The Inman Square section of Cambridge has become a hotbed of dining over the past several years, with a wide variety of new restaurants joining longstanding spots in this quirky neighborhood. The area remains a bit of a mystery to many, however, as public transportation does not cover Inman Square nearly as well as other commercial sections of Cambridge (Porter, Harvard, Central, and Kendall all have T stations--Inman does not). Because of this, more than a few of the dining spots in and around Inman Square could be classified as hidden gems, including such spots as The Druid, Punjabi Dhaba, Casa Portugal, and a tiny place that is the focus of this review--City Girl Cafe on Hampshire Street, which serves up some tremendous dishes at reasonable prices, yet is virtually unknown to most folks who live outside of the neighborhood.
Yet another one of those blink-and-you-miss-it spots, City Girl Cafe's location a block away from Cambridge Street (Inman Square's main commercial thoroughfare) tends to keep the restaurant from getting noticed, especially since this part of Hampshire Street has so many distractions (traffic lights, bus stops, a tough intersection with Cambridge Street, Inman Street, and Springfield Street) that drivers tend to keep their eyes fixed on the road here instead of looking at the businesses. The eatery looks like a little breakfast place or coffee shop from the outside, with a plain green awning announcing its existence, along with some plants placed out front (depending on the season). But the interior is nothing like your typical greasy spoon or coffee place, with dim lighting, a hardwood floor, attractive wooden chairs and tables, and countless pictures and knick knacks along the walls, all giving the restaurant a real homey and cozy feel that is just meant for a rainy or snowy night. Specials are written on blackboards along the back wall, and a small counter area is also in the back for those who are doing takeout here.
At first glance, the menu at City Girl Cafe looks pretty basic and straightforward, with categories including soups, salads, appetizers, pasta dishes, panini, pizza, and desserts. But the items within these categories are often surprisingly complex, at times going beyond typical cafe-style food into inventive New American fare. Take the antipasto, for example; depending on the night, this blackboard special might include coppa, speck, pickled fennel, ravenno cheese, eggplant caponata, artichoke pate, squares of asiago cheese, arugula, and more, all at a reasonable price. The bruschetta offered at City Girl Cafe can be very interesting as well, with options including a bright-tasting version with fresh ricotta, roasted cherry tomatoes, and basil, and another (this one being a blackboard special, by the way) having a deliciously sweet, savory, and spicy mix of figs, honey, goat cheese, and arugula. Pasta items include several fettucine dishes, with one having a fantastic pesto-like mix of pine nuts, asiago, olive oil, and garlic, along with baby spinach (lasagna and penne melanzane are two other pasta dishes offered here). The simple panini is raised up a notch or two at City Girl Cafe, with deliciously crunchy baguettes used for all of the sandwiches, and even basic options such as the turkey and prosciutto panini are made into something special (in the case of this particular panini choice, fontina cheese, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and aioli are all added to it). Pizzas are excellent here, with the gourmet pies having a decent char on the crust and an array of options for toppings are offered, including everything from capers to walnut pesto to meatballs to prosciutto to figs to sausage to goat cheese and much more--and for lovers of simple pies, City Girl has red, white, and pesto pizzas available. Desserts include freshly-made cannoli, while drinks include a marvelous rosemary-lemon punch with prosecco and sweet vermouth, a red sangria option, a few local (and non-local) beer options, and a handful of wines. Prices are fair, with panini being under $10 and pasta and pizza options being under $20. One final note: Brunch is offered at City Girl Cafe on Fridays and weekends, with such items as French toast, asiago biscuits, and egg sandwiches offered.
City Girl Cafe is a typically funky Inman Square restaurant that doesn't get nearly as much fanfare as it should. For those of you who loved the previous incarnation of Strip-T's in Watertown (before it became a nearly world-class dining spot), you'll probably appreciate the inventive cafe-style food at this eatery, considering the fact that everything here tastes homemade and the flavors that come from the ingredients used are about as good at you'll find, especially for a casual and reasonably-priced place such as this.
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