Café Algiers: A hidden gem with a long history
by Ruth Hobeika
After almost five decades in Harvard Square — at 40 Brattle Street, home of the Brattle Theatre — this much beloved international style coffeehouse shuttered on August 31. The final decision was reached August 25 after negotiations between the land-lord, who cancelled the lease, and original owner Emil Durzi fell through.
“It was never just about money,” says manager Leonardo Diodato about the fight to keep the Algiers alive. For him, it has been about being part of a community and belonging to the history of Harvard Square after nearly 46 years in one spot.
How many businesses have a history that is so deeply interwoven in the lives of their patrons? Ask around a bit and you will find married couples who had their first date at the Algiers and come back every anniversary; a mom whose six-week-old’s first outing was here; people who wrote a college thesis, signed closing documents for a first home, or just observed, decade after decade,the Square’s great characters who came and went.
I tried to learn chess here in the mid-’70s when the original Algiers — a subterranean, smoky den beneath the current two-story space — was frequented by all the best chess players. Four moves into a game with one of the regulars, I found eight witnesses nodding approvingly at the strategy dooming me to defeat. But it was all very familial.
No one talks about this place without highlighting its ambiance. The decor, like the food, is eclectic Middle Eastern with a bohemian flair. Vaulted wooden ceilings, a circular staircase, vintage copper cappuccino makers, framed Arabic scripts, old books to read or buy, tiles and teapots everywhere. The top floor has cozy alcoves for students to curl up with books, and everywhere are hexagonal wood and copper tables for friends to sit and schmooze for hours. No shooing anyone away.
Always a Congregating Place
Brattle Hall — the barn-like structure housing the Algiers, the historic Brattle Theatre, and more — has always been a people magnet. Since 1890 it hosted village dances and amateur theatricals hitherto presented in private homes, and later a professional theater company and a Harvard student theater. Even poet T.S. Eliot (’14) acted in school productions.
That town-gown intersection persisted most prominently when in the late 1950’s the new Brattle Theatre, one of the country’s first and foremost art film houses, launched the Bogey cult. Six or eight Humphrey Bogart flicks showed during pre-exam reading periods. The 1942 Casablanca brought in the biggest crowds, often stretching around the block. Fans made a communal ritual of calling out famous lines — “Play it, Sam,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “Round up the usual suspects.”
And the spirit spread to the Brattle Hall’s business establishments named in homage. The storied Club Casablanca bar, modeled on Bogey’s “Rick’s Café Americain,” closed in 2012. The Blue Parrot bistro, named after the movie’s rival café, moved down the block around 1971, and its basement space was taken over by Café Algiers.
Founder Emil Durzi ceded Algiers ownership last year to his best friend, Sami Herbawi, when he fell ill. The restaurant closed for a month, to the dismay of a following that stormed online message boards, then came back strong and unchanged in staff or style. Now recovered, Durzi is heartsore at the prospect of permanent loss. As are others. Says one longtime patron, “It’s a center. You could always hang out here. I guess that culture is dying now.”
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