Where To Start
Even though natural wine is – in my opinion – the only wine to drink, it’s still in pockets here and there and you have to find it. But that’s fine because adventure is a big part of eating and drinking for me: finding something new outside of where you typically venture or discovering something that might have been there all along. What I always recommend is to get outside and walk. Walking is my best way to see a city, and Cambridge is definitely a place you can walk. The city is so small that you’ll actually land in Somerville, Arlington or Boston kind of by accident. I’ve done the walk along the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge a thousand times: it’s a really beautiful walk. You can do it on the Cambridge side, the Boston side, or you can do a full long loop. It’s pretty joyful in the spring: there are flowers and cherry blossoms everywhere and every person in the area is out on a bicycle, running or playing catch.
My Top Spot in Cambridge Right Now
There was a term used to describe it here: “Cambridge weird”. In the 60s this was a place people flocked to from all over the world like they do now with New York or Berlin. But over the years, a lot has flattened out personality-wise and it went a little quiet. Cicada is not quiet. It’s wild, fun and has such a unique atmosphere for Cambridge. It’s one of my top spots in the city right now. This Vietnamese cafe is owned by a couple: Vinh [Le] and Duong [Huynh] who have become friends through doing a pop-up at our restaurant. They’re such happy people – like really happy not faking it – and that comes through in the place. They put a lot of care into everything. You have to see the place: big plants and people laughing – it’s absolutely perfect. Vinh is an architect-turned-chef and the way he’s decorated it feels like they’ve sat in every chair with a glass of wine and rearranged the furniture a million times. There’s Vietnamese coffee all day, and at night it operates like a wine bar with a small natural wine list. The food menu is great and has slight twists, but it’s still very much Vietnamese food – noodle soup and cured salmon on noodles, and it’s all fresh and tasty.
Izakaya Classics Using New England Seafood
Around the corner is an izakaya called Judy’s Bay that’s also run by a couple. It has just turned one. It’s in a one-storey, all-brick building and is so cosy inside. There’s a fireplace; there’s sake. It’s perfect for an intimate dinner or to go alone. It only uses New England seafood which one would think is obvious but it actually isn’t always the case. It’s all the izakaya stuff you want like karaage and rice onigiri, with some special dishes inspired by the local fish.
A Thoughtful Thai Restaurant in Arlington
I live right at the edge of Cambridge at a 10-minute walk to Arlington – another really walkable town. A lot of people live there because it’s slightly more affordable than other areas. Despite being residential, it has a lot of new restaurants since it’s become so expensive to rent a storefront in Boston, Cambridge or Somerville, but also because the people who live in these newly developed areas want places to eat and shop. There’s a new restaurant there called BoonNoon Market that’s really special. It’s unique for this area to have young people open a thoughtful place. You walk in and everybody’s having a good time at work. Not sure if it’s because they’re still new, but everybody is happy. There’s a grocery display of the ingredients they use. The quality of the food is so good. You can tell from the taste that it’s all fresh, local veggies which, again, is not as common as you’d think because quality is hard to find and is more expensive. The green curry and the Ua Lao (spicy northern Thai style dill andouille) are so good. They make pad see yew (Thai stir-fry noodle dish) with rotini (pasta variety). The desserts are also really special: go for the Mun Katee (salted-caramelised sweet potatoes in coconut milk) for sure.
There’s No Bread Like This
Breadboard Bakery is also in Arlington and is owned by this woman Daisy. She bakes three times a week and only uses locally milled grains. It’s all sourdough, wild and naturally fermented. Her bread is insane – there’s just nothing like it. You don’t need to put anything on it: it’s real food. We’re going to have it in our shop. We’re her first wholesale account – I’m excited!
Cocktails That Will Convert Any Non-Cocktail Drinker
From where I live, I can walk to another nearby city: Somerville. There’s a 10-year-old wine bar there called Spoke, who’s owner sadly passed away a few years ago. One of the employees, Mary, bought it and kept the name and the place alive. It’s tiny – there are six tables and 10 seats at the bar – but it makes the most experimental, thoughtful and delicious cocktails that will make you question anything you thought was a cocktail. Your mind will be completely opened up. Katie runs the programme and everything is on point: her garnishes, the glassware, the flavours. She has so many savoury drinks. The way she balances lower acidity makes you want to taste the cocktail again. I don’t drink a lot of cocktails, but I’ll always have one when I’m there to try and understand what’s going through her head. There’s also a great wine list with plenty of natural wine and always something unique that you can’t really find anywhere else – both by the glass and by the bottle. There’s a lot of sherry. But the cocktails are so good that I usually go for those instead. The food is great too – it’s proper wine bar food to snack on. There’s always something a little mind-bending in a good way. It feels so special when you’re there. You can sense that everyone is putting effort in every single thing. Another thing about this place is that it’s the closest thing we have to a queer bar without being a queer bar. As a queer person, I’m lucky that I can go pretty much anywhere in Cambridge and feel comfortable, but it’s still fun to have a place like this. Though it’s not explicitly a queer bar, I’m starting to call it that.
