The Club Casablanca, the heart of Harvard Square, will close at the end of August. Founded in 1961 beneath the Brattle Theatre, it took its name from the Ingrid Bergman-Humphrey Bogart movie the 60s rediscovered in the Square. The news of the CB’s closing came this noon. A press release announced it will go out in style with guest chefs and special menus – and with aged Boomers sadly looking for the last time at Omar’s wonderful murals.
All of which reminds me why I’m still mad at the CB’s legendary proprietor (and my good friend), Sari Abul-Jubein….
I arrived in Cambridge on a June evening in 1977. Not being wise to the City’s resident parking restrictions, I parked my U-Haul beside my apartment building and headed for the Casablanca.
A mutual friend from Columbus had told me the first person I had to meet in Cambridge was Sari. I found my way to the ramshackle addition to the Brattle Theatre which housed ‘Upstairs at the Casablanca’ and found a stool at the left end of the bar.
After ordering a bourbon, I looked down at the bar. In front of me, carved in four-inch capital letters, was ‘FUCK PRINCETON!’
It was ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.
Within days, the Upstairs had become the center of my social life. Over the next decade, I shared memorable meals with new friends and old, pols and professors, writers and singers. I don’t recall ever being bored.
Airy and light but far from atmospheric, the Upstairs had a feel little different from college-town restaurants of the era with three notable exceptions: the clientele, the murals and the jukebox.
According to CB legend, David Omar White, whose ‘White Rabbit’ cartoon strip graced Boston’s hip weeklies of the 60s and 70s, paid his bar tabs with murals based on the movie. The juke box played Edith Piaf and ‘As Time Goes By’. It also played Walter Huston’s original recording of ‘September Song’ from ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’: why, I’ve never known, but it was sure great.
Dogs were welcome in those long ago days, and my beloved ‘Nego’ knew her place under a table. Babies were also welcome, and Jotham and John came first in Snugglies. One of my fondest memories is of Sari’s infant daughter, Nora, in her woven baby carrier cooing happily at all the regulars coming to pay her court.
Then, when school days were a still vivid if unpleasant memory, the menu featured the Casablanca Burger and Caesar Salad. Delicious, but not novel.
Downstairs at the Casablanca, in the basement of the ramshackle building, you reached by a neon-lit stairway. During the day, it was dim and as evening came, it got dark. It was a quiet bar which sometimes had a jazz pianist.
Wicker basket chairs large enough for youthful couples lined two walls. On nights I helped close the place, the manager would loudly warn when the lights were coming up. Still, the couples who emerged from the baskets and their condition…. The CB’s proprietor has said I was imagining things, but he could be entrusted with letters of transit. So, who ya gonna believe?
Late one afternoon in 1977, I was invited to join a table of students and professors from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. Two years later, sitting at the bar, one of those professors offered me the job that changed my life.
As its clients aged, the Casablanca changed. It closed for nearly two years in the late 80s when its building was renovated. The new CB emerged on one level with glorious new murals by Omar and the old ones preserved.
The menu became much more diverse as Sari became increasingly interested in food. I’ve had a lot of ‘wow!’ meals there. And the service always – since 1977 – has been great.
But, fewer and fewer of us are managing to be out past 10. Even fewer of us are having three or four Wild Turkey 101s on the rocks…. We’re not ‘early bird specials’ yet, but it’s dinner before theatre, not after. (Even the Harvard Square Theatre is disappearing this month.) We check the wine lists not the superb bottles arrayed behind the bar.
It’s that bar that has kept me [expletive deleted] at Sari for 20+ years. It was new. ‘FUCK PRINCETON’ went to the landfill instead of my wall.
What at the CB remained unchanged over 35 years was Sari. A great host, I’ve always felt a guest not a customer – even when Sari’s wit made me the butt. A wonderful story teller, unlike Rick he does share tables with his guests. Unlike the four presidents of Harvard who came and went during his tenure, Harvard Square will miss Sari.
Fortunately, Sari is not leaving Cambridge or the restaurant business. According to his press release,
Abul-Jubein will be devoting his time to his second restaurant, Casbah [at the Fresh Pond Circle], in Cambridge, soon to be re-named as the Fat Man Café. The Fat Man Café will be a barbecue concept with outdoor grilling, skewers and embracing the legacy of Casablanca’s classic cuisine including the ever-popular “Sari’s Lamb”.
As always, in Cambridge, everyone goes to Sari’s. Long may it be so!