There is a section of Harvard Square that feels European. Heading east on Brattle Street, past the mansions behind garden gates, the road narrows. Sidewalk traffic gets heavier: a dapper professor with a cane and elbow patches; a wild-haired woman balancing three dogs and espresso. People acknowledge one another with civilized nods. Moving on, noise builds and lights shine. There’s something around the bend.
Veering to the right, beneath the Brattle Theatre on the fringes of the Square, was once the Casablanca. The restaurant and bar was on the fringes of society, too, a bohemian purgatory between the Brattle estates and the pulse of Harvard University.
The subterranean lair opened in 1955, named for the 1942 film that lured people to the theater for repeated showings over the years. Humphrey Bogart’s face was painted above the bar; murals from “Casablanca” scenes, styled by local artists, lined the walls.
By the 1960s, it had become a Chelsea Hotel of sorts — filled with the spirits of tortured ghosts who drank here, everyone from academics to poets to Warhol muse and Brahmin queen Edie Sedgwick, who died of a barbiturate overdose in 1971. The Casablanca was Sedgwick’s favorite (Cambridge) venue.
“The Casa B was an atmospheric place, and the sentimental music, the haze from the daiquiris, the darkness from the place all helped the milieu . . . It was Edie’s Casa B. . . . Everybody knew her; she knew everybody,” wrote George Plimpton and Jean Stein in their oral history, “Edie.” Once, the underage Sedgwick was squirreled into the space by Harvard chums; she was sporting a housedress with rhinestone buttons.
Since then, the Casa B went on to serve the likes of William Weld and hired rising chefs like Andy Husbands and Ana Sortun. But in December 2012, Casablanca poured its last drink. By that time, bohemia had given way to nostalgia, and longtime owner Sari Abdul-Jubein was ready to pack it in.
“The restaurant joins a long list of Harvard Square establishments whose recent closings have left many in mourning for what’s gone, if not forgotten,” the Globe noted at the time. The underground space remained empty for a bit, a hollow hallmark of a changing square.
A new restaurant, Alden & Harlow, took over in early 2014. Chef Michael Scelfo had earned neighborhood fans at Russell House Tavern up the street. Gone are the murals and daiquiris; now there’s a deliriously indulgent chicken-fried rabbit and a drink called McGregor’s Garden, made with spiced parsnip puree. Bogart is nowhere in sight.
“I loved the gable roof against the boxy Harvard Square landscape. I loved the feel of the space, how it had unexpected nooks. It embodies Cambridge to me,” Scelfo said, when asked why he chose the location.
Perhaps it’s not the Cambridge that Sedgwick and friends would recognize. But judging by the feverish din on a recent weekday night, the drinks flowing and voices rising, grizzled professors sitting side by side with students, preening fashionistas, and a few gargoyles at the bar—maybe not much has changed on Brattle Street after all.
Here’s looking at you, Scelfo.