A Lunch Counter That’s Beyond Your Expectations
If you walk from Spoke in the direction of Cambridge you’ll find Shirley, a little lunch spot owned by a woman named Kat. She’s lived all over the place and her food is fun and a bit not what you expect. She has a very different perspective on things: everything is made the hard way. She never ever uses yeast. Everything is naturally leavened. She has sweet potato sandwiches with pickles and vinegar that she made. You can grab a soup that she’s been cooking for a few days or a sandwich made with local cheese. It all tastes like it’s full of love and effort. She’s only open for lunch for three or four hours a day. There’s usually like four things on the menu so you can just get the whole thing.
Where I Go For Bagels
I’ll have Bagelsaurus as much as I’ll allow myself to spend money on food. This is getting closer to the Harvard Square area, in a strip between my house and going back down towards Boston. Bagelsaurus has a small menu and bakes every day. It has the standard bagel flavours, cream cheese and fish, but every once in a while one of the employees will do a Cuban pop-up (Ensueño Cubano) and they’ll have a special sandwich and extra baked goods. The Eggspañola is a personal favourite. It’s a sandwich with an organic over-medium egg, pimenton aioli, parsley gremolata and Maplebrook feta. There’s lemon zest on it which makes it absolutely addictive.
Straight Out of a Surrealist Painting
Dali is another great spot in Somerville that’s got tapas and sherry by the glass. As the name suggests, the scene inside is surreal and a bit indescribable. There’s a diorama of the bar on the wall. There are fake meats and faux-garlic hanging. There are waiters dressed in flamenco bringing out candelabras for special occasions (or purely for fun). On a recent visit the bartender lit one up, brought it over and sang a little song. We joined in and we all blew it out together. It’s just a transportive experience: people singing joyfully and cheersing from tables. Honestly, we’re missing this type of love and festive times from restaurants post covid. It’s alive at Dali. Go! Whether in a group or alone at the bar, I promise you’ll leave having made a friend. There’s a real cross section of diners and all are welcome.
Arthouse Film and Wild Food
Now that we’ve walked back to Cambridge, it’s worth checking out The Brattle Theatre. It’s an idiosyncratic place with an old Cambridge feel. It’s below a restaurant (which I’m not going to name) and used to be a multi-level coffee shop called Cafe Algiers that was open for 57 years and was an absolute mainstay of Harvard Square. It was the very last thing to go. When it shut down about five years ago, it was like the end of the weirdness on Harvard Square. But the theatre is there and is still going strong. It hosts independent film festivals and shows art house films not playing anywhere else like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other cult classics. If you’ve made it here, you will want to check out Forage. I love to go to the movies, then come here to sit at the bar with a glass – usually a bottle – of wine, or do it the other way around. It’s owned by a guy named Stan who’s a wine importer from around here. He’s the most lovely human: his happiness permeates the whole place and he knows it. He’s that classic restaurant owner who already recognises anyone that walks it. It’s a relaxing, fun and delicious place with an all-natural wine list. As the name implies, it has a kind of wild food menu that’s small but changes constantly so you could go there all the time. There’s always a pickled plate and it’s a roller coaster of a plate. The restaurant is beautiful too. It’s down a few steps of an old apartment building. It’s got little twists and turns so you feel like you’re meandering in a basement, which doesn’t sound glamorous but it is. It’s so old Cambridge and is especially sweet on a cold Cambridge night.
“He Was Importing Natural Wine in the 70s”
Sofra is a Turkish bakery where you can pick up yummy sandwiches and baked treats. There’s always a line outside so you want to go early and consider take-out. At the other side of the building is Violette Wine Imports, a great wine shop owned by Sophie and her dad, Richard, who started the company in the 70s. Going to the shop feels like stepping into a different time and place. It’s like a wine grotto with dim lights. Richard is usually sitting behind the counter with a book. It’s all natural wines that he’s imported most of. He was the only person doing this kind of thing in the 70s when people didn’t even know what natural wine was. You want to go talk to him: he’s a bit of a legend who’s flying under the radar.
