Where to: Little Donkey in Central Square.
Why: Because it’s back after a five-month hiatus, and the patio is dreamy.
The back story: As a food reporter, I try — ahem — lots of restaurants, and I’ll eat (almost) anything. But I’m also human, and I have my personal favorites: the places I privately recommend to friends and where I celebrate my own special occasions. Little Donkey in Central Square is one of them. It’s a tapas bar from Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer, the same duo who run Coppa and Toro, both in the South End. It’s the type of place that hits every note: good for a date; good for groups, fancy enough to feel special but not stuffy in the least (as the chummy service and decibel levels attest). There’s a back patio that makes even a Central Square concrete parking lot feel somehow romantic.
And the menu has so many things done really well and just this side of traditionally, from a burger smeared in onion soup mayonnaise and foie gras (it works) to Turkish ravioli to crudo to noodles and rice to a teensy caviar sandwich that looks like a treat for a sophisticated elf. This is a restaurant that takes food seriously, but not itself.
Little Donkey closed for several months during the pandemic. It made sense. This is also a place that thrives on sharing and close-talking, and I’m guessing caviar sandwiches don’t travel well for delivery. And so, when it reopened a couple of weeks ago, I made plans with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while to meet, both vaccinated, for a maiden foray into the post-COVID, in-person dining world.
And what a world. Upon pulling into a parking space on Massachusetts Ave., the first thing I saw was a woman rocking knee-high black boots and a thong, sitting on a bench next to an abandoned piece of cheese, happily chatting to a passerby. Ah, yes, Central Square was back.
What to eat: First things first: Ask for a seat on the back patio. There’s a small sidewalk terrace, and the indoor dining room has reopened, but the patio is where it’s at — it’s people-watching central, with heat lamps and strung-up lights that cast everyone beneath a flattering glow (especially sans mask). Occasionally, someone new arrives on the scene to a smattering of applause, like a character in experimental theater.
As for food, pace yourself. The menu is divided into raw items, snacks, charcuterie, veggies, pastas, meat and fish, and sweets. It’s tempting to go wild at first, but you’ll be full after about four dishes, appetite depending. Our big hits: uni Rangoon with yuzu cream cheese and apricot sambal ($17), which tastes like a fruitier, less heavy crab Rangoon; the aforementioned caviar sandwich on a tiny Martin’s potato roll ($25, which is spendy for a two-bite item, but go for it if you feel celebratory); and BLT lettuce wraps with strips of candied lamb bacon that might as well be the best Slim Jims you’ve ever eaten. Smear them with a scoop of pimento cheese and tart tomato jam; if you want, just push the lettuce leaves aside. No shame.
My dining companion devoured a snap pea salad swimming in green goddess dressing and furikake. It tasted like savory, nutty grass. She hoarded the plate all night.
At this point, a sizzling, aromatic skillet of soft, fat rice ($29) arrived — an Asian twist on paella, with boats of bone marrow, shrimp, oysters, Chinese sausage, and littlenecks. This is something you’d want to eat by the spoonful while nursing your second shot: rich, hot, comforting. I took home a pupusa stuffed with stringy Stracciatella in tomatillo sauce ($12), as well as a bowl of Turkish ravioli topped with sour cream and red pepper butter ($17) while I still had my dignity.
What to drink: Red sangria spiked with tarragon ($13), an espresso martini slushie ($14), gin with grilled pineapples and lime ($14). You may need to ask for your drink a few times or flag down someone for a refill. It’s clear that the waitstaff is still getting back into the groove of working a crowded room. They’re so nice that it doesn’t much matter, though. “I appreciate you,” our server actually told us multiple times. And, hey, just plain being out and about on a warm starry night, among people who are actually smiling, softens any rough edges.
The takeaway: Everyone has their own personal Little Donkey — a place to let loose, maybe overdo it a little bit, and enjoy a sense of gluttony. Maybe it’s Taco Bell. Maybe it’s a five-star restaurant. Maybe it’s a tapas bar in the middle of Cambridge. Wherever yours may be, I hope you return soon and safely.
505 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-1008, www.littledonkeybos.com