Located in Cambridge’s Central Square, this restaurant/bar and performing arts complex of adjoining rooms features five different venues with live music: Upstairs (194 capacity), Downstairs (575 capacity), and Sonia (350 capacity) alongside ZuZu and The Corner Bakery (70 person capacity). For more than thirty years, the owners Joseph and Nabil Sater have been stupendous scene supporters and a premier part of Boston’s rock club scene.
The Middle East opened as a Lebanese restaurant in 1970 and the Sater brothers bought it five years later, in 1975, and then remodeled it into a store front at 472 Mass Ave. They maintained the ethnic food and also had Arab language bands and belly dancers to compliment the atmosphere. In the 1980’s they began to book blues and jazz bands and the first rock show was performed by a solo Roger Miller of Mission Of Burma fame in 1987.
A few months later, late local legend Billy Ruane threw a birthday party next door at T.T The Bear’s, now Sonia, and had overbooked the smaller room. Ruane worked with the Sater brothers to have some of his party spill over to The Middle East and to allow bands to play there during the night. Ruane started booking some of the overflowing talent in the area at the new place and could be seen nightly enthusiastically dancing madly, with a drink in his hand that never spilled, as the group he had brought there played. He was a wealthy heir and would often buy all of the band’s merchandise on sale at the show, and give it away free to the members of the audience. Ruane was later quoted in The Boston Phoenix at the club’s 20th Anniversary Party: “I threw a fuckin’ party that got too fuckin’ big.”
In 1988, the club again expanded and the bakery on the corner of Brookline Street and Mass Ave was changed into a restaurant and bar now known as The Corner Bakery, with a little stage set against a large window facing Mass Ave. Small local bands and acoustic artists, comedians, d.j’s and belly dancers perform there to this day.
In 1993, to create a larger space for bigger bands and national acts, the basement of the building, once a bowling alley, was converted into a music venue with a stage and bar. During the construction, an unknown and unexpected underground spring was discovered delaying their grand opening for two weeks. In the middle of Cambridge, no less! Now known as The Middle East Downstairs, the upstairs Corner Bakery serves as an entrance waiting area and box office for ticket sales to the lower area. During the early ’90’s The Middle East became a central and instrumental part of the whole music scene and culture as Central Square began to take over as the best and most important part of the local music scene in terms of spotting new talent and finding places to play or to listen.
In 2001, the Saters took over the lease of the last remaining section of the Middle East collectivity between the upstairs front and the Corner Bakery which was an Indian Restaurant at the time. They re-named it ZuZu after the childhood nickname of one of the owners. The next year, the place was further upgraded to have a more night club vibe and it is now an upscale restaurant with live music and d.j.’s several times a week.
In March 2017, the final piece of the puzzle was added and the circle completed when the Sater brothers took over and opened up Sonia, named after their sister, in the space that was formerly T.T. The Bears; where Billy Ruane’s big bountiful birthday party started this story. Sonia first opened up as an all age club while red tape, legal drama, poor laws and slow government action made the liquor license transfer from T.T.’s to Sonia’s unsuccessful. No alcohol could be served on the premises while watching live music until a new liquor license was finally approved a year later.
Throughout the years, the Middle East has been called: “reigning supreme as Boston’s best rock/and or roll joint” by The Weekly Dig, “the city’s hippest night spot” by The Boston Globe, and “the exalted Middle East” by Rolling Stone ; and today the club still delivers diversity with jazz, blues, funk, reggae, ska pop and hip hop bands. In fact, along with its current first rate national Indie music reputation, current hip hop artists Mr. Lif, 7L & Esoteric, OuterSpace, Los Nativos, Jedi Mind Tricks, Killah Priest, Irepress, Masta Killah and Jake The Snake perform there regularly.
MIDDLE EAST LIVE RECORDINGS
*The Mighty Mighty Bosstones– ‘Live From The Middle East’ – released October 20, 1988.
* Mr. Lif – ‘Live At The Middle East’- released February 22, 2002.
* The Minibosses– ‘Live At The Middle East’- released April 2, 2004.
* Dinosaur Jr.– ‘Live At The Middle East’ DVD- recorded live December 4, 2005.
* Harry And The Potters– ‘Live At The Yule Ball’ EP- recorded live December 21, 2008.
MIDDLE EAST AWARDS
* 2004-2007- Boston Phoenix- ‘Best Club For Rock.’
* 2005-2008– Weekly Dig- ‘Best Mid-Sized Music Venue.’
* 2008– Improper Bostonian- ‘Boston’s Best Rock Club.’
* 2008– Citysearch- ‘Best Live Music Venue.’
* 2009– Boston Phoenix- ‘Best Tattooed Bouncers.’
* 2009– City Voter- ‘Best Live Music Venue.’
* 2009– Weekly Dig- ‘Best Middle Eastern Restaurant.’
* 2010– Boston Phoenix- ‘Best Hip Hop Venue.’
* 2010– WBZ’s A List- ‘Best Live Music Venue.’
(by A.J. Wachtel)