Hip to be Square

Davis has everything from barbecue to vegan, French to good-old American diner

By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — Davis Square has long been a cultural destination. The Somerville Theatre and Johnny D’s offer concerts and films. Spring brings Somerville Open Studios, summer the arts festival ArtBeat, and fall the HONK! Festival, celebrating street bands. It takes place this weekend.

Shops sell everything from vintage clothing and handmade gifts to sewing machines and photography equipment. Then there’s the pleasure of just sitting in the central plaza, with readers, texters, and ice cream eaters ensconced under the honey locust trees. Inevitably, someone with a guitar is singing the lyrics “All gone to look for America.’’ Davis Square is today what Harvard Square once was.

Increasingly, it is also a dining destination. There’s a bustling farmers’ market on Wednesday afternoons. There are chains for those in search of Starbucks and Chipotle, and longtime independent businesses such as Gargoyles on the Square and Diesel Cafe. There’s something for everyone in these blocks, from barbecue to vegan fare. One can find the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, China, India, Japan, and more. Where else can you have breakfast in a classic diner car, lunch at a pizzeria in a bowling alley, and dinner at a Tibetan restaurant? And there are new places to find delicious food opening all the time. The ever-increasing options mean it’s time to check in on Davis Square. Here is a walking tour.

DAVE’S FRESH PASTA One of the square’s big success stories, Dave’s — in this location for 10 years — is packed with (mostly) Italian goodies. The big draw is the handmade pasta, which is cut in any width from capellini to pappardelle. Homemade ravioli are filled with pumpkin, porcini, or lobster. Owner Dave Jick also offers sauces (try smoked tomato cream), prepared meats, fresh fish, cheese, and excellent homemade panforte. Friday afternoon tastings in a room devoted to wine. 81 Holland St., 617-623-0867;

DIESEL CAFE At this spacious retro-chic coffeehouse, the decor includes two red-baize pool tables, a black-and-white photo booth, nods to big oil (Texaco and Mobil), an “ARRET’’ sign (“stop’’ in French), and ancient Smith Corona typewriters. Mostly sandwiches on the menu, many leaning to trendy and healthy. Wi-fi access available by the hour or month; don’t expect to see any typewriters in operation. 257 Elm St., 617-629-8717;

McKINNON’S MEAT MARKET McKinnon’s was opened by George McKinnon and Jimmy Kontos 45 years ago. Kantos bought out McKinnon and now works with partner Clementino Palmariello. You’ll find everything from porterhouse and rib-eye to honeycomb tripe, with fresh fish, produce, a deli counter, and pantry items. 239 Elm St., 617-666-0888;

THE FLATBREAD COMPANY @ SACCO’S BOWL HAVEN Pizza and candlepin bowling are natural companions, and never more so than in this new Flatbread franchise, which moved into Sacco’s Bowl Haven. The two clay wood-fired ovens fit in so nicely, you might think they’d always been there. If you sit at the bar (made from old lanes), under lights fashioned from Muir Glen Organic Tomato Sauce cans, you can watch the 10 lanes while munching on an organic pie (such as “Somerville Community,’’ with mushrooms and caramelized onions) and sampling local brews. “Think Good Thoughts,’’ reads a sign over one of the ovens. Hard not to. 45 Day St., 617-776-0552;

KICKASS CUPCAKES What gives Kickass cupcakes its name has got to be the butter. This bakery, owned by Sara Ross, offers Key lime, green monster, ginger-peach bellini; there’s even a gluten-free selection. A (mostly) dairy counter offers (mostly) local goods: Vermont cheese, Narragansett Creamery ricotta, Shaw Farm milk, European butter, raw sauerkraut from Real Pickles in Greenfield. 378 Highland Ave., 617-628-2877,

REDBONES BARBECUE A popular Davis Square institution since 1987, Redbones has a small bar; an upstairs room with photos of Fats Domino and Lyle Lovett; and Under Bones downstairs, a dim cave that looks as if R. Crumb decorated it in his Mexican period. Wherever you sit, expect lots of company. Lemonade and iced tea come in Mason jars and ribs take center stage. Don’t overlook sandwiches (pulled pork, jerk beef BBQ), or catfingers, corn pudding, and fried okra. 55 Chester St., 617-628-2200;

