Most restaurant reviews focus on just one part of the dining experience: the food. But just as important as the food is everything else: branding, interior design, service, music, and overall vibe. An exceptional dining out experience is one where all the senses are engaged, not just the taste buds. Find out which restaurants have the “taste” to meet our standards (and which ones don’t).
Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
Alden & Harlow
harvard square, cambridge
Smart spot in Harvard Square
The old Casablanca space is thoroughly transformed.
Cambridge, Massachusetts—Boston’s smart and funky sister city across the Charles river—is made up of diverse squares (Kendall, Central, Inman, Porter). And at its heart is Harvard Square, home to a certain university, Broadway-bound theatre (A.R.T.), independent shops, and street performers. But with the exception of a few classic spots, not a great restaurant destination…until recently.
The space below the Brattle Theatre that had been the home to beloved restaurant Casablanca for over 40 years has been transformed by chef/owner Michael Scelfo into Alden & Harlow, and it’s exactly what this square has needed.
Let’s start with the name. Alden & Harlow refers to the architects of 40 Brattle Street, built in 1890, where the restaurant is located. We like when there’s a story behind the name and it makes sense (even if the two-words-connected-by-ampersand name seems to be popular to the point of parody). The logo falls into the category of “trendy” with a monogram look in a circular form—perhaps referencing an architects stamp? While we applaud the use of illustration (cooking utensils and ingredients) used in the menu design and website, the style chosen is whimsical and disconnected from the logo and overall experience. It seems better suited for a kids cookbook.
Now this is a dramatic interior renovation (yes, those Casablanca murals are no longer here). What we liked immediately about the interior was the fact that the large open space was broken up into a number of smaller spaces surrounding a lively bar as the focal point in middle of all the action. You can sit in a “greenhouse” area in the front surrounded by a living wall of plants, or dine at comfy booths across from the bar, or head to the back dining room across from the open kitchen and surrounded by large windows.
While the old Casablanca space felt dark and subterranean, kudos to the interior design team that re-invented the space in a way that somehow feels both open and alive. A mix of rugged materials was used throughout—metal, wood, tile, leather—for a varied yet warm feel in each of the distinct areas.
The crowd was a lively mix of all the usual suspects you’d expect in Harvard Square—students, professors, tourists, families, hipsters, and hippies. The lighting and music complimented the mood and now it’s time to look at the menu. A very pleasant and attentive server told us that the dishes were tapas style with lighter items on left of the menu getting heavier as you read to the right (i.e. snacks to entrees). We were each given a drink menu (thank you! why are those drink menus so precious that you usually only get one to share at a table?) and started selecting our dishes. There were so many items that looked delicious it was hard to pick which to order.
Served on an array of unmatched plates, each dish was perfectly timed to follow the previous in a choreographed manner. With so many standouts on the menu, go ahead and get an extra order or two of food and skip dessert—both times we ate there, dessert was the only disappointing part.
Overall we think Alden & Harlow is a smart new addition to Harvard Square. Enjoy your drinks and dinner in a restaurant with an IQ is as high as its guests. (There are plenty of places to get ice cream for dessert in the Square when you're done.)