“The Plate,” National Geographic • May 6, 2016
Picture a traditional American meal, and chances are good that you’re headed for the 1950s: burgers and fries, fried chicken and potato salad, maybe an Italian-turned-American-staple like pizza (see How Italian Cuisine Became as American as Apple Pie.)
But chances are good that the cuisine of the Middle East, a region whose immigrants to the U.S. face varying levels of acceptance, does not come to mind right away.
And yet, at the James Beard Foundation Chef and Restaurant Awards this week, a Lebanese restaurant was named an “America’s Classic.”
“By way of deeming that an American classic, we recognize the reality of America today,” says John T. Edge who oversees the category for the James Beard Foundation Awards Restaurant Committee and is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. While most of the JBF Awards celebrate sheer excellence and innovation—think fine dining, chefs with publicists, experiments in molecular gastronomy—the classics category celebrates longstanding neighborhood restaurants that build community around excellent food.
Though the eateries can be at any price point, says Edge, the emphasis is on restaurants that exemplify great and accessible American food. And with Al Ameer, says Edge, “I can’t think of a better standard bearer for American culinary culture.”
Owners Zaki Hashem and Khalil Ammar came to the U.S. in the early 1980s, part of a war of migration spurred by Lebanon’s lengthy and violent civil war. The two men grew up in farm families in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, but they did not meet until they were each working in hotel kitchens in Abu Dhabi. (Hashem’s first stint was at a Holiday Inn.) They emigrated separately; married sisters; and began working at a restaurant called Lebanon (now closed). In 1989, they decided to open their own place, across the street.
Getting a national profile was never on their mind, though. When Anthony Bourdain visited the restaurant in 2013, says Hashem, he didn’t know who the famed chef was. “My son showed me on the TV” [who Bourdain was]. And when the James Beard Foundation called, the two men had never heard of the organization. “I was shocked, what James Beard is,” says Ammar. “It’s amazing stuff.”
They started with a storefront and a handful of tables, and a menu that formed the backbone of what they now serve. Even from Al Ameer’s early days, there was tender chicken kebab, piles of shredded lamb shawarma, greens and tomatoes slick with lemony dressing, mounds of parsley and bulgur wheat transformed into tabbouleh, spiced ground lamb molded, football-like, around filling of pine nuts and then fried into kibbe; creamy hummous made from freshly dried chick peas, pita made from scratch. Back then, the two men were the only employees and the only cooks.
Today, Al Ameer occupies 10,000 square feet at its main location; a butcher shop they operate next door; and two other, smaller stores in the area. At the Dearborn shop, says Hashem, Al Ameer serves 1,200 diners on a typical Friday.
Partly that’s because Al Ameer takes the Lebanese tradition of hospitality very seriously. When I visited the place in April for lunch, a dozen policemen of varied backgrounds gathered at a cluster of tables for a meeting. An African-American woman waiting for table shared, unprompted, that she comes every month for lunch with a friend.
“Al Ameer [is] especially welcoming,” says Bill Addison, who visits hundreds of restaurants each year as the national restaurant critic for Eater.com. He is also on JBF restaurant committee with Edge. “I went there and immediately the server was like, ‘Oh is this your fist time here? Have you eaten Lebanese food before? She was very much a booster for her community and was understanding about how, as a person who loves food and is interested in food, I wasn’t looking for hummus,” he says. “But if people find themselves there and are intimidated, they have chicken tenders as well.”
By the time Hashem and Ammar, each dressed in trim gray suits, took their third-row seats on Monday, they had begun to grasp the scale and prestige of the awards. To enter the awards, they had to traverse a red carpet spectacle and locate their seats—third row, orchestra section, stage right—in the sprawling, ornate Lyric Opera house in Chicago’s downtown Loop. Music played as guests filed in, dressed in black tie, and settled into red velvet seats.
At the awards ceremony, Hashem and Ammar took the stage with owners of four other restaurants being honored as American classics. Although this year’s program nixed awards speeches for the “classics” honorees, the program had included short videos on each of the five restaurant, and then offered a single medal to the awardees.
“I’d like to say thank you to everybody,” said Ammar, who lamented that there would be no time for speeches. “But these are the rules. I can’t change the rules.” As he spoke, Hashem, sitting next to him, looked around the theater, and at the brightly lit stage a few feet away.
When Ammar paused, Hashem hastily emphasized that, speech or no, they were honored to be there. “We are not complaining,” he said. “We’re happy to be here.”