Few buildings in Cambridge hold as much culinary history as 40 Brattle St., also known as Brattle Hall. From the mid-1950s until 2012, it housed beloved watering hole Casablanca, whose space has been home to chef Michael Scelfo’s Alden & Harlow since 2014, and until just last year, Middle Eastern mainstay Cafe Algiers operated upstairs. With the Longfellow Bar at Alden & Harlow — which opens Saturday, January 19 — Scelfo says that he hopes to pay homage to the building’s rich history through both design and menu choices.
“I always wanted to do a concept in this [space],” Scelfo says. “My dream was, first and foremost, for Alden & Harlow to make it, and then I wanted to expand if there ever was a chance to grow upstairs.” The names of both establishments pay tribute to Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, the Boston-based architecture firm behind both Brattle Hall and the Cambridge City Hall buildings. (In between opening Alden & Harlow and the Longfellow Bar, Scelfo also expanded his reach a half-mile down the road, opening the seafood-focused Waypoint between Harvard and Central squares in mid-2016.)
Unsurprisingly, reimagining and gutting a 130-year-old building proved to be no small task. “I thought about the things that really made the building what it is, first and foremost. That meant exposed brick, which is literally the front facade of the building, and the square-head nails,” Scelfo says. With real oak flooring and Carrara marble tables, Longfellow intentionally gives off the aura of a restaurant that has been operating in the neighborhood for decades. The building’s windows also remain untouched, and on the second floor, diners can look up at an original cathedral-style ceiling. That’s not to say the space is without its newer touches; along the first-story wall, a playful mural by local artist Chris DeLorenzo shows a number of hands going upstairs.
When it came to crafting the menu for the Longfellow Bar, Scelfo says the main goal was for the food to feel both fun and intuitive. There are sweetbreads served with ranch dressing, but then there are tried-and-true bar staples like waffle fries and wings. There’s also a dish called Emil’s Plate, which is a play off of a traditional Middle Eastern kofta with pita, lamb fat tahini, and fried peppers, to honor Cafe Algiers’ late owner Emil Durzi.
“Everything’s been kind of crafted to have a design element that feels like you could just pick it up and eat it with your hands,” he says, adding that guests are more than welcome to use silverware if they wish. This is, however, a definitively more relaxed atmosphere than Alden & Harlow downstairs.
“I do want people to touch and share and pass their food, literally. That for me is something that I feel is kind of untapped in our industry: the tactile enjoyment of food in your hands and how things feel against your skin and how the salinity of your fingers affects the way something tastes.”
The cocktail menu will continue to explore the savory flavors for which Alden & Harlow is well-known. “There’s a lot of scratch component-making for the drink program here,” Scelfo says. “Also, we’re listing our cocktail list as basically a track list. We used favorite albums and favorite songs to generate names for the cocktails.”
Unlike Alden & Harlow, Longfellow will be open for lunch. “In Harvard Square, you have to play to a lot of different audiences,” Scelfo says. “There’s students, there’s faculty, tourists, and there’s industry. It can be kind of tricky, but I think this place is going to do just that.” Scelfo envisions Longfellow as a place people can pop in just for a drink before dinner elsewhere in the square, or a spot they can stop by right after a show at the Brattle Theatre. There are also tables and banquettes set up so diners can turn their visit into a composed dinner “if [they’re] into that kind of menu.”
Even as the architectural triumvirate at 40 Brattle finally comes full circle, this new restaurant is also something of a turning point for Scelfo as a chef. “I spent the first half of my career in Boston cooking bar bites kind of off the radar, off the beaten path,” he says. “These were little places where I would put my own little spin on bar stuff. Going to work for the Lee brothers in 2009 was a real opportunity for me to kind of get away from that kind of cooking and explore different things at Temple Bar and then Russell House, where I could do more fully composed plates.”
With Alden & Harlow and Waypoint, Scelfo has been deeply immersed in that kind of cooking for a long time now. “It’s been fun [to design the menu for Longfellow] to get back this stuff that I thought I had sworn off. It’s been a fresh perspective for me on things I used to lament in some ways.”
The Longfellow Bar will be open from 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. Walk-ins welcome, but reservations are also available by phone at (617) 864-0001. (Online reservations coming soon.)