Alden & Harlow pays homage to one of the country’s most celebrated settings, Harvard Square, with creative dishes such as coffee-braised lamb that honor tradition.
Even before opening his first restaurant—the well-received Alden & Harlow, located in the historic Harvard Square—Chef Michael Scelfo had an enviable track record in kitchens from coast to coast.
He cut his culinary teeth at the James Beard award-winning Wildwood restaurant, which led Portland, Oregon’s farm-to-table movement for two decades before closing last year. On the East Coast, he received 2.5 stars from the New York Times while at Long Island’s Blond.
That was before making the move to Massachusetts, where he ran the kitchens of several restaurants, including Russell House Tavern in Cambridge. His three-year stint garnered lots of attention from both the public and critics, and served as the impetus for him to set out on his own in the picturesque community of Harvard Square.
“One of the great things about being a young chef is that you are learning so much on someone else’s dime,” says Chef Scelfo, 42. “You begin to think of the restaurant as a business. I would have loved having my own place 10 years ago, but the stars were not aligned. This was just my time.”
Opened Jan. 31, 2014, and named for the building’s original architects, Alden & Harlow immediately earned kudos for its deliciously simple, yet elegant, American dishes inspired by the meals Chef Scelfo serves to his family and friends at his kitchen table at home. Located on Brattle Street in the heart of Cambridge’s historic center, the 180-seat restaurant is more than 5,000 square feet in a subterranean space that is open, modern, and comfortable.
“I think going into it, we had built up some anticipation in the community about the opening,” he explains. Chef Scelfo, who says that the restaurant and staff aim to leave a lasting impression on each guest, spent a lot of time in year one evolving the service, menu, and training.
He says the most challenging aspect was taking a step back to look at the operation objectively. “It is so hard when your head is down and you are consumed with what is right in front of you. What really helped me was that I took myself out of the kitchen and worked as a floor manager and a host so that I could see the restaurant from a different perspective. It helps to get out of your comfort zone.”
Menu items at Alden & Harlow, however, fall exactly within guests’ comfort zone. Bestsellers at the restaurant, which is open for dinner seven days a week as well as Sunday brunch, include Pickled Corn Pancakes with honey, stone fruit, and buttermilk crema; Ubiquitous Kale Salad with fennel and creamy pistachio; and Charred Broccoli with squash hummus, Montasio, and cashew crumble. The chef’s adventurous experiments with braising, such as his coffee-braised lamb belly and braised rabbit stew, draw in crowds looking for something new.
On the beverage side, the wine list offers more than 50 choices, and specialty cocktails sell for about $12 apiece. Quirky cocktail names range from Embayed Vessel and Darkest Day to Moonlight and Into the Woods, affecting a haunted, playful mystique in the beverage program.
Food costs range between 28 and 31 percent, with average ticket prices running about $35. Sales from beverages are 45 percent of overall revenues, with food comprising the remaining 55 percent.
Chef Scelfo says the restaurant is able to maintain a healthy ROI by keeping a tight grip on expenses. “We have good inventory management. We do it weekly as opposed to monthly, and we don’t have a ton of space, which works in our favor. We have to be smart about what and where we purchase.”
With 60 employees, Alden & Harlow maintains a consistent business year-round. Working as many as three table turns nightly, Alden & Harlow appeals to an eclectic melting pot of patrons ranging from Harvard students and faculty to foodies and locals.
“Harvard Square is such a unique place and has an interesting mix of people,” Chef Scelfo says. “We are juggling a lot of different guests but we have something for every one of them. We want to be all things to all people.”
Chef Scelfo says in both food and atmosphere, Alden & Harlow dovetails with Americans’ current dine-out expectations. “We have the right concept at the right time.”