Boston gets the glory, but neighboring Cambridge offers its own appeal
You might think that Cambridge is simply a Boston neighborhood that boasts two of the top colleges in the nation Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But this city of about 100,000 is very much its own entity: It cultivates a great sense of diversity and has much to offer lesbian and gay visitors.
Cambridge lies just across the Charles River from Boston, so it’s easy to get back and forth between the two cities by car, bus, metro or even on foot. Cambridge has no shortage of first-rate, gay-friendly accommodations, so you can always overnight here, but its proximity to Boston makes it great as a day trip, too.
Puritans settled Cambridge in 1630 and six years later founded America’s first university, Harvard, which remains a top tourist draw walking tours of campus are given daily.
Dozens of shops and eateries line the streets around Harvard Square. Within steps of it are such vaunted cultural institutions as the Widener Library, the Fogg Art Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the mammoth Harvard University Museums of Cultural and Natural History.
To the southeast, MIT’s campus abuts Kendall Square, a bustling hub of dining and shopping. Although not as exhilarating to tour as Harvard, MIT’s 135-acre campus does have a few museums as well as some noteworthy modern architecture by I. M. Pei, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen and other design luminaries.
You’ll find plenty of great bookstores in Cambridge, but the iconic feminist one, New Words, closed in 2002. Fortunately, the same owners have created a space with a similar mission, the Center for New Words. This nonprofit literary and cultural center holds readings, sponsors events and workshops, and offers women an inviting space to meet and network.
Cambridge has some of the best restaurants in New England, from affordable and quirky student-oriented hangouts to high-caliber places with national reputations.
One of the most celebrated restaurants in the area, the Blue Room is hip, informal, smart and international, with creative foods from Latin America, Europe and Asia. The Sunday brunch buffet is always a huge hit, doling out buttermilk pancakes, octopus salad, sweet plantains with chipotle ketchup and about 25 more sweet and savory treats.
“Equatorial cuisine” has long drawn crowds to East Coast Grill and Raw Bar, where you might try pinot noir-braised short ribs or spice-crusted mahimahi. It’s a low-key but lively space, great for a date. An artsy neighborhood bistro in nearby Somerville, Gargoyles on the Square is worth the trip for such well-priced, innovative delights as braised lamb shank.
Just off Harvard Square, you’ll find dozens of notable ethnic restaurants, with Penang among the stars. This slick, postmodern space turns out delicious Malaysian food, such as pineapple-fried rice with shrimp and squid, and tasty duck.
Although some complain the slick local chain Legal Sea Foods lacks the authentically down-home ambience of a true wharf-side seafood shanty, you can’t beat the quality and freshness here. The clam chowder and the smoked bluefish pate make for outstanding starters, and wood-grilled scallops, cioppino and the traditional New England clambake are tempting main dishes. There are two locations in Cambridge.
Finish up with a scoop of the amazingly thick and delicious ice cream served at Herrell’s, the original of which you’ll find in Northampton. Flavors like malted vanilla, chocolate pudding, cookie-dough peanut-butter swirl, and cinnamon nutmeg will delight sweet-tooths. There’s a reason USA Today named Herrell’s one of the nation’s top 10 ice cream parlors. If you expect more than snacks and light lunches from a coffeehouse, check out Club Passim, a nonprofit folk music and cultural center selling funky cards, gifts and jewelry; booking terrific folk and acoustic entertainment throughout the week; holding provocative exhibitions in its gallery; and serving wonderful food in its restaurant, Veggie Planet. Nosh on creatively rendered meatless treats, like grilled Vermont cheddar and tomato sandwiches, organic mac-and-cheese, peanut-udon noodle bowls, and leafy salads.
ManRay, Cambridge’s rockin’ pansexual dance club, closed in summer 2005 after a wonderful 20-year run, but its famous retro-glam New Wave-meets-punk bash, held on Saturday nights, lives on at Toast, a swish lounge in Somerville. The party, called “Heroes,” continues to draw a mixed-gender crowd of all leanings. In fact, this handsome space has become quite the toast of the town for Boston’s gay community, holding a well-attended “Dyke Night” on Fridays (it’s preceded by the mellower after-work fete,
“Dykotomy”), and the Goth-industrial “Crypt” on Wednesdays.
The one gay bar that still calls Cambridge home is the raffish and unabashedly cruisy Paradise. On the main level you’ll find a dimly lit spare area with porn on video screens over the bar, reflecting what’s on the minds of most of the guys in here. Head downstairs to the basement to find a dance floor that’s dark, grunty and palpably sexual; go-go boys in G-strings slink around purring at customers every night of the week. It’s loads of fun, and Paradise has something you won’t find in Boston: plenty of free parking.
Cambridge has several major chain hotels, most of them near Harvard and MIT, but you’ll find some considerably more distinctive accommodations as well. The gay-popular Kimpton chain runs the snazzy Hotel Marlowe, whose 268 handsomely furnished rooms have animal-print carpets and opulent velvet fabrics, plus such handy amenities as CD stereos and free WiFi. Guests can check out bikes and kayaks (to use on the Charles River, just outside the door) for free. If you get a chance, grab dinner at the fabulous Bambara restaurant, which serves superb regional American fare to a sexy, see-and-be-seen crowd.
A favorable Harvard Square location accounts for the tremendous popularity of the refined Inn at Harvard, a discreet 113-room hotel that was created to house university visitors but is open to all. Rooms have pieces on loan from the Fogg Art Museum and tasteful, contemporary furnishings. If it’s a good value you’re after, check into the Holiday Inn Express, a perfectly pleasant member of the reliable chain with rates starting at under $100 nightly. For this you get free high-speed Internet, microwaves and mini-refrigerators, and a substantial buffet breakfast. And with the money you save, you can spend a little cash as you saunter around Harvard Square’s oodles of great boutiques and terrific restaurants.
LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Holiday Inn Express, 250 Monsignor O’Brien Highway., 888-887-7690,
Holiday-inn.com. Hotel Marlowe, 25 Edwin H. Land Blvd., 800-825-7040,
Hotelmarlowe.com. Inn at Harvard, 1201 Massachusetts Ave., 800-458-5886, Theinnatharvard.com.
Food & Drink
Blue Room, 1 Kendall Square, 617-494-9034. East Coast Grill and Raw Bar, 1271 Cambridge St., 617-491-6568. Gargoyles on the Square, 215 Elm St., Somerville, 617-776-5300. Herrell’s Ice Cream, 15 Dunster St.,617-497-2179. Legal Sea Foods, 5 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square, 617-864-3400; also 20 University Road. at Charles Square, 617-491-9400. Penang, 57 JFK St., 617-234-3988.
Bars & Clubs
Paradise, 180 Massachusetts Ave., 617-494-0700. Toast, 70 Union Square, Somerville, 617-623-9211.
Cambridge Office of Tourism, 800-862-5678, Cambridge-usa.org. Boston
Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-733-2678, Bostonusa.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 07, 2006.