Tucked into the base of Harvard Square’s historic Brattle Hall, Alden & Harlow is a steadfast, subterranean piece of a neighborhood that’s seen substantial change in the last few years. As longtime establishments like Crema Cafe and Tealuxe have closed, making way for development projects and high-paying out-of-town renters, Alden & Harlow has chugged along at 40 Brattle St., remaining insulated to a degree thanks to a 20-year lease and direction from a chef who’s made room for evolution, innovation, and growth beyond the walls of the restaurant. Five years after opening Alden & Harlow, with plenty of accolades and two new restaurants to his name, chef Michael Scelfo is far from complacent, even if the core of what launched the restaurant remains the same.
“This place is representative of how I feel and always has been,” Scelfo says. “It was a little bit more energetic and frenetic in the beginning because I think I was trying to capture everything that was going on around me, and now we’re a little bit more comfortable — or hopefully a little bit more graceful — in what we do.”
At the start, Scelfo aimed to reflect his love for home cooking in the menu at Alden & Harlow.
“All my passion for cooking came from my mom and my grandmother and my aunts, and I learned more from them than I ever learned in school,” Scelfo said. “I didn’t work in a bunch of Michelin restaurants or a bunch of fancy restaurants coming up. I was always home-taught.”
Scelfo keeps copious notes on his ideas for new dishes, and those get workshopped into scalable items for Alden & Harlow.
“I have three separate sets of notes; I’m constantly just jotting ideas down, and I don’t really get to all of them, but it never really ends,” he says. “We change the menus here weekly, four or five dishes. I’m very fortunate that the ideas continue to come. I don’t feel like we’ve ever really repeated any dishes downstairs in five years.”
One of the recent additions to the menu is a chickpea waffle served with burrata, Calabrian chile honey, and wild fennel butter.
“It’s been blowing minds,” he says. “It’s definitely been a huge hit, and as soon as I committed it to paper and we started doing the prep on it, we were like, ‘This is going to be awesome. People are going to really love this.’”
The drive to create such dishes has remained constant over five years, while other goals have shifted since Alden & Harlow opened.
“I started out with a 10-year plan,” Scelfo says. “A 10-year plan was to have six places in 10 years, which was a pretty aggressive goal. I got halfway there in five. I don’t know that it’s as important to me halfway through as it was when I first started.”
In 2016, Scelfo and his team opened Waypoint on Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, between Harvard and Central squares, and in January this year introduced Longfellow Bar in the space above Alden & Harlow, where Cafe Algiers operated for years. There, the team just rolled out a pop-up called Misión Burrito, which aims to provide job opportunities for financially at-risk individuals. Scelfo plans to host at least a couple more Misión pop-ups this year, whether at one of his own spots or somewhere else, and wouldn’t mind if it turned into a small permanent restaurant at some point.
With three restaurants and the pop-up, Scelfo says he still has ideas rattling around, but the nagging sense of urgency to grow after Alden & Harlow opened has quieted to some extent.
“Right now, my plate is definitely full, and I’ve got plenty to work on and make better and to continue to work with,” he says. “I’d also like to do some traveling with my wife and my kids. My kids are sophomores in high school right now, and I’d like to really enjoy these next couple of years with them before they start to get on with their lives.”
Scelfo also has a child in sixth grade. His family lives close to the restaurants, in Arlington, and he’s able to divide his time among the three, workshopping recipes and keeping the wheels turning with the help of his team.
“I think that’s kind of what we anchor our mission for all three places on, is that kind of unpretentious, home-focused experience. I think we have done a really good job of providing that and doing it in a way that doesn’t feel forced,” he says. “I think that that’s honestly a testament to Jen [Fields] and our management team and having them be fully invested in what I would call my idea or vision for the whole thing from the beginning.”