Cantab Lounge

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Johnnie's Tavern - Columbus Dive Bar - Exterior

In Short

A fresh coat of paint and a resurfaced interior thanks to new ownership hides some of the historical bones of this 1938 Boston dive bar institution in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge. The dive bar’s association with live music, long the bar’s calling card, has been rejuvenated thanks to its relaunch, live music taking the small stage inside every night.

Field Rating

6

out of 10

The glimpses of 1938 within provide some balance to rejuvenated features.

Field Note

There are times when the historical roots of New England, which granted are quite obvious with about five minutes of thought, pop up in unexpected places. Cantab Lounge is one of those places, a Cambridge dive bar put up for sale after the pandemic that, like many of the other great Boston dive bars nearby, traces its history back to just north of Prohibition, an unassuming dive bar in the middle of a block that still claims such rich history.

Opened in 1938, Cantab Lounge’s history is long intertwined with live music, bluegrass music nights a staple over the decades, in addition to spoken word as home of the Boston Poetry Slam for many years. The pandemic, unfortunately, proved to be a big enough disruption in the flow of live performance that the bar’s previous owner, in the post for over half a century, decided to sell. New ownership was found, the liquor license transferred and pledges were made to ensure that the dive bar charm of the previous Cantab Lounge incarnation would be respected.

As with any great dive bar, the words ‘sale’ and ‘renovation’ can spark fear in the hearts of locals and regulars.

As with any great dive bar, the words ‘sale’ and ‘renovation’ can spark fear in the hearts of locals and regulars, and though Cantab’s renovation certainly shines through in new paint and fresh flooring, it’s easy to see the heart of the dive bar that has made it a Central Square institution. Gone are the decades of smoke-soaked (at one time) walls and beer-soaked (always) floors, replaced in a way that takes away some of the dusty appeal of the space but leaves a freshened up live music joint to preserve the location’s tradition.

Inside, the investment in renovating the space is clear. Outside, the touches are a little more subtle, an ancient awning still standing over the front door inscribed with old school “Cantab Lounge” lettering. Some of the stone work has clearly been improved and a drop or two of paint might have been spared to some of the trim, but walking by, Cantab Lounge is no modern, run-of-the-mill bar. The character of 90-plus years of serving the Cambridge community can be seen and its preservation is a success in the hands of new ownership.

The footprint isn’t complicated, a long bar down one wall of the space, a dance floor and stage opposite. Vintage Budweiser stained glass-style lighting hangs over the refinished bar, another nod to the old in this new version of the Cantab. The walls have been refinished, a minimal amount of beer signage distributed throughout Cantab, a clean look rather than the classic cluttered dive bar menagerie of faded photographs.

The stage may be a touch small but by dive bar standards it is spacious, room for any number of live music configurations.

Behind the bar, some additional shots of character, what looks to be bits and pieces of original woodwork still employed to hold the liquor bottles and glasses. Christmas lights drape from the ceiling, extending into the dance floor adjacent to the elevated stage that hosts live music every night of the week, a claim to fame that has come as part of the Boston dive bar’s rebirth. The stage may be a touch small but by dive bar standards it is spacious, room for any number of live music configurations. On this reviewer’s first visit, the dance floor was well stocked on a weeknight, a good sign that the rebirth of the Cantab Lounge has drawn the crowd needed to keep the space alive.

And with all of that preamble, learning that the Cantab Lounge has been open since 1938 is a bit surprising. While the exterior wears some of those decades well, the refreshed surfaces inside hide some of the longevity that has made the space so iconic in the Central Square neighborhood. If that’s a trade off to keep this Cambridge dive bar alive, it is a good one, and given that the deal also brings back a vital live music spot in still historical surroundings, there can be little to complain about.

Photos

The Basics

738 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02139

Classification:
Downtown Dive

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