BY GEOFF MCGOVERN
I have three favorite bars in Cambridge: the communist themed and utterly pretension-free People’s Republik on Mass Ave. between Central and Harvard; the hipster Mecca, B-Side Lounge of Inman Square where the scientifically classified drink menu (so cleverly arranged by main ingredient) is more extensive than the limited but outstanding food offerings; and this week’s subject, River Gods, located just outside of Central Square.
What better than to review an Irish bar for St. Patrick’s Day? The coincidence is wholly unintentional, as River Gods is anything but your traditional Guinness equipped watering hole.
Comfortable as an Irish blessing but as mysterious as traditional lore, River Gods has the best atmosphere of all Cambridge bars. Demographically, the crowd tends toward the older grad student, a laid-back intellectual clientele that (thankfully!) would rather talk about the latest bands than the dormant commerce clause. Friendly staff, delicious food, marvelous beer, and skilled DJs make this lesser known haunt an ecstatic find for those looking to relax and unwind in a funky and inviting setting.
The care taken in decoration makes this jewel a destination in and of itself. Deep amethyst walls hung with vermillion shaded eclectic lamps wrap drinkers and diners in an intimate embrace of Irish style that carries a distinct flavor of New Age mysticism. Celtic iconography abounds, with reliquaries, vermeil crosses, and ancient druidic faces emerging from shadowy corners to chant long forgotten pagan incantations of good fortune.
The quality of the food ranges from average to very good, though portions may be a bit too substantial if one is looking for pub fare. A variety of uninspired individual thin crust pizzas are available ($8), as are Boston’s best (I’d call them divine, but it would make a really really bad pun) French fries ($4), served with a savory roasted garlic aioli.
The combination of cross-heavy décor and garlic-heavy cuisine deters creatures of the night looking to sup on anything rarer than a steak sandwich. But as I was in the mood for something rare, I opted for that sandwich ($10). It should, however, properly be called a steak tip sandwich. I was surprised, but sated by the accompanying (garlic) mashed potatoes. An item listed as a steak sandwich and described as containing “tender filet mignon” leads one to expect a creation somewhat more substantial than what was received.
Yes, yes, I’m being picky, only because it’s so difficult to find anything objectionable. Had it been listed as a steak tip sandwich I would have been thrilled.
A variety of DJs spin throughout the week, each with their own coterie of devotees who pack the bar to capacity. And packed it gets; on weekends when you’ll likely find yourself waiting for the few seats at both table and bar. Those seats, by the way, are a mismatch of heavy wooden thrones deeply carved into gothic peaks, buttressing one’s overall impression that River Gods is both unforgettably unique and charming without going overboard.
On my last visit, I found the menu was a bit out of date, the Rosti Potatoes (a hip and creative take on baked potatoes) having been discontinued as an option but not removed from the listings. Yet, since the chef is in the process of revising the dining options, the hit or miss nature when ordering is supplanted by the exciting new possibilities to come from the kitchen. Service can seem on the slow side, the product of a friendly staff that enjoys conversation with patrons. But the error seems more charming than bothersome, and one never feels rushed in the enjoyment of one’s stay.
With good fare, music, and laudable attention to detail, River Gods has a great thing going. Stop in during the week for a casual meal; leisurely nurse a Scottish Belhaven ($4) or one of the best poured Guinnesses ($4.25) in Cambridge in a private corner; enjoy the tunes mixed nightly by the guest DJs. You’ll find both the mythic and the marvelous while communing with the ephemeral spirits of River Gods.
River Gods125 River Street, Central Square617.576.1881Open 3 pm to 1 am, daily.