Weekend brunch in Central Square
Central Square is always a busy place, even more so during weekend brunch hours. We’ve already extolled the culinary virtues of Cafe Luna and Cicada Coffee Bar, but more central to the square’s Massachusetts Avenue heart are the old-school classic Brookline Lunch; the retro-hip newcomer Donut Villa Diner; and the classy sit-down experience of Vialé. These three diverse eateries are all midday winners.
Brookline Lunch has been a Central Square institution since 1937, and the current ownership’s been slinging the spatula there for more than 30 years. The wide-open, brick-exposed space lined with solid-wooden booths is decorated with classic 1940s and ’50s posters and ads of the era, as well as affectionate graffiti from adoring dinners. The menu’s tight and right, with eggs, omelets and home fries at the heart of it. The Lunch’s signatures are its kanafeh and baklava pancakes – that’s right, pancakes with minced pistachios and thickly drizzled honey – but the thing I had was the breakfast quesadilla. It was supposed to be scrambled eggs and cheese, according to the menu; my order came up with the eggs over medium, which shocked me for a minute. But nothing tried, nothing gained, and I was quite happy with the preparation. The tortilla was crisp and golden, and instead of beans or rice inside, the eggs rode a bed of large-cut, grilled onions, carrots, peppers, broccoli and more, which I also didn’t see coming but also hit the spot. The home fries, skinless golden cubes subtly dusted with paprika and other spices, had ample grilled veggies in the mix as well. The super-friendly service melded well with the homey atmosphere. When you walk into Brookline Lunch, you feel like you’re stepping off the busy, high-tech streets of Cambridge and into a time when the hustle and bustle ebbs, you have no worries and the cook in that gloriously big open kitchen is going to serve you a plate of comfort with a knowing smile.
Sadly, especially with St. Patrick’s Day upon us, Irish pub The Field closed during the Covid pandemic. The silver lining is that the owner of the Donut Villa Diner in Malden took over the space, redoing it with retro-hip ’50s decor. Everything is red and chrome, and the walls are decorated with vintage memorabilia to rival that of Brookline Lunch. (If you’re impressed by all the neat, classically styled neon signage, it’s custom-made by Neon Williams, in Somerville for more than half a century.) The doughnut is king at the DVD, plus-sized and perfectly toasted yet soft on the inside. Glazed is the big request in my household, but the coconut doughnut here is a top contender in my coconut doughnut hall of fame. But these doughnuts appear throughout the menu: There’s an eggs benny, a doughnut cheeseburger, doughnut French toast and even doughnut pudding. The menu’s vast and wide, with lunch offerings that forget the pastry (California turkey melt, ahi tuna burger, tacos and more) and beer and wine, and the young eatery is looking to soon serve dinner, but brunch, or breakfast served all day, is what this diner is all about. The basics are covered in omelets, pancakes and an eggs benny made any way you want, and there’s even a Monte Cristo. The diner also prides itself on a vegan breakfast of scrambles, burritos and breakfast sandos made with a plant-based egg substitute. You can sub in real eggs and make it vegetarian, which is what I thought I asked for on my scramble. Though I got the full vegan experience, it took me a long while to realize it – I guess in part because I was heads down in the hearty bowl, digging out the plentiful al dente peppers, onions and beans perfected by the hot sauce suggested by waitstaff. The other think I dig about the diner are its airy English muffins, served off the griddle hot and dripping with melted butter. They’re not made on the premises, but it tastes like they are.
If you go to the Brookline, DVD, Cafe Luna or Cicada at 11 a.m. or noon, you’re going to be in a line. If you want to sit down hassle free and in your own zone, I can’t say enough about Vialé. The name in Italian means “avenue,” and that’s apt: It’s right on Massachusetts Avenue. It lacks the (not so) greasy spoon or diner vibe of other brunch joints, but in its spartan, somewhat cosmopolitan style Vialé is warm and inviting. It serves brunch only on the weekends, and the menu is short and focused. The eggs Benedict with lean ham and sautéed kale is delicately done, and whoever makes the hollandaise sauce clearly knows their craft, as it’s thick and rich yet subtle enough to not take over the dish. The tempura-fried home fries were an addictive discovery as well. If you dig the hollandaise, the other thing to try is the sausage crespella, a mini breakfast burrito with delicious homemade ground sausage and mozzarella topped by an over-easy egg with a drizzle of that sauce to give it a kick. The menu also boasts omelets, and some of the dinner menu items such as flatbreads can be had as well. The other reason to go to Vialé for brunch is a bloody mary that’s spicy yet smooth, with probably the most cared-for garnishes I’ve seen (olives and generous citrus wedges with a super fresh celery sprig). You can get oysters too, and the shellfish at Vialé are quite fresh. Pro tip: From 5 to 7 p.m. during the week, Vialé shucks ’em up for a buck a big juicy oyster. Another plus is that for brunch Vialé plays mostly the Grateful Dead. Fresh-shucked oysters, homemade sausage with a glorious bloody to wash it down while listening to the Dead? Sounds like heaven to me. Vialé has a longtime employee from the Ukraine with family still there, and (on its website) encourages donations to a defense and relief fund.
Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.