“Rick, do you know what this is? Something that even you have never seen. Letters of transit signed by General de Gaulle… Tonight I’ll be selling those for more money than even I have ever dreamed of, and then: addio, Casablanca!“
– Peter Lorre in Casablanca
After 36 years the current owner is finally tossing in his hand, as all restaurant owners do in the end. 36 years is a long run. And Casablanca goes back much farther than that.
I fell in love with Casablanca not long after I moved to Boston in 1998. I can’t remember who introduced us or how I first came down the stairs, but it probably involved the Brattle Theater, the art house cinema next door. The Brattle and Casablanca are all tangled up together in an old barn-like building on Brattle Street, on the edge of Harvard Square.
Casablanca doesn’t pretend to be a replica of Rick’s Café Americain, but the name is an homage to the classic film. On one wall is a giant crazy mural (supposedly painted in payment of a large bar tab
) with Bogart and all the characters from the movie. And “As Time Goes By” was a selection on the juke box, along with “I’m Still in Love With You” by the Rev. Al Green and songs by Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.
Casablanca opened its doors in 1955, about the time that the Brattle began its “annual tradition of screening Bogart films at Harvard exam time.” It was at the Brattle where the film Casablanca became the Rocky Horror of its day
Sometime in the sixties, a mythic event occurred in Harvard Square. At the Brattle Theatre, during a showing of “Casablanca,” the sound failed in the last scene, and the assembled worshipers, speaking as one, intoned the famous final line: “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
It’s just possible that the story is true. In the entire history of American cinema only a few other movies—“Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Godfather”—have been loved as much and as well as “Casablanca.”
David Denby says the movie is “an unrepeatable combination of impudent wit and doomed romanticism.” I had the same feelings about the restaurant.
I liked Casablanca and Boston right away for the same reason: both were full of people who felt somehow like “my” people – or at least people who I wanted to imagine were my people. That tangled Boston weave of colleges, history, books, brains, ambition, nostalgia, ego, sports mania, reckless driving and Irish drinking felt like a double-helix match for my DNA in a way that Portland, Oregon (god bless it) never quite did. It surprised me at the time. I was 37 and it had taken me a long time to find the place.
The back room – the bar – at Casablanca is a large square room, probably 15 paces long, with old bladed fans under the high ceiling and a dark wood bar that runs down the room and turns left. As you enter from the alley, next to the Brattle, you pass two wicker loveseats, with the wicker extending up over the top of the seat like the canopy of an old English horse carriage. These are prime date seating for the kids. Beyond them is the half-open kitchen, with a wide food counter and a view of the chefs at work. A short wall and narrow countertop separates the bar area from two-top and four-top tables down the right side of the room, along that crazy mural. On the back wall, under the high windows, is a row of small banquette tables.
The menu is Mediterranean: olives, chicken, lamb, eggplant, stuffed grape leaves, nuts. The cocktail list runs to gimlets and daiquiris, and there has always been an unusually good by-the-glass red wine list. When I got to Boston I was working for an early search engine, Lycos, and making a heady $55,000 a year. Casablanca is the place where I began to think that paying $8 or $9 for a glass of wine was not necessarily outrageous. For better or worse, of course.
I moved to Belmont, and Casablanca was an easy ride on the #73 bus, down Mt. Auburn street into the Harvard Square transit center, up the south stairs, turn right and 100 paces across the brick sidewalk. (Or, if you were up for it, skip the bus for a long icy-cold walk in the winter gloaming.) The bar is almost impossible to find by accident, which is part of its charm and is almost certainly why it’s closing now. Not many tourists or passersby made it down there. The crowd was a blend of college professors
, grad students, Euro riff-raff, and tweedy Cambridge locals.
The bar and the Brattle Theater were an irresistible one-two punch. It was a rare thing to go to the Brattle for one of its Bosnian art house films (or, say, to a Bugs Bunny
film festival with my chum Doug) and not stop by Casablanca before the show, or after. Or both.
On a weeknight you could get a stool at the bar, and it was good. On weekend nights you might find yourself standing on that charmless waterproof red clay tile you find in so many Boston restaurants. If you got a seat and hunkered down, if you were having a long dinner with friends or if you were lucky and met a girl and started talking, you could be there while the pre-movie crowd ate and hustled out, and then there was a half-empty lull when you wondered if you should have another drink, and you did, and then the late crowd would drift in and fill the place back up.
The late crowd might be groups of students crowding the tables along the back wall, or scrawny older Cambridge couples just out of the movies. One night I went to the Brattle and sat down the row from Robert Reich, the professor and former Secretary of Labor. After the film I made my way over to Casablanca and found that he had beaten me there, too.
I met women at Casablanca, smart chicks and bookworms, and had great conversations and a few flings and at least one disastrous half-blind date involving nerves, a nut allergy and bad chemistry all around. Later I would go down to Casablanca with my future wife to sit at the bar and split one of their savory cheeseburgers. I’d have a beer and she’d have a glass of French cabernet or a zinfandel. The burger used to be a big secret: it wasn’t on the menu, was only available in the bar, and you had to just know that it was available.
But a lot of the time, I went to Casablanca alone. There was usually someone reading at that bar, and on any random Tuesday or Wednesday night from 1999-2004, that someone was me. I loved to carry a fat biography in there, or stop at the Out of Town News kiosk for a couple of newspapers, and settle in at the far end of the bar for a long total-immersion session.
Casablanca to me felt less like a neighborhood club in the idyllic Cheers vein and more like a favorite bar at a train terminal that you passed through often. I’m not sure I ever knew a bartender’s name, or they mine. A nod and a hello. For a standoffish type like me, it was nice to feel at home in a busy place without formalizing the relationship. It is always good to be where the action is.
In 2004 I moved to Silicon Valley and then my future wife moved to Ohio. Later we got married and lived downtown in Cincinnati and ate Skyline Chili and steaks at Jeff Ruby’s. And then we moved back to Boston this year – almost eight years gone – and naturally I ran down to Casablanca very soon.
But of course you can’t go home again. The old energy is missing – which is to say, the old crowds are missing. (Surely *I* can’t have changed.) I’ve been back a handful of times since January and the place has never been more than half-full. Waiters hover around the kitchen counter, waiting for something to do.
The burger is right there on the menu now, along with the odd new addition of barbecued ribs and brisket. They seem out of place. The tables are empty. The wood looks worn.
Somebody is usually still reading at the bar. But the lighting doesn’t seem right: too pale, or too bright, or… well, somehow, the magic is gone.
We now live a few miles away in Somerville near a very busy cafe, The Highland Kitchen. We go there maybe once a week and the super-sharp bartenders say my name like I’m a regular. I work to remember theirs: Joe, Jim, Dana, and someone else I forget. (Chris?) It’s a swell restaurant, but it’s also very busy, and if you don’t get in at just the right time you’ll find yourself standing three deep at the bar, shouting.
It’s always hard to find a place that’s busy enough but not too busy. There’s always a tradeoff. Except for a few years when I was living a new life in a new city and when Casablanca was, for me, just the right spot.
“New owners will be starting construction at the former Casablanca site in the fall,” says the announcement
. Good luck to them.
Addio, Casablanca! We’ll always have Paris.