Brock Parker / Boston.com
It’s been welcoming intellectuals and people from all walks of life in Harvard Square since 1971, but when patrons raise a glass to toast Grendel’s Den 40th Anniversary this weekend, a few good words may also be said about the U.S. Supreme Court.
The restaurant and bar, named for the bad guy in “Beowulf,” had to wage its own battle of epic proportions against a state law that enabled a neighboring Cambridge church to veto Grendel’s bid for a liquor license in the mid 1970s.
The case of separation of church and state went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before Grendel’s owners Herbert and the late Sue Kuelzer finally prevailed.
“It has become the landmark precedent in the law of separation of church and state because it really was the first case in which the Supreme Court considered this very basic principal of whether religious bodies could be given governmental power,” said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor and constitutional law scholar who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of Grendel’s Den.
Friday night, Grendel’s Den and second-generation owner Kari Kuelzer, daughter of Herbert and Sue Kuelzer, will celebrate the 40th anniversary of restaurant and the 29th anniversary of its victory in the Supreme Court.
The restaurant at 89 Winthrop St. will have an invitation-only event Friday evening featuring remarks by Tribe and other special guests, followed by a public celebration beginning at 9 p.m. with live bands and a party that will continue to 1 a.m.
“This is a big milestone,” said Kari. “There are a lot of people who care about Grendel’s. It’s like a home to me in a lot of ways.”
Kari, who says she’s roughly the same age as the family restaurant, was only 12 years old when she began working as a hostess for Sunday brunch at Grendel’s. It was the same year she watched Tribe argue Grendel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case began in the mid 1970s when Grendel’s neighbor, Holy Cross Armenian Church in Harvard Square used its power under state blue laws to veto a liquor license for the restaurant.
Tribe said he learned of the case while teaching constitutional law and the separation of church and state at Harvard Law School and a student raised his hand in class and said he couldn’t get a beer with his lunch at Grendel’s Den because a church had vetoed the restaurant’s bid for a liquor license.
“I said 'You’ve got to be kidding,'” Tribe recalled. The professor, who had already argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, investigated and was soon representing the Kuelzers in a complaint filed under federal civil rights laws against the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission that said the state did not have the right to give a religious body the power to decide who can serve liquor.
The courtroom battles waged for years before the Supreme Court ruled 8-1in favor of Grendel’s in 1982, with Justice William Rehnquist dissenting. Grendel’s received its liquor license the next year and the place quickly became known as a bar serving micro-brewed beer from Sam Adams and the Cambridge Brewing Company, Kari Kuelzer said.
Almost 30 years later, the church next to Grendel’s has been torn down.
Rev. Raphael Andonian, the pastor of the church, said it moved from Harvard Square to Belmont in the late 1990s for several reasons, including the lack of parking in the square . He said church members rarely discuss the suit.
Grendel’s is still in the square and still going strong.
“We don’t have a lot of TVs,” Kari said. “We try to leave it a good place where people can have a good conversation with each other. Obviously it gets a lot more lively in the evening. Somehow, we managed to create a Grendel persona that is much more cuddly.”
And today Kari, who assumed management of Grendel’s in 2004 following the death of her mother, still hangs at the restaurant's front door a framed black and white article from the New York Times in 1982 features a photo of Herbert and Sue Kuelzer celebrating their courtroom victory.
“It was a thrill,” Kari said.
For more information about Grendel’s Den 40th Anniversary celebration, visit the restaurant and bar’s website at www.grendelsden.com.