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Alden & Harlow Turns One, and Michael Scelfo Is Getting Exponentially Busier

It's been a crazy first year for Harvard Square newcomer Alden & Harlow, full of local and national press, a perpetually busy bar and dining room, and an ever-changing array of creative New England cuisine. Here's chef/owner Michael Scelfo on the best and worst parts of the year, the mounting pressure, and more. (Plus, learn more about his upcoming taqueria here.)

Michael Scelfo
Michael Scelfo
Kristin Teig

Does it feel like it’s been a year?

Definitely not. It went by really fast. The year leading up to getting open, that’s the one that felt like torture and was really long. You’d get close to the finish line, and then they’d move the finish line three feet further away. You hit a point where you’re tired of talking about it and you just want to get in there and work. Those first few months are pretty hectic in that regard, but it certainly does not feel like a year since we’ve been open. It’s been fast — in a good way.

Do you remember much from opening week?

I do and I don’t; it’s all kind of a blur. I remember the exhaustive amount of time we spent focusing on all the details, and it’s funny now to look back and think on what you thought was important at the time that really didn’t end up being that important. We opened up on a Friday night and did 80 or 90 covers, just walk-ins; our OpenTable wasn’t completely up and running yet, so we couldn’t take reservations, and we actually didn’t really want to. We just wanted to let the doors open and see what happened.

We had had a few nights of friends & family; those were interesting and tricky, and there was just a lot of talking, a lot of assessing what we did right, what we did wrong, what we wanted to tweak. Then by the time we opened, we had three days of service under our belts, and we were basically just ready to go. We took one day off in between, and then that was it. It was a long run; Jen [Fields, general manager] and I and Seth [Freidus, bar manager], none of us took a day off for a little over three months. We were here every day. It was worth it, obviously — totally worth it.

I was there on opening night, and everything moved so smoothly from my table’s point of view. When you and I spoke after a month, you seemed a little less positive about how that night went, from your point of view.

"At a certain point you have to let go and understand that people are just going to have their opinions."

I think that when you’re in it, and you’ve got the blinders on, you can’t see the good, the bad, the anything. You’re just doing the work. You know you’re doing it right; you know you’re executing it the way you intended it. Even when you know you’re about to get reviewed or you know someone’s going to write something about you, at a certain point you start to think, I’ve kind of done everything I can. I can’t look back on it and be like, well, he or she can really ding us for this because we didn’t get it right. We did as good as we can; I think they got the best interpretation of what we wanted this place to be. At a certain point you have to let go and understand that people are just going to have their opinions. The upside for us is that generally the opinions have been positive.

A month in, you said you really weren’t looking at online reviews — just Twitter. Has that changed now that you’re a year in?

We read them weekly now; we actually do scrutinize pretty much every single review that comes through on all the channels, whether it’s a Yelp or OpenTable review or a Zagat comment or an email. I think it’s important. We kind of parcel what we think is really valid and what’s not. Sometimes you think, well, this person is just on a rant; these aren’t valid criticisms. But I tend to push everybody to dig a layer deeper. There’s probably some truth to this; this person probably didn’t write this for no reason. In the middle of all those paragraphs of stuff, there’s usually a kernel or two of good stuff that we can actually learn from and apply and do, and we do. We take them seriously. You can’t please everybody, obviously, but we definitely read them. At a year old, it’s not like everything’s set in stone. You’re constantly looking for how to make things better and how to evolve this place, and I’m constantly thinking of what’s next for this place.

After a month, you also said that your goal was to "recreate that conversation at the table at home, that feeling of being at a family table." At the year mark, would you say that Alden & Harlow has indeed gone in that direction?

Yeah, I think that that’s one thing we really nailed. I think that the food and the service and so many things have gone, in my opinion, right on so many levels here to make that happen; I don’t think you can just will that to happen. It’s a combination of our management team getting the service down right for front of the house, it’s that the bar program that doesn’t come off too tweaky or weird — it’s warm and welcoming but still executing craft stuff, and a kitchen that doesn’t take itself too seriously and likes to put out good-quality food and does it consistently and really does care about the product they’re putting out.

I think that people like picking up the plates and passing them and sharing them rather than it being a two-bite tapa. They can pick up a larger plate, and I think that encourages people to talk about what’s in front of them. Did you like this one, did you love this, did you not, what’s up, pass that again, let’s get another one of those. That’s all the stuff that makes this place kind of cool and unique and fun. It’s fun to see people do that out in the dining room for sure.

What has surprised you most this year?

I’m surprised more people haven’t come and checked us out on the industry side. I know who has been here and who hasn’t been here, and I’m always surprised that there are still people who haven’t come and checked out Alden, considering what people have been saying and the response from the public and the press and the national press. There are still people in this town that are a pretty amazing part of food culture that haven’t been in here to see what we’re doing, and I think that’s surprising to me because I know I frequent as many places as possible, and I really am flattered by what people do in this town. I hope more people do come check us out in year two now that they’ve given us a year to get ready. I’m hoping to see more familiar faces in this place for sure.

What’s the ‘elevator pitch’ that you’d give to someone who hasn’t come in yet?

"Ignore all the good, the bad, whatever you’ve heard and just come in and check it out."

