If you only have time for three meals in Cambridge, Mass., make sure they're here

  • Necee Regis
  • Special to The Washington Post
6:00 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 Travel

If you haven't been to Cambridge in awhile - say, since you left the hallowed halls of Harvard or M.I.T. - you are in for a culinary surprise. Sure, some of your favorite haunts are still around, serving up tasty burgers, and lobster mac and cheese. However, chefs of a new breed are crafting menus that reflect the vibrancy of the town's international community, combining cultures and tastes that in the past may have confounded bow-tie-and-Marimekko-frocked diners. Regional ingredients mixed with far-flung flavors can be found in many of the bistros and restaurants popping up in every neighborhood. Via its association with Greater Boston, because of its location across the Charles River, Cambridge is claiming its place at the region's culinary table 

It's appropriate that the logo for Cafe Luna (cafeluna-centralsq.com, 617-576-3400) is a cappuccino with a heart sketched in foam. People obviously love the place, as attested to by lines that form for daily breakfast and weekend brunch. (Reservations are highly recommended!) Offerings skew toward traditional breakfast fare, with omelets, pancakes, Belgian waffles, French toast and such, but creative combos lift what could be mundane offerings to the sublime. Balsamic marinated figs are paired with goat cheese, leeks and prosciutto in a standout omelet ($15); grilled pears, bacon and Gorgonzola balance salty, sweet, creamy and crunchy elements in another ($15). On weekends, eggs Benedict - made every which way - take center stage, with the surf-and-turf Benedict ($25) in a solid starring role. On the sweet side of the menu, lemon ricotta pancakes steal the show ($15). Tables are crowded in a cozy way in the modern, industrial interior. Somehow, the staff manages to be friendly and efficient despite the crowds. Bar choices include bloody marys, mimosas, wine and beer. It also serves fair-trade coffee and espresso.  

Barcelona meets Tokyo in Pagu (gopagu.com, 617-945-9290), a tapas-style restaurant helmed by chef Tracy Chang. Inspired by her grandmother's Japanese restaurant, Tokyo (a must-dine destination for an earlier generation of Cantabrigians), Chang's influences include stints at elegant O Ya sushi, Le Cordon Bleu Paris and a three-star Michelin restaurant in Spain. The resulting menu is a pas de deux of Japanese and Spanish flavors. Popular items include the colorful squid ink oyster bao (steamed buns), a riff on pork versions in Taiwanese night markets ($15); and cedar campfire black cod, a slightly smoky dish with accents of miso and sake ($23). Comfort food abounds. It's hard to resist the Guchi's midnight ramen, a warm embrace in a bowl of noodles with seared pork belly, three kinds of broth and six-minute egg ($16). A nontraditional lobster roll adds Asian pear and avocado to a sake kasu brioche bun ($23). Small plates are designed for sharing; admittedly, there are more choices at dinner than lunch. Beverages run the gamut from sherry to sake, plus seasonal cocktails, and Basque and American ciders. In the center of the cavernous space, an open kitchen is rimmed with seats where diners watch the chefs work their magic.  

The first thing you notice when entering Waypoint (waypointharvard.com, 617-864-2300), is a gleaming display of oysters. Yet chef Michael Scelfo's coastal-inspired menu is much more than perfectly shucked bivalves, with offerings that transform traditional seafood classics into creative small plates and shareable dinners. The raw bar also features Wellfleet clams; a variety of crudo; smoked, salted peel-and-eat shrimp with hot sauce and buttermilk ($18); and caviar service. Pasta selections include octopus polpetti with mint, chiles and ricotta salata ($19); and the ambrosial uni bucatini, a silky mix of sea urchin roe, smoked egg yolk, pecorino cheese and bottarga, which is a salted, cured fish roe ($23). True story: I posted a photo of smoked whitefish and mascarpone pizza ($16) on Instagram, and a friend and her husband flew from Dallas just to try that dish, then returned the following night for more. Non-seafood eaters and vegetarians will find plenty to satisfy, including roasts to share (lamb, rib-eye, chicken) and emmer casarecci ($17), a surprising pasta with fermented parsnips, hazelnuts and brown butter. The interior is lively, with tall tables, a 24-seat oak bar - with a copper absinthe tap - and open kitchen.  

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Regis is a writer based in Boston. Her website is necee.com. Find her on Twitter: @neceeregis.