Editor’s note: Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions have eased, but businesses may ask you to wear a face cover – bring one along and be patient and kind if asked to wear it. It’s also wildfire season – plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, diners ate hummus and pita sitting elbow to elbow at the original location of Nicholas Restaurant on Southeast Grand Avenue in Portland. Regulars waited in long lines to get one of the 40 seats at the Lebanese restaurant that started a Middle Eastern food empire in Portland.
“That was kind of the charm of it,” says Hilda Dibe, the second-generation owner of the restaurant, now in its third decade. “People knew they would be visiting with neighbors who are sitting right next to them.”
Since March 2020, the 1,000-square-foot dining room has been too small to allow pandemic-era indoor dining, so Dibe decided to shut down the original restaurant and move to a larger space a quarter-mile away on Southeast Madison Street. She says the new space is better suited for current times, with four times the indoor dining space, a medical-grade filtration system and a heated outdoor patio. The new location also has a full bar with Lebanese-inspired drinks like a mojito made with arak, a distilled spirit made with grapes and aniseed that’s popular in bars in Lebanon.
Nicholas Restaurant is just one of many Middle Eastern restaurants in Oregon, each typically family affairs with dishes and unique cultural traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.
A Family Legacy
The Dibe family is rooted in the restaurant business. Hilda’s father, Nicholas Dibe, first opened his namesake restaurant in Portland in the early 1980s after fleeing Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. Since then his daughters have opened a slew of Middle Eastern food businesses in Portland, including two additional locations of Nicholas Restaurant, in Gresham and on Northeast Broadway.
Almost all of the dishes at their restaurants are Lebanese, and Hilda says all of the sisters make the staples of falafel and tabbouleh in the Lebanese style they learned from their father. Falafel across the Middle East is made with garbanzo beans as a base, but Hilda adds another ingredient to it at Nicholas Restaurant: fava beans, which she says adds a nuttier flavor. Lebanese tabbouleh also differs from other Middle Eastern tabbouleh in that it’s made with 90% parsley and tomato, with only a little bit of bulgur wheat. Other tabbouleh is often more grain-heavy. Lebanese people love tart foods, Hilda says, so the tabbouleh at Nicholas is showered with lemon juice.
Acquiring New Tastes
Many things have changed over the decades. When Nicholas first opened the original restaurant, he was serving pizza and calzones to Portlanders who he said didn’t know of any Lebanon except for the town of the same name in Oregon, near Corvallis, and they weren’t willing to try food from the Middle East. That was back before packaged tubs of hummus and boxes of dry falafel mix were easy finds at almost any local grocery store. When Nicholas wasn’t spinning pizza dough and shaping calzones, he gave samples of hummus, tabbouleh and falafel to his regulars. Hilda says they became hooked, and after a few years, Nicholas Restaurant transitioned into serving only Lebanese food.
Hilda is the youngest of four sisters and was 6 years old when she arrived in the United States. But as she grew up, she joined her older sisters washing dishes, cooking and serving customers at Nicholas Restaurant. There, she says, she learned every facet of restaurant ownership. “When you learn things at a young age, it becomes second nature and it doesn’t become so difficult anymore,” she says.
Making People Happy
Hilda and two of her sisters also fell in love with the restaurant business while working at Nicholas Restaurant. Hilda says they were all given opportunities to pursue other careers — she has a degree in business from Portland State University — but they all fell into the family business, except one sister who moved away from Portland when she was 18 and works as a translator.
“We all kind of have our dad’s personality,” Hilda says. “We love hospitality. We love making people happy by serving them great food.”
After working at Nicholas Restaurant, Hilda’s sister Hoda Khouri opened Hoda’s in Portland’s Belmont District, where she pairs local, organic ingredients with Lebanese techniques in dishes like the Sheik Al Mehshi: grilled eggplant stuffed with grass-fed beef, onion and toasted almonds, topped with mozzarella and slathered with tomato sauce.
And the other sister, Mirna Attar, opened Ya Hala Restaurant in Portland’s Mt. Tabor neighborhood after going to culinary school. Attar cooks Northwest twists on Lebanese classics, like butternut-squash hummus. Attar and her husband, John, also run two locations of the Middle Eastern deli World Foods Portland, in Southwest and Northwest Portland.
Now the sisters have kids of their own. Hilda’s 17-year-old son works at Nicholas Restaurant after school and on weekends, and she says he knows how to do every job at the restaurant already. He’s as rooted in the business as the rest of the family and is planning on studying business in college and taking over the restaurant one day, just like his mother did. For Hilda’s three younger children, she says there’s still hope. “I don’t know,” she says and laughs. “Hopefully they’ll branch out.”
Other Middle Eastern Restaurants in Oregon
Oregon is home to excellent Middle Eastern cuisine, if you know where to look. Here are some good options.
Portland: Al-Amir serves Lebanese classics like hummus, baba ganoush and shawarma in its spacious brick dining room in downtown Portland. Mediterranean Exploration Company offers elegant Middle Eastern-inspired dishes like a hummus with roasted brussels sprouts and a paprika-rubbed chicken confit, along with cocktails, beer and an extensive wine list out of its industrial-chic Pearl District restaurant. DarSalam’s four Portland locations serve Chef Ghaith Sahib’s takes on Iraqi dishes that he learned how to make while growing up in Baghdad.
Bend: Joolz owner Ramsey Hamdan’s father was Lebanese, and his mother was a rodeo queen from Southern Oregon, and it shows in creative dishes like a chili made with elk, chickpeas, tabbouleh and feta that he serves at his restaurant near the riverfront in downtown Bend.
Corvallis: Al Jebal Restaurant serves Lebanese dishes like hummus, falafel and tabbouleh as well as some Indian-inspired dishes like a tandoori-chicken pita wrap.
Eugene: Cafe Agora is a food truck in an international food-truck court in downtown Eugene that serves Greek and Middle Eastern dishes like falafel, hummus and saj flatbread sandwiches.
Seaside: McBani Authentic Lebanese Cuisine (open for takeout only) serves Lebanese staples and dishes like kefta beef meatballs served with yogurt sauce.
North Bend: Cafe Mediterranean offers a large selection of mezzas, pitas and Egyptian specialties like ful medames, a dish made with fava beans, tomatoes, onions and herbs.
La Grande: Yia Yia Nikki’s serves up authentic Greek and Mediterranean classics, from chicken schwarma and spanikopita to roasted veggie and kofta pitas. Dine in or takeout from two La Grande locations, including the recent addition downtown.