Neighborhood guide: Central Square - Time Out Boston

(Originally published on timeoutboston.com 18 Nov. 2011)

Boasting former residents as diverse and celebrated as Ben Affleck and the Necco Factory, Central Square has both charm and edge by the bucketload. Ritzy dining establishments share sidewalk space with that dude that yells things outside of the CVS and—on weekends—hordes of partypeople waiting to get into the club. It’s kind of sketchy, it’s kind of gentrified. It’s Central Square and it’s glorious.

DRINK

Cuchi Cuchi

It's hard to think that a Charo-inspired space could be anything but tacky, but here it is. Inspiration for the décor, the owners say, comes from the intensity of the Latina siren's performance on the Ed Sullivan show in the ’70s, combined with belle epoque old world beauty and early Hollywood glamour. The result is surprisingly intimate and romantic, the perfect place to share a cocktail and a few small plates with a date. Look for the signature hand-muddled Blueberry Cosmo, or try something off the vintage list such as a Blood and Sand or Pisco Sour. 795 Main St (617-864-2929, cuchicuchi.cc)

Enormous Room

Easily one of the most popular places in Central Square, the Enormous Room is not exactly enormous. But cordon yourself some space on the long, oriental carpet-clad platforms, or sink into a cushy leather sofa, and your personal space issues will be sorted. DJs are on the decks every night, usually spinning classic house, raw soul or deep dance cuts. Kick off your shoes, try some infused bourbon and order a generous platter of Moroccan goodies to share—just take care no one steps in your falafel and aubergine dip. 569 Massachusetts Ave, (671-491-5550, enormous.tv)

Green Street Grill

Just one block back from the crush of the crowded Central Square, Green Street Grill looks like a peaceful haven—that is, until you step inside the understated brick front spot. The bar area is often packed, but diners can grab a table on the upper level and choose a dish from the list of American classics like hanger steak and mac & cheese. Don’t overlook the sides and snacks (the spicy peanuts are superb), and the list of well-crafted cocktails. If you're more into hops-based libations, the beer list is extensive and ever-changing. Ask your server for recommendations—it's a safe bet he’s tried them all. 280 Green St (617-876-1655, greenstreetgrill.com)

River Gods

The Irish owners serve a great pint of Guinness, but you won’t find any shamrocks hanging on the walls here. River Gods is contemporary yet cozy, carved into a cute residential neighborhood just outside Central Square. The tiny space fills up quickly around 9pm as the DJs, who rotate nightly, do their (incredibly varied) thing—get here early to score a table. The beer selection is good, cocktails are reasonably priced and tasty food is served every night until 10pm. All in all, this is easily one of the coolest hangouts in town (exemplified by the gigantic mermaid hanging over a throne in the back of the room). 125 River St (617-576-1881, rivergodsonline.com)

EAT

Craigie on Main

It doesn't matter that its unassuming storefront is located just far enough off of Mass Ave. that you couldn't stumble upon it on your own. The buzz surrounding this culinary hotspot has been palpable since renowned chef Tony Maws moved his tiny bistro into this new, larger space. The establishment has retained the quirk of the previous location, while expanding its capacity to better accommodate the growing number of devotees who pack the house most nights for Maws' latest Franco-American creations—each born of his intense dedication to using the best local, seasonal and organic ingredients. The seasonally rotating 10-course tasting menu is a favorite, with options like Crispy-Fried Florida Frog's Legs, Hirmasa Sashimi Salad and Rhubarb-Hibiscus Mousse. Don't be intimidated by the menu, though—a knowledgeable and friendly staff (including a handful of skillful and smiling cocktail mavens) is there to guide you. 835 Main St (617-497-5511, craigieonmain.com)

Toscanini’s

The New York Times called it the best ice cream in the world. People magazine said it has the best vanilla ice cream in the United States. Not bad, but the folks at Toscanini's aren't ones to rest on their laurels, and that's what makes their shop one of our favorites. The staff is constantly and consistently working to create new and interesting flavors, like the amazing Burnt Caramel, which was actually first made by accident. 899 Main St (617-491-5877, tosci.com)

Andala Coffee House

While the service isn’t anything to write home about, the cozy Mediterranean atmosphere at Andala will make anyone forgive a bit of waiting. The amazing Turkish coffee and huge selection of teas, along with free wi-fi, make a case, too. The sandwiches and salads are made of superfresh ingredients, combined with authentic Mediterranean extras like Arabic bread and high-quality imported olive oil. 286 Franklin St (617-945-2212, andalacafe.com)

