The Boston area doesn’t make it easy for someone to try something new — truly new — in the city’s restaurant scene. High rent and crippling liquor license costs translate to staggering start-up bills for small businesses, which in turn encourages lower-risk moves like the same type of restaurant done again and again. So, when something significantly different comes along — say, a kosher Jewish bar, restaurant, and learning center, run by a rabbi, one of the guys who founded Atlas Obscura, and multiple heavy hitters in the restaurant scene — heads start to turn early.
Lehrhaus, located in a large, light-filled Somerville space at 425 Washington Street (in the former home of wood-fired grill spot Kirkland Tap & Trotter), is a self-described Jewish tavern and house of learning. Its co-founders, rabbi Charlie Schwartz and journalist and former national memory champion Joshua Foer, say it is the first of its kind in the modern world. Embarking on this experiment with them is head chef Noah Clickstein, an alum of popular Somerville restaurant Juliet; sous chef Alex Artinian, whose resume includes stints at acclaimed spots Asta, Oleana, and Sofra; and bartending star Naomi Levy. Together, they’re attempting to build a modern Jewish cultural hub — that includes an ambitious kosher restaurant — in the Boston area.
“My goal isn’t for people to become religious here,” says Schwartz, who, along with Foer, dreamt up the gathering space during the early days of the pandemic. “It’s to encounter what it means to be in a Jewish space.”
At Lehrhaus, eating in a Jewish space means charting a course through the far-reaching tendrils of the Jewish diaspora. Clickstein (along with consulting chef Michael Leviton, formerly of West Newton’s now-closed French bistro Lumière) built a menu, formatted like a page from the Talmud, that tells an encompassing story of Judaism. There’s fish and chips seasoned with Old Bay, which was first developed by a German Jewish refugee; a spiced lentil stew topped with croutons fashioned from dabo, a wheat bread central to Ethiopian Jewish tradition; and a savory, mac-and-cheese take on the Ashkenazi Jewish noodle dish kugel that stems from a recipe from culinary historian Michael Twitty’s latest cookbook, which dives into African American Jewish foodways.
“Oftentimes, in the U.S., people think about Jewish food as either Israeli food or the deli,” Schwartz says. “And we have some of those flavors going on on our menu, but we’re going much wider to the broader Jewish diaspora.”
Over at the bar, local cocktail master and Eastern Standard alum Naomi Levy oversees a roster of dressed-up drinks that also examine the breadth of Jewish culture, like the Colonia Roma, a mezcal-based highball named after a neighborhood in Mexico City that was home to many Syrian Jewish residents.
Pockets of Jewish restaurants already exist in neighborhoods like Newton and Brookline, and hip Jewish deli Mamaleh’s has plenty of fans across the city (including Lehrhaus’s team). But Lehrhaus is not following in the footsteps of Boston’s current Jewish restaurant scene, Clickstein says. It is a neighborhood hangout for Somerville, that also pushes against American assumptions about Jewish food, that also hosts a regular slate of theological study sessions. “We are a tavern, we’re a bar, we want people to come in and grab a beer and have a Reuben sandwich,” Clickstein says. “But also we are here as a Jewish space and a space for people to encounter and understand the different layers and flavors and ways that people practice and interact with Jewish culture.”
To put it another way: “French restaurants exist. Irish pubs exist. Jewish taverns don’t exist,” Schwartz says. “This is for everyone. And this is a place where we really want to show what the best of the Jewish world is.”
Lehrhaus is located at 425 Washington Street, in Somerville. No reservations; walk-ins only. It is open from 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Friday and Saturday.