“We’ve come from a foreign land called suburbia,” a mother joked to her two highly energized toddlers as they darted about on the busy sidewalks of Davis Square. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, urban bohemians and families alike swarmed into this hipster beehive to purge their cabin fever.
Sandwiched between Tufts University and North Cambridge, the once-thriving commercial hub of West Somerville went into decline during the Depression and began a slow but steady rebirth in the 1980s when bike lanes were established and the Red Line arrived. Now it’s a trendsetter rather than a follower — just as Harvard Square used to be, according to the baby boomers who have defected to Davis. What makes the square so appealing is that it seems to have evolved naturally, retaining modest little shops that make life easier, while adding others that give life pizzazz. In Davis Square you can buy a pound of hamburger or wormwood bitters for your cocktail party, get your shoes repaired or get a tattoo, buy a sewing machine or the latest graphic novel.
And you can stock up on vintage clothes. At Buffalo Exchange, one of several vintage and resale stores in the square, shoppers were intently examining every item on the racks. “People get very excited when they start shopping,” said Lisa DeFreitas, the store manager. “Sometimes they come in twice a day.”
DeFreitas hails from London and sees it as her mission to make sure customers leave the shop with a sense of style as well as a bargain. “I’ve always dressed funky, and we try to educate buyers and make them fashionistas,” she said. As part of her strategy, sales staff put together their own unique outfits each Saturday. “We give customers ideas for having fun with their clothes,” said DeFreitas who was wearing a sleeveless black top and skirt with colorful tights for that week’s “Sassy Saturday” theme.
Jeneen Napoli, who lives near Boston Garden, had come to Buffalo Exchange in search of a crossbody messenger bag to complete a new look. It was also something of a nostalgia trip. “I worked at the Rosebud Diner when I was 18,” Napoli recalled. These days she works at IHOP in Harvard Square, but still has a soft spot for Davis. “The Harvard kids need to get some fun in them,” she said. “I like this area much better; there’s more of a fun vibe.”
Napoli was surprised to find the Rosebud closed, with construction permits in the window. The streamline-style Worcester Lunch Car with the pink neon sign has been a fixture in Somerville since 1941, as popular for its Bloody Marys and live entertainment as for its nostalgic vibe. The diner changed hands in 2013, and regulars are eager to see what new ownership will bring. But even in an area as close-knit as Davis Square, details seem to be few and far between.
Melisa Christie, owner of the six-year-old shop Davis Squared, couldn’t shed any light on the fate of the Rosebud even though she and her husband and two children live in the neighborhood. “We’re very planted here,” she said. “I really love it. It’s really just fun with lots of energy from students, and lots of families.” There’s also a strong sense of neighborhood pride reflected in the popularity of some of Christie’s gift items, including Davis Square T-shirts and sweatshirts, coasters, and mousepads. “Somerville pennants sell really well,” she said. “Local shopping is huge here. People really support the stores.”
They also support the restaurants, which can satisfy virtually any casual food craving from falafel to crepes, Indian to Tibetan, Mexican to Japanese. There are good old American burgers, too, not to mention barbecue. The square’s quintessential barbecue joint, Redbones, spoke hipster from the early days, offering bicycle valet parking since 1996.
Redbones remains a touchstone for barbecue fans from all around Boston. Increasingly, other Davis Square eateries and watering holes have become destinations as well. The 1970s birthplace of premium ice cream, Steve’s (razed to make room for a bakery), is now home to Pizzeria Posto, where wood-fired pizza with the imprimatur of Verace Pizza Napoletana meets more than two dozen wines by the glass.
Foundry on Elm tapped celebrity restaurant designer Peter Niemitz (Clio, Aquitaine, etc.) to create its snazzy space with a 43-foot Italian marble bar. A locally inspired brasserie menu and 32 beers on tap add panache to the mix. (Roast chicken and steak frites always go well with beer.) Its downstairs sibling, Saloon, is a little harder to find. To locate the stairwell from the street, look for the faux gaslight by the door. Inspired by pre-Prohibition drinking establishments, Saloon was recently named by Thrillist as one of America’s best whiskey bars, thanks to its speakeasy vibe and 150-plus whiskeys, many of them rarities.
At the same address as Saloon and Foundry on Elm, Davis Square Theatre fills the former space of Cantabrigian Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater. That’s literally a tough act to follow, but the theater has risen to the challenge with a performance calendar that ranges from new plays and improv comedy to Tribal Fusion belly dance, EP releases, and alt rock. The monthly revue “Old School Game Show” has become such a hit that the theater sells out, said manager Gabriel Kuttner. The interactive send-up of the bizarre pageantry of 1970s game shows may be leaving the Sunday ghetto. “We’re thinking of moving it to a Friday or Saturday night,” Kuttner said.
Hipsters aren’t immune to trivia, either, judging by the Monday night crowds at Johnny D’s, the performance venue and supper club better known for the blues and roots music played the other six nights a week. Everyone from Alison Krauss to Wilco, the Dixie Chicks to Pinetop Perkins has played Johnny D’s. The club turns 45 this year.
Of course, that can’t hold a candle to the Somerville Theatre, which is marking its centenary. The landmark theater opened in 1914 to present stage shows, vaudeville, opera, and the then-newfangled motion pictures. The original main theater still features 900 seats, though there are also four other movie theaters for cozier viewing and narrower interests (such as the Subterranean Cinema series). But movies are just part of the fun. The theater remains an active performance venue for live theater and concerts, including many produced by World Music. Upcoming performances range from Afro-pop to Celtic music to old-time fiddle and banjo.
It wouldn’t be Davis Square without refreshments. Somerville Theatre serves wine and beer to movie and event patrons. It also slathers the popcorn with real butter.