Cambridge has always been better known for its universities than its restaurants. Now, with the emergence of a food scene to rival neighboring Boston’s, the town is giving visitors more reasons than ever to cross the Charles River.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been a cultural and intellectual hotbed since its founding nearly 400 years ago — and has a list of claims to historical fame to match, from Harvard, the country’s oldest university, to the Cambridge Chronicle, its oldest weekly newspaper.
Until recently, the culinary standard was also set by an old pioneer. The beloved Harvest (entrées $26–$46), though 43 years old, is a regional stalwart of farm-to-table dining. But now new restaurants are arriving, part of a broader Cambridge renaissance that includes everything from start-ups to pop-up boutiques. Chefs trained in New York City and London and Spain’s Basque region (and, of course, good old Boston) are importing influences from their travels and setting up shop from MIT to Mount Auburn Street.
The scene is dominated by a fresh breed of neighborhood joint: cozy, comfortable hangouts that cater to the community without sacrificing a sense of culinary adventure. Here are our picks of the best places to try.
This welcoming spot from husband-and-wife team Pam and Chris Willis is quickly becoming a favorite haunt for locals — and a standard-bearer for the city’s revitalized restaurant scene. The dining room is filled with plants and vintage pieces sourced from around the Northeast, such as a statue of Demeter, the Greek harvest goddess, salvaged from a Hudson Valley estate and reassigned to watch over the buzzing bar. Chef Chris makes everything from the sausage to the XO sauce in-house, but the custom-milled flours and heritage cereals ground in a trusty Italian grain mill are the true stars of his kitchen. Don’t miss the freshly made pastas, such as tightly coiled lumache (literally, “snails”) in a Bolognese sauce made with gochujang, a Korean fermented chili paste. The team also has a way with quality meats, especially in dishes made with the local Berkshire pork, like a chop served with dashi sauce over cream of wheat or a loin paired with cured pork belly and arugula. (Entrées $17–$32.)
Inside the unassuming gray-brick shell of a former Best Western, you’ll find Cambridge’s newest boutique hotel, Freepoint — an eclectic, art-filled space that debuted last year after a $6 million renovation. The property is centered around a loungelike restaurant, where Food & Wine Best New Chef alum Matthew Gaudet serves small plates like monkfish bouillabaisse and a Cuban sandwich made with house-roasted pork. Don’t expect a standard hotel breakfast, either: mornings at Freepoint are brightened by options like a bagel with house-made, whiskey-cured salmon and a miso-and-avocado grain bowl. (Small plates $8–$18.)
Chef Tracy Chang’s family legacy — her grandmother opened a Japanese restaurant in Cambridge during the 1980s — carries on at this Japanese tapas spot near Central Square, where the menus are an embodiment of Chang’s diverse biography. At brunch, tapas like the tortilla española with txistorra, a Basque-style chorizo, reflect her five-year stint cooking in northern Spain, while squid-ink bao stuffed with oysters and cult-favorite “Guchi’s midnight ramen” show off her mastery of Taiwanese and Japanese techniques. For dessert, choose the smoked-purple- yam ice cream, where Asian flavor meets Basque molecular gastronomy in one perfect, savory bite. (Entrées $15–$32; brunch $4–$23.)
Alden & Harlow
When this trendsetter opened four years ago, it was credited with kicking off Harvard Square’s dining renaissance. Since then, it has become the center of chef Michael Scelfo’s growing empire — he opened the seafood-focused Waypoint (entrées $15–$23) two years ago, and this fall he’ll launch the bar-restaurant Longfellow upstairs from Alden & Harlow. But the subterranean dining room of his original restaurant is still buzzing every night, packed with a crowd that feels like a true Cambridge cross section, from proud college parents to twentysomething entrepreneurs. Highlights of Scelfo’s playful New American approach include melt-in-your-mouth chicken-fried rabbit, Scotch eggs made with blood sausage, and the delicious — if irreverently titled — “ubiquitous kale salad.” (Entrées $12–$26.)
Like most diners and delis, modern Jewish delicatessen Mamaleh’s excels at breakfast, lunch, and brunch. What sets this place apart are the thoughtful twists and touches you’ll find if you look take a closer look: the French toast is made with babka, for example, and the latkes come with added caviar if you want (you do). All the standards are here — knishes, pastrami, egg creams, and a sublime matzo ball soup, each executed with a more delicate touch than your typical corner sandwich shop. Luckily, you can order most of these items at dinner, too, plus an expanded roster of Middle Eastern small plates, like fattoush and parsnip hummus, as well as entrées like the ornate “Jewish pupu platter” piled with kreplach, chopped liver, and more. (Entrées $23–$42.)