Michael Scelfo, formerly of Russell House Tavern and now at the helm of his own newly opened project, Alden & Harlow, always wanted to open his own place. "I think that was always the dream from day one," he told Eater.
"I probably really started to fantasize about what my place would be like seven or eight years ago, in terms of a vibe and what I would want to present to people. I wanted to present that vibe of being inspired by the stuff I do at home. And it really wasn't so much about the food, it was more about that vibe of everyone sitting around the table, having a great conversation and hanging out. That's what my childhood was. The family sat there around the table passing plates and talking about the last meals they had — while they were eating the current meal — and what the next meal was going to be. It was all centered around the table. So when I say Alden & Harlow is inspired from home and wanting to recreate that feeling, what I'm really trying to recreate is that conversation at the table — that feeling of being at a family table."
Alden & Harlow has now been open in the former Casablanca space in Harvard Square for a month, and Scelfo took a moment to chat with Eater about how things have gone so far and what's coming up next.
Does it feel like it's been a month?
Well, yes and no. My body feels like it's been a month straight, because I'm on, like, week four or five now of just not taking a day off, and I'll probably have another few months of that. But it's been a blink, really, since the day we opened. Unbelievably, we were completely packed [on opening night], and I was like, Holy shit! This is amazing. It hasn't let up since, so it's completely flattering, completely humbling.
Any funny memories or things that surprised you from that first night?
One thing I wasn't really prepared for was how fast things were going to come into the kitchen since we're doing the kind of free-flowing food from the kitchen, letting things hit as they're ready. It's a different kind of set-up for me, and thankfully it's working so far, but there's a pace involved that's different than a traditional pace where you have your course tickets, so that was kind new for me. And fun at the same time, because I'm learning something different. But I think the funniest things have been those moments when I get a break in the tickets or I get a break at the pass, and I turn around and look at the restaurant or the bar, and it's full. I'm like, I can't believe this. I own this. This is happening. I don't know if that feeling will ever go away. I hope it doesn't.
Have customers been pretty receptive to the menu format with all the sharing, or do you find that some are still trying to go with more of a standard set of courses?
We've got an amazing staff, and they've done a really good job of handling it tableside. I think people really get it. But this place is based on good hospitality, so of course if someone doesn't want to do that, we can do a traditional format. We've found some ways behind the fourth wall to accommodate that while still running our system and running our game, so we can make it feel like you're getting that experience without totally switching up our game on the other end. But I would say overall people really like the format. There's an adjustment for me because my instinct is to hold things and send them out together, so it's hard for me to let things fly. I had to get over that pretty quickly, for sure, for it to work.
Anything you would have done differently or advice you wish you could go back and give yourself?
I probably would have told myself to enjoy those moments at home a little bit more and take a little bit more advantage of that time. I knew that once it started, it wasn't going to stop, but I didn't realize how true that was. I've barely seen those guys in a month, and that's super difficult and super emotional but also super rewarding, because they're here to visit me once a week, and I'm seeing them when I can. But I would have told myself to enjoy that time a little bit more, for sure.
What's the thinking behind calling the "secret" burger that appears right on the menu?
It's a little bit poking fun at itself, and I don't know that everyone gets that, because I've seen some snarkiness here and there. But if you really look at it the way it's intended, it's intended to be a little bit snarky on my side, a little bit playful. Well, there is a definite secret to what's in the meat. The thing that's kind of fun about it is that I've got about another dozen or so different versions of it. The meat will always stay the same, but there are different compositions of it that'll roll out, and that's why it says "your faith" on the menu, because at some point you won't know what you're going to get; and it's going to come out differently. The problem is that everyone likes this first one so much, and I like it so much, that it's hard to change things right now, and it's easier on the kitchen to just have the repetition right now; that's how we get better. But it's intended to be fun; there's nothing really too secretive about it.
There have been mentions of just a small amount of the burgers available each day. Is that true?
Right now we're doing about three dozen a day because we grind the meat in house fresh every day, we bake the bread in house every day — believe it or not, a lot of work goes into putting that thing together. We haven't had to 86 it too much, which is really exciting for me, because at my last place, I sold an enormous amount of burgers. When you're doing that, you're wishing that people would try some of your other food, because you're proud of your other food. Here, people have really been about all the other stuff on the menu, so the burger hasn't really run into that issue, but it's one of those things we always look at it. If we see that eventually we're running out too early, then we'll adjust what we're doing, but right now it's limited because there's a lot of work involved — and quite frankly, we want people to try other stuff on the menu too.
Is there something on the menu that you wish that people would order more?
The sunchoke crostini doesn't move as much. The people that have it really like it, but it doesn't move as well as I thought it would. I've already done a couple menu changes — I took the farro off, for example, which was shocking to me, because farro has always sold well for me in other places. Here, I think it was a very good dish, and it kind of exemplified what we're doing here, but it just wasn't a super mover, and we were buying really expensive farro, so I was like, We've gotta take another look at what we're doing here. The sunchoke is the one I haven't taken off because I'm like, Come on, this is a really good dish. People need to order this dish. So I'll probably hang in there with it for a little while longer. Sunchoke is one of those few things you can get locally at this time of year, so it's nice to be able to feature something in this arctic freeze that we're constantly in. You can actually produce something that's pretty thoughtful. It's kind of fun.
How have you felt about the early reviews and online chatter?
This is the God's honest truth — the only thing that I've looked at is Twitter. I have not been on Yelp, I have not looked at OpenTable, I haven't read any of the press that's come out, and I really mean that. I know that there was a Globe thing; I haven't read it. I'm trying to stay away from reading all of that stuff, because I don't want to be swayed in any way. I've waited so long for this that I don't want to just start changing things. I hear that it's very good [laughs] — people tell me that I should read it, but I just want to keep my head down and keep doing this and stay focused on these guys and make sure that the cooks have what they need and our guests have what they need. One thing I've learned is that people are going to call you what they want to call you, and I'm not going to get wrapped up in it. They can decide what they want this place to be. I'm just going to stay true to what we're doing, and the rest will sort itself out.
Any changes in store in the near future to hours or things like that?
Well, I'm really flattered at the amount of people that are turning out for the late-night, it's been really impressive. We're serving the full menu until 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends. The amount of industry support that's coming in has just been tremendously flattering, so I feel really good about that. But coming up, brunch is probably the biggest thing. That's coming probably next month some time, and I'm really excited to roll that menu out. I think it's really fun and different. It's not a typical brunch menu at all. We're going to start with just Sunday, and then we're going to add Saturday.
What has surprised you the most over this past month?
The response. I'm completely blown away by the response. We've had so much industry in the first month and so many people that I look up to and consider heroes of mine that have come in and checked us out early and have just been saying the nicest things, and they don't have to. It's so humbling to have so much of that type of response from people coming in and eating, especially chefs, and it's just super validating because I've been waiting so long for an opportunity to do this.
For someone who's coming in for their first visit, how would you recommend they approach the menu?
Establish a relationship with our servers. I think we have a great service team that's really excited to give people a good time here. I can't say enough good things about what [general manager] Jen [Fields] has done with the floor staff. They are without a doubt the heroes of this restaurant. We really focus on some of the touches that you don't normally see at this price point and in this area, so I'd say you should get on board with your server and they'll kind of guide you through the experience. Let them give you the ride. I think it's definitely nice to get two or three plates at a time, four plates at a time, share, have fun with it. Don't take it too seriously, enjoy it, have some drinks. Get another round and see where that takes you. That's what the place is really meant to be.
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