Moody’s Falafel Palace

Moody’s regal exterior is a holdover from the White Castle burger empire—hardly palatial. Still, the shawarma-slinging counter holds a place in the hearts of all Central Square clubgoers and bar-hoppers, as it’s the only place to grab a bite after the drinking dens close. Expect quick service, tight quarters and a line out the door packed with rowdy partiers until the neon sign turns off at 3am. 25 Central Square (617-864-0827, falafelpalace.net)

Flour Bakery & Café

Intrepid baked-treasure hunters based on the Cambridge side of the river rejoiced upon hearing that Joanne Chang’s renowned sweet spot would be expanding to Central Square. Pastel hues and a chalkboard menu make this place as cute as a cupcake—or any of the other goodies gracing the counter, from honest sticky buns to fat chocolate-chip macaroons that could convert even sworn coconut-loathers. The sandwiches are no mere afterthought—curried tuna salad and BLTs are among the choicest on offer. 190 Massachusetts Ave (617-225-2525, flourbakery.com)

SHOP

Great Eastern Trading Company

This River Street standby was one of the first vintage shops in the city. Its wares skew a bit costumey—piratey garb and fairywear are stocked all year long—but the selection of ’70s- and ’80s-era haberdashery is diverse. Expect an enticing, mélange of western shirts, belly-dancing outfits and glittery platform boots. 49 River St (617-354-5279)

Buckaroo’s Mercantile

A kitsch-lovers paradise, this quirky variety store sells a mix of wonderfully cheesy novelties like lunch boxes and figurines. Vintage items include 1940s aprons, pulp fiction paperbacks and fruit crate stickers with unintentionally fruity brand names, along the lines of Blushing Melons. Owner Brooks Morris also makes a range of retro home décor items, including fabulously decorated lampshades (around $40), coasters ($14 for 4) and wall clocks ($25). 5 Brookline St (617-492-4792, buckmerc.com)

Central Bottle

This glass-fronted shop was opened by four friends so enamored with the enotecas of Venice that they just had to open their own similarly intimate gathering place when they returned to the States. More than just a wine store, the Bottle also stocks a variety of cheeses, salumi, torta, craft beer and traditional Venetian cicchetti. Swing by on a Thursday evening for events based on all manner of wine appreciation—from the virtues of the screw cap to which whites to pair with $1 Island Creek Oysters. 196 Massachusetts Ave (617-225-0040, centralbottle.com)

Cheapo Records

When Skippy White’s—the fabled store for serious connoisseurs of old-school R&B, jazz, gospel and hip-hop—closed down in 2006, the equally legendary Cheapo Records moved into the space. It still stocks some of the best vinyl in the area, with good prices and solid sections for pop/rock, folk, oldies, jazz, and country, along with CDs and hard-to-find box sets. 645 Massachusetts Ave at Prospect St (617-354-4455; cheaporecords.com)

Weirdo Records

Once operated out of owner Angela Sawyer's Somerville bedroom, Weirdo Records' success can be chalked up to its staying true to its name. Sawyer's online start-up was bolstered by the support of a national pack of fans determined to obtain some really, really obscure music—and now the storefront spot is a safe haven for all manner of aural eccentrics.  844 Massachusetts Ave at Bigelow St (857-413-0154, weirdorecords.com)

SEE

Central Square Theater

Opened in 2008, the Central Square Theater has fast established itself as a neighborhood institution. The main performance space is essentially a giant black box, allowing for plenty of design variation from production to production. It's home base for the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater, two solid local troupes who previously had no venue to call their own. It's also the site of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a science-meets-theater partnership between URT and the nearby university. Whoever said math geeks and theater nerds couldn't get along? 450 Massachusetts Ave (617-576-9278, centralsquaretheater.org)

Live Music

Central Square is densely populated with live music venues of all stripes, the cornerstone of which is the Middle East complex (472-480 Massachusetts Ave; 617-864-3278, mideastclub.com). Two straight-up music venues, two bars and a restaurant that moonlights as a dance club, make up the more popular corner of the intersection also know as Mark Sandman Square (named for the late frontman of Morphine, Boston’s seminal alt-rock band). Just behind the Mideast, the small stage at TT the Bear’s Place (10 Brookline St; 617-492-0082, ttthebears.com) hosts intimate performances from local indie rock outfits and touring acts of the rock and pop variety. Just up the street in the Harvard-ward direction, the Cantab Lounge (738 Massachusetts Ave, 617-354-2685, cantab-lounge.com) houses two levels of divey entertainment. Upstairs, live soul and funk keep the dance floor packed most nights, while downstairs features a roster of everything from local indie bands to touring slam poets. The nearby Plough and Stars (912 Massachusetts Ave; 617-576-0032, ploughandstars.com) books a steady schedule of well-known local singer-songwriters performing Jazz and Americana on its tiny stage, along with a smattering of low key DJs.