Breakfast Followed By a Journey in Mushroom Discovery
Vinal Bakery is in a part of Somerville that’s a little further away from where I live, but if anyone is visiting me, we’ll come here for breakfast. It makes English muffins and probably makes them all day every day because this place is slammed. It has other pastries too, a small menu of sandwiches and great coffee. There are a few places to sit, or you can grab something and walk around. In this part of Somerville, you also want to check out The Mushroom Shop. It opened last year by Tyler, another unique and eclectic person who has created something really special. He’s very passionate about mushrooms, and he and the staff can tell you everything you want to know about them. Anything related to mushrooms that you can think of is probably in there. It’s literally a homage: there’s freshly foraged mushrooms of all kinds, dried mushrooms, mushroom teas, mushroom vinegar, mushroom figurines, and mushroom calendars, books and cookbooks. It’s a dense and fun discovery that’s worth having after you’ve had your breakfast. I’ve never heard of a place like it.
The Natural Wine Bar Where I Met My Partner
Around the corner is a wine bar I used to work in years ago called Rebel Rebel. It has an all-natural list – with at least 12 by the glass. It will usually have extra stuff open or will open things for you. Everybody’s knowledgeable. The music is good. There aren’t a lot of fun and cosy places in the area, and this place is really tiny: there are six bar stools and some outdoor seating. It’s inevitable that you’re going to talk to the person next to you. That’s what makes sitting at the bar fun. You don’t know what can happen. This is where I met my partner actually.
High On My List
Albert’s Market is around that corner. It’s a wine shop that’s really under the radar but high on my list. You walk in and there’s a hot dog roller, cans of beans on a shelf that’s maybe been there for 20 years, and normal convenience store items like lottery tickets and chips. But in the back, between the Budweiser and the Yellow Tail, there’s an incredible – like the best – natural wine selection. There’s no one there to help, so you kind of have to take a chance or know what you’re doing. You’ll find grower Champagnes and cider from Vermont. Right across the street is a great fish shop called New Deal Fish Market. It has the best seafood selection, mostly from New England, and a few other kitchen staples. Things are coming in every single day if not multiple times a day. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, you can pick up clams here, grab some wine from Albert’s Market and head back to cook. Up the block is Elmdorf Baking Supplies, which has anything you could possibly need for baking from cookbooks to tortilla presses and proofing baskets. It also mills grains for wholesale but anyone can walk in and buy it. It gets a lot of locally grown ancient grains. There’s also a cafe on site. If you’re a bread nerd, this is your all-in-one place.
A Boston Pizza Institution
Boston is glossy in a lot of places, but the places I like feel like they’re from another time. If your feet lead you to Boston (it’s a one-hour walk but you could also opt for the train), the North End is where you want to go. It feels like the quintessential Boston, especially around Beacon Hill: little one-way roads and people yelling everywhere. It’s not mean; it’s just the northeastern way to communicate. It’s all so cosy in the North end. My favourite place to eat is Galleria Umberto, which makes pizza and is cash only. I grew up going to this place. I get there right when it opens because if not, I’m going to be stuck in a line that’s out the door and down the block a little. You walk in and there’s one long hallway down the centre and it’s really sparse. The service is very simple and fast. There are three or four people working behind the counter. They’re cooking the pizza in the back, bringing it out, and as soon as they put it down, they’re serving it and bringing out more. It’s the absolute best spot because, for ten dollars, you can have your perfect square slice, an arancini and a beer and re-emerge feeling refreshed. I’m actually kind of missing it right now, but it’s one of those places that feels like it’ll always be there. I would be really sad if it closes. It’s been open my entire life and is so nostalgic for me.
Wine Treasures and the Best Northeastern Oysters
The Wine Bottega is down the street from there and feels like you’re stepping into another world. This tiny natural wine shop has an underground cellar that you can check out. There are a lot of good secrets to find down there. Walk back to Neptune Oyster. It opened a new location, but you have to go to this specific one and right when it opens. Don’t even bother going if you miss the opening, just go the next day, because the line there forms up so fast and is completely impenetrable. It’s definitely worth going though and great to go alone. It has a long bar, 10 tables and it’s all really, really tight. They have hot food, but go for the raw bar and beer on tap and get on your way. At any given time, there will be at least 12 different oysters to choose from – all from the northeast. It may have one from Japan and another one from Canada just so you could compare and see how much the terroir matters in an oyster.