WHEN PIGS FLY BAKERY This is one of six locations (others are in Brookline, New Hampshire, and Maine) advertising “Old World artisan breads.’’ Baked fresh daily, they’re here to sample — sourdough, New York rye, six-grain with pumpkin seed (recommended), and Tuscan wheat. 378b Highland Ave., 617-776-0021;

JOHNNY D’S This jazz nightclub offers bar food with a hint of New Orleans, as in the fried catfish, and a little bit of everything else, from quesadillas to mussels. At the weekend jazz brunch (at which you’ll see a lot of kids, even books and games) order eggs, the Belgian waffle with candied pecans, or oatmeal. Wash them down with a Bloody Mary or any of eight mimosas while listening to “Bye Bye Blackbird.’’ 17 Holland St., 617-776-2004;

SAGRA An Italian restaurant/sports bar, Sagra has outdoor tables, an open front area, a space divided into a cozy bar with TVs, and more formal dining (no TVs). The menu offers unusual items like vincigrassi, red-wine pasta from le Marche, and Nutella bread pudding. Before 6 p.m., $10 gets you chicken or pasta (try rigatoni with broccoli rabe and sweet Italian sausage) plus a generous soup or salad. 400 Highland Ave., 617-625-4200;

SESSA’S When your cooking project calls for a pizzella iron, pasta machine, or pavesini for your tiramisu, you’ll find that and more in this Italian shop, whose owner, Giancarlo Sessa, used to manage Martignetti’s stores. There’s a dizzying range of pastas (including 2-foot-long squid-ink spaghetti), Italian confections (pandoro, panettone, panforte), fava and lupini beans, chestnut flour, baccala, wild oregano. “We specialize in those hard to find Italian goods,’’ says the website. Pavesini, similar to ladyfingers but better, would certainly qualify. 412-414 Highland Ave., 617-776-6687;

FOUNDRY ON ELM Owned by Ken Kelly (Precinct, the Independent in Union Square) and David Flanagan (Brasserie Jo, Temple Bar), this brasserie opened on Labor Day. Beyond the marble bars with multiple TVs are eating areas in vivid red and black. Fare includes poutine, croque monsieur, tuna Nicoise, beef carbonnade. 255 Elm St., 617-628-9999;

BURREN Named after a rocky expanse in County Clare, the Burren has been a fixture since 1996. Best known for Guinness and live Irish music, the pub offers hearty fare: Guinness beef stew, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, a full Irish breakfast on weekends. 247 Elm St., 617-776-6896;

MARTSA ON ELM Davis Square’s only Tibetan restaurant is small, with the Eight Auspicious Signs depicted in wooden carvings, a portrait of the Dalai Lama, and a painting of sweet-faced yaks. The Tibetan dumplings (momos) are stuffed with beef or pork or spinach and potatoes. Add cracked-wheat soup, masala mint soda, or Tibetan butter tea (with salt and milk, but it’s mostly butter) and you have an inexpensive meal. Save room for daysil, sweet rice with saffron, nuts, and raisins. 233 Elm St., 617-666-0660.

GARGOYLES ON THE SQUARE Chef Jason Santos braises osso bucco in root beer, offers foie gras with pumpkin ravioli, and makes red-wine ice cream at this high-end restaurant. At the bar, you can sample from the menu. 219 Elm St., 617-776-5300;

ROSEBUD DINER This 1941 Worcester Lunch Car #773 has moved beyond diner food. Order meatloaf, pork chops with vinegar peppers, eggs benedict, delectable corned-beef hash. A sign over the bar advertises “Helen’s World Famous Bloody Mary,’’ and when you see the generous shot of vodka Helen DeFrancisco pours into the glass, you’ll know why. The TV might even be tuned to Turner Classics. 381 Summer St., 617-666-6015;

PIZZERIA POSTO Wood-fired pizzas and distinctive pastas, such as pappardelle with braised rabbit. Barolo and brunello by the glass can soar to $18. 187 Elm St., 617-625-0600;

Jeffrey Ganz can be reached at