Ignore everything you’ve heard; ignore all the hype; ignore all the good, the bad, whatever you’ve heard and just come in and check it out. Make your own decision about what we’re doing here and what you think about it, and if nothing else, just come out and have a good time. Why so serious? Everybody’s doing good stuff and trying hard and trying to build a community based on what we do, so why not come and just enjoy it for what it is?

What has been the most difficult moment this year?

It’s difficult to see people go. We’ve lost a couple people over the year for a variety of reasons, and I genuinely care about my staff. We’ve had people that were a part of the "family" for a long time going up to this, and it’s a bummer to see that the place doesn’t meet their expectations or they don’t meet our expectations. I just hate losing people.

Something I’m very proud of is that I’ve had a lot of the same staff for many years, going back to even the Good Life days. The people who are bought in on what I do are really bought in, and they stay with me, and when I lose somebody I always rack my brains — gosh, what could I have done differently to keep this person around? Because I do take it personally. I think a lot of business owners don’t. The machine keeps running; it’s not so much about the individuals. But for me it really is. I think that those personalities make up who you are at the end of the day, and I think that it’s always worth reflecting on after someone moves on who has been a part of your team — how could that have gone differently in a good way, in a bad way?

I think you do have that responsibility as a business owner to create an environment that people want to be a part of and stay with long-term. I think people genuinely, on some level, want to find a home and put some good roots down. They want to be around good people doing good things.

Has there been a specific moment this year that has made you stop and think, Ok, this is really working. Things are going well?

The morning I got the letter from Bon Appetit [regarding the Best New Restaurant nomination] was a pretty big day because we had found out that Andrew Knowlton had been in a few times, and none of us had ever spotted him. I was pretty shocked that we even got noticed on that level — and that he managed to get in and out of here on several occasions and eat without being noticed. Not because you can cheat and make it better, but you can certainly refine your plates and make sure that you’re not making any mistakes, nothing’s slipping through the cracks. We didn’t get an opportunity with him; he just genuinely came in and ate the food and made his own decision.

That’s when I woke up and looked at my wife Ellen, and I was like, wow, this is getting legit. This is really turning out to be that pipe dream type stuff. I think that kind of carried this whole place. Once that happened, the staff, everything, was different after that day in a really good way. No one got a big ego because of it, but everyone felt validated and felt confident that we were on to something for sure.

Between that and all the other local and national accolades that have been piling up, seems like it’s been a great year in that regard. Does that add any pressure or make you change your approach at all?

"Haters gonna hate, you know what I mean?"

It’s a ton of pressure. A good pressure, but a ton of pressure. I sit down with the kitchen staff weekly, and I don’t think a single meeting goes by where I don’t remind them that we have a bull’s eye on us. In a good way, but we have a bull’s eye. The haters are out there; they’re gonna wanna hate. Haters gonna hate, you know what I mean? They’re looking for anything to hate on about this place. I’m being light-hearted about that, but there is some truth to it. You want to prove it every day, so that’s our motto this year. Prove it every day. We talk about it every week. We just have to continue to prove it; we have to continue to raise the bar and prove it, and so it’s a healthy pressure, but it’s pressure for sure.

After a month, your advice to yourself was to enjoy the moments at home more. At this point, after a year, does any other advice come to mind?

I just got back from Puerto Rico, so I did take my own advice [laughs]. But for year two my workload isn’t getting lighter. There’s definitely some stuff on the horizon that’s going to be taking a lot of my time, and whereas I probably could have taken it easy for a year and enjoyed the success of this place, I’m actively seeking to put as much on my plate as possible, so I feel like this year is going to be exponentially more challenging because I’m just taking on so much more project-wise.

It was never my intention to have one restaurant — it’s my intention to have several — and now we’ve got a successful one here that we can build on, so that’s creating a different world for me and a different set of challenges. I tell everyone all the time, they didn’t hire us to hit singles, you know what I mean? We’ve gotta get back out there and keep doing it, and keep growing. That’s the goal, so, more work. More work.

Any big changes coming up in year two?

We’re adding Saturday brunch service in the beginning of March, which is going to be nice. Speaking from experience, Saturday brunch has always done well in the square wherever i’ve been. That’ll be a nice little added piece for us. I think we’re going to get in touch with the city again and see exactly what we can do about patio potential out front. I know we’ve always liked that idea. And we’ve just started a bread program that I’m pretty excited about where we’re doing about a half-dozen different varieties of bread; we’re not sourcing bread from outside the building whatsoever. We’ve been doing some gluten-free stuff, which I think is really interesting and delicious. And we’re continuing to just push.

Anything else you want people to know about Alden & Harlow as you move into year two?

It’s been an exciting first year. I don’t think I could have ended up with a better staff of people, a better management team. Jen Fields and Seth Freidus and I, I think, gelled into a pretty phenomenal team with what each of us brings to the table in terms of our areas of expertise. I think there’s just enough confidence and knowledge in what we do and not an ounce of ego to come along with it, so that we can just come together and do our thing. We genuinely just want to make people happy, and it’s nice to be surrounded by people that generally want to give good hospitality. I think that sometimes that gets lost in all of the hubbub. We definitely feel like we’re here to serve a purpose, and I’m proud of them. I think we do a pretty good job of it every day.

Scelfo also revealed some details about his upcoming Central Square taqueria, Naco. Learn all about it here. (Plus, he's working on yet another project as well, but he's not saying anything about it just yet.)

Alden & Harlow

40 Brattle Street, , MA 02138 (617) 864-2100 Visit Website