CAMBRIDGE — "Wait. Cinderella's in Central Square? You must be kidding."
One of my companions is skeptical about where we'll be having a sit-down dinner. And rightly so. For more than 20 years, Cinderella's has been a mainstay in Cambridge, amassing a loyal clientele through its takeout and delivery options. You want a no-frills pizza, a hot calzone, a reliable bowl of pasta at midnight? No problem.
Cinderella's has not been known, however, as a neighborhood hangout where the menu includes seafood entrees and appetizers such as Buffalo cauliflower, along with craft beers and original cocktails with names like "Ferris Mueller." Now it is.
Last spring, owner Antonio Barros decided to revamp and rebrand his eatery. He hired a new chef, Adam Ganson, who worked his way up in kitchens at McCabe's on Mass, Menotomy, and the Lower Depths. Barros enlisted two new general managers, Dave Wells and Kyle Fletcher, both gregarious guys who enliven the place with a surplus of energy and good humor.
During a seven-month renovation, they gutted the restaurant, built a bar, dispensed with its booths and added tables, and put patches of shingles on the walls. With its exposed brick and industrial vibe, the space is unrecognizable, in interior and in spirit. The new — and indeed improved — Cinderella's Bar & Restaurant debuted in mid-October.
"Antonio saw the neighborhood changing around him, and he decided that he wanted to get with the times and evolve," says Wells. "One of our favorite things is watching people's reactions. Some people come in, don't say a word, and walk out. And then they come back a minute later and ask if this is still Cinderella's."
It is, and it isn't. You sense this is a restaurant trying hard to forge a new identity while clinging to the old one. It offers more adventurous fare — still heavy on pastas, pizzas, calzones, and sandwiches, but in updated versions — yet you can also order takeout and delivery from the previous menu. Even a Google search for Cinderella's recently yielded three different websites, each catering to a specific crowd.
Oddly enough, in its 22d year, Cinderella's is suddenly a work in progress. But there's still a lot to like here, particularly when the menu aims for comfort. On a brisk winter's night, the fried pork sandwich is exactly what we crave: The tender, cider-brined pork loin comes on a Stone & Skillet English muffin, with a smear of maple-apple compote and a fried egg on top.
The BBQ chicken pizza, with bacon for good measure, is simple in its balance of flavors, from the smoky bourbon barbecue sauce to the sharp cheddar. A roasted half chicken is succulent and satisfying on its heaping mound of mashed potatoes. As an appetizer, the garlic shrimp are swimming in olive oil infused with garlic and chile flakes with toasted baguette wedges for sopping.
For dessert, chocolate mousse stands out amid an assortment of cakes made offsite. It's a sinful concoction of Jameson whiskey-flavored whipped cream, crumbled chocolate chip cookies, and velvety chocolate mousse, all layered in a Mason jar. Dig the spoon down deep to get all the goodness at once.
The beverage program is also a welcome addition, with the full bar turning out "classics with a twist," as Wells puts it, and a lengthy list of craft beers. Wells even makes his own tasty limoncello; it's served on tap, which makes it fizzier than your average digestif.
The old Cinderella's would never have served a house-made limoncello. But if its new iteration can focus and stand by its changes, its future could very well be as storied as its past.
CINDERELLA'S BAR & RESTAURANT
901 Main St., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-576-0280, www.cinderellasbarandrestaurant.com.All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $4-$9. Sandwiches and calzones $10-$14. Entrees $13-$17. Pastas $13-$16. Pizzas $8-$14. Desserts $7.
Hours Daily 11-1 a.m. (Kitchen closes at 12:40 a.m.)
Liquor Full bar
What to order Fried pork sandwich, BBQ chicken pizza, garlic shrimp, roasted half chicken, steak bomb calzone, house-made limoncello, chocolate mousse.