There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the back corner of Mama Ayesha’s Calvert Cafe, next to one door that leads to the kitchen and another that opens onto the bus stop outside, is a table generally occupied by people of some stature. Judging from the language they speak and their well-tailored suits, the men sitting around the table on two separate days during lunch are embassy employees. Both times, Mahmoud, Ayesha’s omnipresent waiter, sits to share coffee and conversation with them. At night, you can pretty much count on UPI reporter Helen Thomas to occupy the spot. “[Thomas] eats dinner here almost every night,” says Wajih Abusheikha, a longtime employee of the restaurant. “And she brings people from the White House.”
It was in the proximity of this table in the “old” Mama Ayesha’s (the restaurant was completely remodeled late last year) that Mama Ayesha herself would sit, from 11 in the morning until 11 at night, shelling beans, watching television, talking with customers, running her business. There are two photographs on the restaurant’s walls. One is of Mama Ayesha, a nearly life-size depiction of her smiling and clutching an American flag. The picture is displayed high above the bar with a sword hung on either side. The other photo, no bigger than a sheet of notebook paper, is of President Clinton. It hangs belly-high on a side wall of the dining room, clearly visible only to those who eat nearby. Though Mama Ayesha passed away in June 1993, her stature remains unrivaled in the restaurant that bears her name.
The old Mama Ayesha’s was no fancier than a neighborhood diner. Simulated wood-grain paneling covered the walls, some of the red vinyl booths were equipped with jukeboxes, and the dining room received virtually no outside light. With its cream-colored walls, carpeted floors, pilasters, and several new windows, the remodeled restaurant is decidedly more elegant and bright. But Abusheikha insists the changes are merely cosmetic.
“For certain reasons, we wanted to keep the atmosphere of the restaurant the same,” he says, explaining the goals of the renovation. “When Mama opened it up, it was the only ethnic restaurant in Washington. There was maybe a Greek restaurant and one Italian or two Italian, but that’s about it. The rest was, like, hamburger joints and French restaurants. But this was the only Middle Eastern restaurant…and Mama was one of the main reasons people would come here.”
In the early ’50s, Ayesha moved to the U.S. from Jerusalem to escape what her nephew Anass Abu-El-Hawa calls “the situation over there.” (Ayesha’s family is Palestinian.) Ayesha’s cousin Joseph Howard, founder of Howard Properties, had made a name for himself in D.C. She moved here to be with family. In 1951 Ayesha opened her first Middle Eastern restaurant on F Street, the Desert Inn, which she operated for two years. From 1953 to 1955, Ayesha owned and operated the Caravan on Connecticut Avenue. When that restaurant closed, she opened the doors at the current location. Signs on the old restaurant—one said Calvert Cafe, another Calvert Restaurant, and still another Mama Ayesha—could be confusing. But thanks to the proprietor’s indomitable presence, the restaurant became known to its devoted clientele simply as Mama Ayesha’s.
“She came here almost every day right up until the end,” says Abdallah Abu-El-Hawa, the nephew to whom Ayesha left the restaurant. “She would sit at that table and shout out orders.” Abu-El-Hawa laughs, pointing to a snapshot of an elderly Ayesha at the old restaurant that he lays on the bar. “She was very strong.”
You could say that strength was something of a family tradition for Mama Ayesha. Although newspapers reported that she was 93 at the time of her death, Abu-El-Hawa contends that his aunt was actually 10 years older. Perhaps for mathematical convenience it was decided that Ayesha, who had no birth certificate, was born in 1900. But in trips to Jerusalem after her death, Abu-El-Hawa spoke with Ayesha’s childhood friends, who confirmed his hunch that she was more likely born in the 1890s. And it’s a bit of an understatement to say that people in Ayesha’s family milk their longevity for all it’s worth.
“Our genes are very good,” Abu-El-Hawa explains. “Eighty percent of the people in my family live past 100—117, 119, 126. And they don’t go senile.” He goes on to tell me about a first cousin of Ayesha’s who was written up in National Geographic on the strength of his 136-year lifespan—though Abu-El-Hawa insists the man lived five years longer than that.
With elders never in short supply, it’s no surprise that the family-run Mama Ayesha’s restaurant has a strong sense of tradition. The menu, which features mostly Palestinian recipes and a few that, according to Abusheikha, are closer to Lebanese, has hardly changed since Ayesha’s opened. Except for the Mount of Olives salad (at $4.50, a must for olive and/or feta cheese freaks), all the appetizers are $3.50. It’s a tossup as to whether it’s the baba ghanouj, hummus, or the cold, soupy, fava bean–based mixture called fool that’s the best choice for a before-meal dip—all of them go great with the complimentary pita bread. Ayesha’s doesn’t do sandwiches (that means no gyros), so the falafel is served alone on a leaf of lettuce. But coupled with a cucumber salad or a small spinach pie, the four crispy balls still make a meal.
Lamb and chicken (I’d skip the filet of salmon) are the base for almost all of Ayesha’s entrees. The kifta kabab is excellent—four juicy chunks of ground lamb spiced with a hint of parsley. The couscous is served dry or with Ayesha’s oniony tomato sauce; either way, it is graced with a portion of lamb still clinging to the bone. Both the garlic chicken and the broiled chicken are exquisite (and could feed two)—the former is laced with generous squeezes of lemon and the latter is a half-bird cooked on the grill. All lamb dishes, the best being the shank and the kabab, are cooked to a light-pink perfection by Shamir Abu-El-Hawa, Abdallah’s brother.
Because so many of Ayesha’s regulars are virtually friends of the family, any guidance you seek from them on the restaurant’s menu comes with a decided bias. “It’s all good,” says Abraham Bahlawan, a retired local businessman from Jerusalem who summons me over to the corner table. As if to prove his stature, Bahlawan insists that I peek at the convertible Mercedes he has parked outside.
“I love to eat,” he says, patting his paunch and munching on a plate of lamb-and-rice-stuffed squash. Bahlawan gestures in the direction of Mahmoud. “I’ve known him for 40 years. He used to work at the finest hotel in Jerusalem. He was the man there. And I tell you, I’ve eaten everywhere in the world. You can’t get better Middle Eastern food than you can here.” Spreading his arms wide, he says, “It’s so clean. Look at it here. I eat three places: the Four Seasons, the Watergate, and here.” Pounding his fingers on the white cloth–covered table, Bahlawan says, “This might be the best.”
Mama Ayesha’s Calvert Cafe, 1967 Calvert St. NW. (202) 232-5431.
The menu posted above the cafeteria line at French’s says the place serves pork chops, so I order them. “Oh, don’t look up there, honey,” says the woman behind the counter. “What we’ve got is right here.” Pork chops are not among the vats of dishes that have been prepared on this particular day, but roast beef is. Not your typical plate of thin, bloody slivers, French’s roast beef is served in thick, half-inch slabs, swimming in gravy rich with onions and green peppers. Mashed potatoes are the natural choice for a side dish, and the crunchy biscuits are a must for slopping up all the leftover juices.
French’s Fine Southern Cuisine, 1365 H St. NE. (202) 396-0991. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.