—French chefs in Paris in the 1980s who ran fancy dining rooms — sometimes Michelin starred — got the idea that they could offer a more casual menu at a café next door, or a few doors down, and it started a movement. There are restaurants all over France where you can dress up and go to the starred dining room, or throw on a blazer and jeans and head to the café.
In the pandemic, as chefs are trying to figure out how to stay in business, restaurateur Tony Maws has come up with an ingenious move. He opened Craigie Next Door in a parking lot adjacent to his Cambridge place, Craigie on Main. “How many times have you heard the word ‘pivot’ lately?” writes Maws in a recent newsletter. “Well, welcome to our latest, and most dramatic pivot!”
Craigie Next Door debuted on Aug. 20 for prix-fixe dinners Wednesday through Sunday (there’s still take-out daily from the main restaurant but the dining room is closed). The parking lot was no longer in use and after some negotiations, Maws managed to grab it for an outdoor establishment that is both pandemic-compliant and fun. It’s a very cool place.
It has the vibe of a Caribbean spot you’d find in a little town — and be delighted you did.
The site is tucked between two brick buildings behind a tall gate. The space came with graffiti on one wall and Maws, his wife Karolyn, friends, and staff set up a dining area under a large white tent, repurposing wood pallets so they’re standing upright to cordon off and enclose some of the tables, which are 10 feet apart. You’re nowhere near other diners.
“Friends with talent, creativity and a desire to help out brought hammers, drills, saws, and know-how.” Maws tells me in an e-mail. Tables, chairs, plates, and glassware came from The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, which the chef closed last summer (he and partners Michael Leviton and Nick Zappia closed the popular year-old Craigie Burger in Time Out Boston earlier this summer). A Craigie regular donated the tent and plants to the new space. Multiple strings of twinkling patio lights add to the festive mood and the minute you are anywhere near the entrance, you’ll get a whiff of the smoky aromas coming from an open makeshift kitchen to the right of the entrance.
Dishes are served family-style, which means you help yourself and your guests from the little platters that come to the table (no choices, but accommodations made for vegetarians and serious allergies). Our starters included grilled bruschetta with zucchini hummus topped with chopped black olives and set on a nutty freekeh salad very much like tabbouli. Fine shreds of kale tossed with ripe peaches and almonds turned out to be the most pleasing combination. Chickpea salad mixed with corn, bacon, and smoked bluefish was deliciously smoky.
A main course platter held a trio of treats — especially juicy, plump pork sausages; thick slices of seared yellowfin tuna, rare in the middle; lightly charred slabs of zucchini drizzled with green tahini made with yogurt, lemon, basil, dill, parsley, and cilantro (you could eat this with a spoon). For dessert, wedges of light olive oil cake came with scrumptious maple labneh and a cluster of blackberries.
The food is rustic, unadorned, fresh from local fields, the finest tastes of summer. It matches its surroundings and you feel good being out, dining again, like you’ve found the best-kept secret in town.
Craigie Next Door is adjacent to Craigie on Main, 853 Main St., Cambridge, www.craigieonmain.com. Prix Fixe dinner Wed-Thu $58; Fri-Sat $85 (drinks not included). Reservations only; two seatings. Craigie take-out still available on service nights.