Painted Burro opens Harvard Square flagship, glowing, rustic renovation for site in 2019 fire
The Painted Burro has opened in Cambridge’s Harvard Square in a two-story revival of the former Border Cafe space.
With its combination of clean, midcentury modern lines, tiled rusticity and the art of Raúl the Third throughout, the Church Street site “immediately becomes the flagship restaurant” for the Mexican chain born in Somerville, said Ryan Merry, creative director for the Alpine Restaurant Group, during a Monday tour.
The first diners had found their way in just an hour earlier and the bar was still being unpacked as Merry walked the 7,199-square-foot restaurant at 32 Church St., which can hold 226 and is open 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. all days. Arrayed at a long table in a dining area behind the host stand, the party of eight was the first to eat there since since a fire closed the Border Cafe location on Dec. 1, 2019.
“The Border Cafe does a good job of what they do. We’re at a different level of service. I think our guests understand that and expect a little bit more,” Merry said. Yet Alpine, which is led by chef and owner Joe Cassinelli and includes the Italian restaurant Posto in Davis Square as well as two other Painted Burros and two Burro Bars, is aware that eating habits have changed since the Covid pandemic.
“We actually have been very conscious of our pricing. We’ve made it pretty competitive – we want to invite people back to that volume restaurant that you go to a couple times a week, where you become a regular instead of it being a special occasion,” Merry said. “This restaurant can look like it’s your special-occasion restaurant, but the prices invite you back a couple of times a week. That’s our goal: We want to really like get people to come in and feel at home.”
The ground-floor bar and dining areas, alive with plants and lit by oversized windows onto Church and Palmer streets, have that welcoming, family-friendly warmth – and Cassinelli has even returned his Yucatan Meatloaf comfort food to the menu for this location. It’s a dish that got its start a dozen years ago at the first Painted Burro but hasn’t been sold for six years. (Also new: A Party Platter sampler.)
Downstairs is a darker lounge with a cantina vibe that Merry said can be rented for private events. On Monday, no customer had yet found their way down.
The site’s architecture is different from the Border Cafe diners got used to over the nearly 33 years it was open for business across from Club Passim. Harvard, which owns the building, did about 80 percent of repairs from the extensive fire damage, then took direction from Alpine’s designers for the remaining work, Merry said.
“They did all the rough-out, which was great,” Merry said. “There’s better flow in the restaurant – the fire gave us an opportunity to have a clean slate. Everything in here is brand spanking new.”
After selling the Rosebud diner in Davis Square over the summer for not really fitting the Alpine portfolio (“Joe is very focused on this Mexican concept,” Merry said of Cassinelli, though Posto “is our baby … that’ll never go away”), the group has only expansion on its mind: The Brookline location shuts down Wednesday so Alpine can double it in size, and the Painted Burro has a stand of its own El Nacho tortilla chips – also available in area stores – that will soon be joined by El Diablo and Miss Mango flavors.
“Having our own tortilla chip brand raises the level of expectation and service here. Clearly the interior design of this restaurant does that for us too,” Merry said. “That drives the bus for all our locations. After Brookline gets done over, we have long-term plans for Davis Square to make that restaurant feel more like this.”
The staff at the Harvard Square site – about 35 people including general manager Brandon Loomis, who met his wife at the old Border Cafe here – will get Painted Burro kicking and immediately get a bit of a break for Thanksgiving, Merry noted.
“It’s a good week for us to open. It gives us time to reset Thursday, and we’ll be back on Friday,” Merry said. “We get a couple days to kind of kickstart a little bit.”