The Mecca Restaurant, 13 East Martin Street, Raleigh, 919-832-5714, mecca-restaurant.com
The Mecca Restaurant is a true diner, with 1930s decor and prices that make it equally accessible to lawmakers hanging up their suit jackets at lunch and workers grabbing a quick bite at the counter. During lunch on a recent Thursday, I ordered my usual: the $9.50 fried chicken special, which comes with rice and gravy, two sides, and sweet tea. The chicken was just right, with rich, crispy skin. The black-eyed peas and gravy had a depth of flavor I hadn’t noticed before. The collard greens were better than I remembered: vinegary, with a good bite. It was delicious. It was the Mecca, the same as it’s always been.
That shouldn’t be surprising, as Mecca has been serving classic Southern diner food since 1930, when Nick Dombalis founded it. The prices have evolved over time—you can’t get a T-bone steak, salad, and dessert for a dollar anymore—but the food and decor have essentially stayed the same, with multiple generations of the Dombalis family greeting customers from behind the lunch counter.
But the Dombalis family doesn’t own it anymore. Last May, Raleigh developer and restaurateur Greg Hatem bought it. At the time, he told The News & Observer that he planned to keep Mecca exactly as it had been. Some people didn’t believe him. I was one of them, especially after walking by last December and noticing a new, pared-down dinner menu that included a $19 low-country boil—twice as much as I was used to paying for a meal there.
People are inevitably going to get nervous when a long-time family restaurant changes hands, but a significant portion of the criticism was about Hatem himself. Hatem owns Empire Properties, which includes Empire Eats, the restaurant group behind Sitti, Raleigh Times, and The Pit, among others. Many people (including the INDY) have accused Hatem of trying to build a downtown that’s a playground for people who want to eat a mid- or high-end meal and head home before ten. Some online commenters worried that the prices would go up, the menu would change, or that it would lose its distinctive character. To be fair, it’s not clear if these critics were the average Mecca customers. If you’re a regular, you probably came to say goodbye to the Dombalis family, then returned the next week for your usual order.
Whether you call it revitalization (as he does) or gentrification (as his critics do), Hatem has played a major role in downtown Raleigh’s transformation, where institutions like Mecca—where a meat-and-three lunch costs less than $10—have become increasingly rare. How could someone responsible for so much change be committed to keeping a Raleigh institution, well, the same? To Hatem, the answer to that question is simple. Preserving Mecca is exactly what he wants—not just for its customers, but for himself, too. And his business savvy, historic preservation knowledge, and love of Southern food just might make him the best person to save it.
Hatem has been a fan of the restaurant since the 1980s, coming in for lunch so often that he developed a friendship with the Dombalis family, including Floye Dombalis, who could be seen behind the register at Mecca for more than fifty years.
“I know there was some chatter about us turning it into something else,” Hatem says. “I chuckled at that, because I’ve been here for over thirty years. The last person who wanted to see the Mecca go away was me. If we do it right, it will be around for the next ninety years.”
So far, the next ninety years look a lot like the first ninety. Mecca’s decor is the same, from the portrait of FDR on the wall to the age-spotted mirrors and darkened booths.
“One of the things we’re very careful about is not cleaning the wood,” Hatem says. “Part of the patina is eighty years of cigarettes. That’s part of the feel and the charm.”
This isn’t to say that Hatem and his staff want to run Mecca like a museum exhibit. Upstairs, he’s removed a drop ceiling and torn out old carpet and tile to reveal the original hardwood underneath. The room is elegant, airier, and brighter than it used to be, but it still looks like Mecca.
While the menu is essentially the same, it’s been trimmed so that the kitchen staff can focus on cooking well. (Hatem insists that the pricier menu I saw was an experiment, and that if those dishes return, it’ll be as specials.) There’s also a renewed focus on local food made from scratch, something that was lost over time at Mecca with staffing difficulties, rising prices, and the challenge of cooking a large menu in a tiny kitchen. The fried chicken recipe is exactly the same as the Dombalis’s recipe, but Empire Eats’ executive chef, Melanie Dunia, says other recipes have been tweaked, and the kitchen has moved away from using canned food. It turns out I hadn’t imagined the difference in my collards and black-eyed peas.
According to Hatem, scratch-made food and farm-to-table aren’t just characteristic of the “elevated” Southern cuisine that often comes with a fine-dining sensibility. It’s how homestyle Southern food used to be.
“Southern food was never supposed to be inaccessible,” he says. “It became so processed that we lost sight of how to really cook Southern food. In the fifties and sixties, all those wonderful church cookbooks are saying, ‘Add a block of Velveeta.’ They’re using processed food instead of going back forty more years and using raw tomatoes. I think that’s where we got lost. When we came back to understanding the beginnings of our food culture, we had trouble translating cooking from scratch affordably into today.”
Hatem says that he can keep Mecca affordable partially because he can offset smaller profit margins with his other Empire Eats restaurants. He says he’s not just trying to preserve Mecca, but to restore it. Many families who are unable to keep a restaurant going decide to close it. The Dombalis family chose to sell it to Hatem. Six months in, Hatem has been faithful to its legacy while making changes that could help it survive long enough for a new generation of customers to experience what the Dombalises created.
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I love Mecca but what is up with the sour coffee? Had some bad coffee last couple times I went for breakfast. Maybe I just have bad luck and I got sour cream. Or maybe switch coffee brands or get some new coffee pots.
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