main St.; 617/876-8444; dinner for two $80), the bold, sweet-and-sour flavors of Eastern Europe enliven the inventive menu. Mustard spaetzle and chestnut honey dress up venison; Ukrainian dumplings accompany black tea-smoked lamb. • The pizza competition in Cambridge is fierce. But with deliciously wacky toppings like dried cranberries and roasted sweet potatoes, Emma's Pizzeria (40 Hampshire St.; 617/864-8534; lunch for two $20), near MIT and Kendall Square, wins the top prize. The chèvre-and-basil pie alone merits an excursion to this quiet corner of the city.
NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD Now that Abercrombie & Fitch has driven them from Harvard Square, the boho monde has claimed Inman Square (a mile east of Harvard) as its bastion. Unpolished Inman is what the rest of Cambridge used to be: notices for protest rallies fill the ubiquitous bulletin boards; a poster of Che Guevara hangs in the local Irish pub. Lately the area has seen an infusion of antiques shops and edgy boutiques (see "Shopping"), yet it still feels refreshingly communal. • Entering the Zeitgeist Gallery (1353 Cambridge St.; 617/876-6060) is like walking into your offbeat neighbor's living room. The space is the setting for regular (often highly irregular) exhibitions and performances: a radical jazz combo promising to "transubstantiate you to Saturn," perhaps, or a demonstration of Chinese paper-cutting. Ah, Cambridge. • The homey 1369 Coffee House (1369 Cambridge St.; 617/576-1369), an Inman landmark before Inman went trendy, caters to a mixed crowd of students, lefties, and, increasingly, young professionals. • In a town where ice cream shops outnumber even Nobel laureates, Christina's (1255 Cambridge St.; 617/492-7021) remains the queen, with oddball flavors such as licorice, fresh mint, and lemongrass. At the adjacent spice market, foodies shop for Hawaiian pink sea salt and other obscure ingredients. • Inman has long been the center of Boston's Portuguese-speaking community, defined by humble moqueca joints and travel agencies advertising cheap fares to Cape Verde. These now share the 'hood with some of the city's best ethnic restaurants. Olé Mexican Grill (11 Springfield St.; 617/492-4495; dinner for two $50) serves slowly simmered pork stew, duck tamales, and guacamole (prepared tableside) in an alluring marigold room accented with dark wood and painted tile. • Argana (1287 Cambridge St.; 617/ 868-1247; dinner for two $45), the newest of the city's myriad North African restaurants, is the place to sample zaalouk (cumin-spiked eggplant purée drizzled with nutty argan oil) and a memorable Cornish hen tagine.