Friday, February 23, 2024

Diners relax at Harvard Square’s Casablanca restaurant under a mural by Somerville’s David Omar White. (Photo: Prehensile Eye)

Casablanca nestles with comforting permanence beside the legendary Brattle Theatre and below Harvard Square’s busy streetscape. The restaurant’s two rooms — a quiet dining area and bustling bar and lounge — are outfitted with wall-hugging banquets, bar stools, potted ferns and hooded wall sconces that create a low-wattage glow. Inviting and unpretentious, Casablanca has an understated and universally appealing charm.

On a recent chilly evening, fans whirring from the vaulted ceilings and Lou Reed plaintively singing “Walk on the Wild Side” from the jukebox, Ellen Aronson and Pattie Maes said they had come to Casablanca to meet friends. Their group of well-turned-out women in their late forties tries to meet there monthly. Maes, sipping a glass of her usual cabernet, said she was attracted to the restaurant’s Middle Eastern-inspired menu and clientele.

“You never know who you will see here.” she said.

“Everyone knows where it is,” Aronson said.

The restaurant delivers not only in ambience, though, but with a menu that satisfies a discerning palette. Whether for dinner, light fare or a splash of something from the bar, the friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff know the restaurant’s adventurous menu well, as they do its wines, beers and pastel-hued cocktails.

Mahi Mahi at Casablanca by executive chef Camilo Diaz. (Photo: arcticpenguin)

In keeping with the name, executive chef Camilo Diaz has created a fine-dining menu evoking the flavors and aromas of the Mediterranean basin southwest of the actual Casablanca. Having honed his craft at Olives, Todd English’s flagship restaurant, Diaz has the confidence and panache to create these geographically influenced menu items.

Dishes are turned out with figs, nuts, fruits and greens; sophisticated cheeses can be either appetizer or dessert plate; salads, such as its mezze, are studded with hearty grains; signature entrees such as Ana’s short ribs — so tender they seem to melt in your mouth — and standard fare such as the burger get equal attention and high marks. (Casablanca makes a great burger. Think of juices running, a firm, lightly toasted bun, bacon, cheese and some salad on the side.) If in the mood for a delicious, can’t-help-but-eat dessert, try the chocolate lava cake with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce. Make sure all at the table have their own fork or spoon. There will be no holdouts.

The ribs are not always on the menu, and other favorites seem to come and go as well. That can disappoint, but replacement items live up to expectations and keep the restaurant’s offerings alive and fresh.

That’s a little like Harvard Square itself. While known for its eateries and pubs, turnover is high as once-popular spots fade out of favor and are replaced.

Casablanca, however, has endured since 1955, when it opened as a private club favored by Harvard undergraduates, academics, local writers and politicians.

Cambridge resident Paula Cronin remembers going on dates to Club Casablanca while an undergraduate at Radcliffe in the late 1950s. “You could only go with a man who had a membership card. Thankfully, the cards were easy to come by,” she said.

As times changed, so did Casablanca. Once firmly established, it ceased being a membership club. In 1970 the lower bar area was expanded, a street-level dining area created and its walls wrapped with its now trademark “Casablanca” movie murals by local artist David Omar White. In 1989 the Brattle Theatre building, along with Casablanca, closed for renovations. Owner Sari Abul-Jubein preserved the murals while converting the restaurant into its configuration below street level.

Casablanca is at 40 Brattle St. It is open seven days a week, with dinners from 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 6 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Call (617) 876-0999 or click here.