New England Regional | Tastes and Tables
Live a Little
Cocktails and conversation flow at this Cambridge hotspot
The West Side Lounge is a fun little restaurant. On a Thursday night, the waitress greeted with a genuine smileas if she’s glad we made it to the party. The place was packed with a diverse crowd: a group of giddy young mothers out on the town, Law School students, a table of double-daters, and a clutch of middle-aged researchers celebrating the end of a long, hard project. Some people came in just to hang out at the bar. Cocktails are big business at “the lounge”watermelon martinis, lemon coconut coladas, and the Brazilian-inspired blueberry caipirinhas are among the specialties of the housebut drinks are far from the only reason to go there.
The restaurant takes up a narrow storefront between Harvard and Porter Squares, and has a hip ambiance without being flashy or raucous or seeming to strive. “There is so much interesting food out there that a restaurant really has to be about the whole experience,” says owner Holly Heslop, Ed.M. ’75. “I like lively, intimate places. Sometimes I go to places that are stiff and formal and no matter how good the food is, I won’t go back because I am not comfortable and I don’t feel like the staff cares whether I am there or not.” (She and her husband, Charles Christopher, also own Cambridge Common, located across the street, and Christopher’s, in Porter Square.) “We are in love with being a neighborhood restaurant and have a serious base of regular customers,” she adds. “We don’t do well with suburban diners. When they come in and ask us where our parking lot is, we know we’re in trouble. We like it that people walk or bike or take the T to us.”
The tone is set by the young, stylish staff, and augmented by the cushy burgundy-colored banquettes and dark walls covered with a rotating gallery of the work of local artists. (The restaurant’s only drawback is the somewhat cramped seating in the rear; we’d recommend a spot up front, especially the coveted seats by the picture window.) The food has a homey but careful feel to it, like diner fare being served to a queen. Many of the French- and Mediterranean-inspired dishes come with mashed potatoes, polenta, and mushrooms.
We started with the deliciously light, fried crab raviolis in a sesame sauce served with slivers of carrots and daikon radish ($8), and the warm, gooey goat and feta cheeses with mint, with crisp flatbread and juicy grilled pineapple ($7). The simple pan-seared salmon on roasted-garlic mashed potatoes and fresh tomato salsa ($17) warmed the palate, and the lamb stew special ($19), with porcini mushrooms and slivers of garlic in a brown sauce, offered a rich, rustic flavor. The side order of garlicky greens ($4) was exquisite. Desserts are $6. The crème brûlée was certainly tasty, but what really tickled the kids in us were three miniature sandwiches made from chewy ginger-snaps and fresh peach ice cream.
We happened to catch one of the last meals overseen by long-time chef Alex Jenkins; we assume the high-quality food will continue under Mark Gaudet, who worked with her. We wouldn’t want to lose one of the few places where the un-twenty-somethings are made to feel cool.