If, like me, you are a fan of fast service, good service, and middle eastern cuisine, look no further than Nate’s Restaurant and Deli for your new lunch spot. Its neat-but-unassuming storefront (classic maroon banner and two large window seats) has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ohio City’s West Side Market for over thirty years, and is home to some of the most authentic Lebanese food you can find this side of the globe.
Before being bought by the Masslouf family in ‘88, Nate’s Deli served your average American cuisine. Think corned beef. Cans of Coke. Carrot cake. That is, until Salwa Maalouf, a member of the kitchen staff and recent immigrant from Lebanon, convinced the owner to allow her to bolster the menu with a few Mediterranean style dishes. Years later, when the titular “Nate” was selling, Salwa convinced her husband (a cabinet maker by trade) to put in an offer. The name on the front sign remained the same, but inside Salwa and her family were making plans.
Despite the large Arab, and specifically Lebanese, demographic in Cleveland, the family had struggled to find restaurants that served the traditional staples their friends and neighbors were accustomed to back home. Not at all discouraged, Salwa Masslouf set out to fill that void, loading the menu with your classic falafel, baba ganoush, and shawarma. But the family didn’t stop there. Even their son Ghassan, who was only a year and half old when the family left Lebanon, understood his parents’ commitment to providing authentic middle eastern cuisine. You have to give a living thing space to breathe if you want it to survive.
And survive it did. Less immediately familiar words like raw kibbee, fava beans, and shish tawook still adorn the menu, and are ordered every day. “You don’t need to dumb it down for people,” Ghassan Masslouf - now the owner and manager - explained to me earlier this month, “food is ethnic everywhere.”
Next time you’re at the market, or are looking to order in, why not consider Nate’s’ award-winning hummus, a kafta wrap, or even their homemade baklava? I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention their addictive lamb and rice stuffed grape leaves (vegetarian option available). You’ll want two orders, trust me.
Like many small businesses, Nate’s was hit hard by the Covid 19 pandemic, and loss of staff means that Ghassan is back to working in the kitchen most days. However, a 60-70 hour work week doesn’t bother him nearly as much as the absence of regulars who haven’t yet been able to return to work.
In fact, he even misses some of the chaos of a lunch rush; market-shoppers on the weekends plugging the West 25th entrance, or booths being filled, emptied, and filled again in the space of thirty minutes. There’s a liveliness to the place, which might have something to do with its open kitchen (you can spot the pink smears of pickled turnips all the way from your seat) and ridiculously friendly staff. The back door, which opens to the market’s large parking section, allows customers to stream from all directions.When I asked if the use of this entrance ever disrupted his kitchen’s flow, Ghassam just laughed and told me that a customer is welcome to come in any way they like, “If there’s a crack in the ceiling, I want people to come in!”
There are eateries that strive for perfection in their food, and there are ones that focus on atmosphere and customer experience. And then there is Nate’s, which has all the warmth of your grandmother’s house, but if Grandma had excellent business sense.