Raw Clams and an Oceanside Walk
There’s a park nearing City Hall in downtown Boston where there’s an outdoor veggie market on Fridays and Saturdays. Haymarket has a throwback feel. I’m not sure where the vegetables come from, but what you want to get there anyway is raw clams. There’s somebody shucking it; you pay in cash and eat it right there. It’s all-year-long. I personally love doing that in the winter, but It’s also really refreshing in the summer. That area is sweet to walk around and in 10 minutes you’re at the ocean. You can hang out and watch the boats, or take a ferry to one of the small islands in the Boston harbour. Some of them have newly developed nature reserves, so you could take a picnic, a book and a blanket and sit on the island. On a hot day when you’re trying to figure out how not to be hot, going for a swim out there is fantastic. The ferries are pretty cheap and leave often.
New Venues That Are Changing the Dining Scene in Boston
There are newer spots to try in Boston too. The Koji Club is the only sake bar in the area, opened by sake expert Alyssa di Pasquale. She’s really knowledgeable, and her list is constantly changing. You could come three times in a week and have something different each time. She does pop-ups with different folks, but you have to buy the tickets in advance. In February, the collaborating chef did a 10-course Japanese meal. There’s always something exciting going on. The bar is in the Charles River Speedway, a new development with a lot of venues with outdoor seating, so you can make a day of it. It can be a fun way to join your afternoon with your evening. Another place I would make time to go to in the Speedway is her neighbour, Super Bien, that’s also owned by a woman – Melissa. She’s a chef that has an empanadas company called Buenas with a tiny shop (and no seating) in another place. At Super Bien, she serves her empanadas along with other snacks. There’s an all-natural South American wine list. You can try wines that you probably cannot find anywhere else in the state.
Watch This Space
I’m really excited about a wine shop that’s coming to the South End soon. It’s owned by Spenser Payne and is going to be called Neighbourhood Wines. It’s basement level, cosy and approachable and will only serve natural wines. As the name suggests, it’s aiming towards a neighbourhood atmosphere where you could come in and feel immediately welcomed and be comfortable to ask questions – which I love.
Worth the Ride
There are a lot more nearby cities that you can go to by car and they’re especially pleasant in the summertime. Everything is so close and a lot of places are reachable by public transit. You can take a day trip to Vermont, known for its incredible cheeses. In just three hours, you can get to our small wine shop Schmetterling, where we mostly stock cold-climate natural wines. Or you can go to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island south of Cape Cod. Pastaio Via Corta is worth a trip up to Gloucester. It’s owned by Danielle Glantz, a very passionate person who puts care into every single decision. People come here for her fresh pasta made in every shape. She makes it all by hand every day. She makes ravioli, sauces and marinated vegetables. You can trust that everything in her shop is good. Ask her about anything and be ready to hear the whole story and maybe see some pictures of the farmers. She has an all-natural Italian wine selection and sells pantry items like cheese, taralli (savoury toroidal crackers common in southern Italy), cured meats and marinated veggies. You can get an assortment of things and spend a nice day on Crane Beach that’s just a short drive away. It’s a great place to go for a walk or to swim in the summer. The beach is beautiful with really nice water to swim in. There’s like an oldest estate with a wide park perfect for long walks. It might be expensive to park there but it’s worth it if you go with friends and spend the whole day. In less than an hour you can be in Lynn. Nightshade Noodle Bar is there and is owned by a passionate woman named Rachel Miller. She’s also the chef there and is such a skilled cook. Everything is handmade and has a bit of a twist. It’s serious food that’s fun at the same time.
For a Good Cause
This may sound like a plug but NuMarket is a really non-extractive way to fund your business. With this fundraising platform, you give money now and you get all of it back plus 20%. It’s all in credit to the shop. Instead of paying that interest rate to a bank or a different lender, you’re building a community before you even open. The fundraiser for my new project Momma’s is going great. The space will be split in two: grocery up front and wine in the back. This is because parents will feel more comfortable bringing their kids in without feeling weird about it being a liquor store. You can go specifically into the wine room, where we’ll have a table that you can take a load off and taste wine off the shelves. We’ll have a few bottles open, and anyone’s welcome. We’ll have drip coffee every day too, which is a necessity for me. I’m most excited about the vegetables section though. The grocery shop is going to be all about regionally grown food and will prioritise LGBTQ and BIPOC growers. We’ll have some stuff from other places too. For example, I can’t not have Mexican heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, lentils from Montana or citrus from California in January because they’re all so good. Another thing I’m really excited about is this soft serve we’re making with real milk and real cream.
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