Under construction for 10 years in Logan Square, the mysterious building that became Masada started as a neighborhood curiosity, grew to folk status and became a lightning rod for nearby residents who wondered what it was and whether it would ever open. Eventually it did open, as Shadi Ramli, who has peddled falafel for much longer at Sultan's Market in Wicker Park, poured family funds, pride, sweat and heirlooms into opening his massive and meticulous Middle Eastern palace on California Avenue a year ago.
12 months into his first full restaurant—which is also a haven for live music, belly dancing, much more than falafel, and a place Ramli hopes will change stereotypes of Middle Eastern people—and he realized that 10 years of pre-opening is just the beginning. Ramli opened up about why it took a decade, his motivation for opening, and whether he regrets anything along the way.
What did you put into this restaurant over 10 years?
In 2004, I purchased the building, which is a regular three-flat with two apartments on top, (a real estate agent on the) first floor and a cruddy basement—it belonged to a hoarder. It took 25 dumpsters to clean that place out. So I was there, 25-years-old, able to buy a building at a good price. My friends moonlighted for 10 years doing air conditioning, metal jobs. One of my good friends is a local artist, I'd throw ideas at him and he'd be like "you're fucking crazy, why would you want to do that? Why would you want to do this?" I remember the first time we got electricity in the building and we flipped a switch and came alive. I got goose bumps, it was like watching a submarine turn on.
We worked on it for years and years going through the system with the city—explaining them the idea. After 10 years, things would change and different permits and ideas and then we'd get an idea and I'd have to go to the city and explain it to them and they're like "would you guys just stop? Stop with these crazy ideas."
How did that all of the design features come about over that time?
When my dad passed away, my mom fell into depression. It's like she became my muse. I wanted to pull her out of it—it literally saved both of our lives. Pain actually does make somebody even more creative. It became a healing process for me.
I treated every wall like a feature wall—everything had to be genuine. The art that hangs on the walls and the photography and the pieces are all from family vacations and family photos and gifts throughout the years that I saved up. A lot of those pieces I drove across the country to get—I drove all the way to Clearwater, Florida with my truck, loaded it up and drove all the way back. The main lantern that's on the dance floor, the big one, actually got crushed.
You said you always wanted to open your own restaurant, but this is much more than a restaurant. Is that what your originally wanted to do?
I did because I was so sick of people acting like Arabs are not fun and we don't have a sense of humor and we're moody people. And I was like, "no man, we got great food, we got great music, we got great entertainment, great singers."
The reason I picked Logan Square is because it's not a Middle Eastern neighborhood so it became a little bit like a tourist destination. A lot of people will venture in not knowing what they're going to see when they walk through the doors—the ones that are brave enough to actually walk in and just check it out. We get a wow factor out of them.
I really wanted to raise (Middle Eastern people's) heads a little bit because for the past 30 years we've been bombarded with nothing but negativity. I love their reaction: They come in, they feel really proud, they smile, their attitude changes, they become more open, they're not so shy to have fun and loosen up. A little village somewhere far far away where disasters are happening doesn't represent all of us—the KKK doesn't represent every white guy out here. It's nice because people can come in really hesitant and scared and now it's one of their favorite spots.
And it's hard to find a Middle Eastern place with a good cocktails, good food, good entertainment. Everywhere (else) I went to, I was disappointed. It's either great food, great entertainment, (but) looks like a strip club. Or terrible food, terrible entertainment, but beautiful. I can't go anywhere with my mom to enjoy a nice Middle Eastern night out. You can't take families to some places because it's kind of cruddy or full of raunchy dudes hanging out.
All those years when you were building it out, how many people came by and popped their head in, asking what was going on? What did they say?
Curiosity was killing everybody. I remember I would have arguments online with this one guy that was talking smack about "It's never going to open, forget about it." He pissed me off so much I called my sign guy and said, "you know that sign that we've had in the back for two years? I want you guys to put it up." It was up for two years before I was even open, it drove people nuts. They would bang on the doors saying "what the hell is going on there?" Then rumors started that there was the Russian Mafia back there. It was kind of a little mystical for people, like a genie was there or something.
People also talked about your vacant lot (on the opposite corner).
The city wanted me to have 15 parking spots. So, I'm like, "where in the world am I going to get a parking lot in the middle of the city?" It was almost a three-year battle over the parking lot. Me, my brother and my sister-in-law purchased the lot across from the police station saying this is going to be our parking lot. I went through a year of permitting process and after all they wanted it came out to almost $300,000.
Before you opened, you had a giant wet dry board where you had tons of possible menu items you were thinking about serving. In the beginning, what were you thinking of serving? How did you decide what to serve when you opened?
I was trying to be eclectic. Some things people didn't understand; some things eventually came off. Now we got our basics and I can screw with it a little bit. I can throw in chicken feet, or something crazy for curiosity's sake.
What were the different cuisines that you were going for in the beginning and how many of these dishes were your family's recipes?
It all comes from different regions from my family. The things that I grew up on, I offer them so (customers) can try it. Also what happened was Middle Eastern folks would come and they loved the menu because it's different than the usual kabobs and wraps, even though we have those on the menu too. I didn't want to put the stereotypical stuff on the menu. Lots of vegans in the neighborhood come by because you actually get a good meal that doesn't feel like you got ripped off for lettuce and carrots.
How much of the cooking do you actually do yourself?
I switched over to the prep area. I do all the sauces and broth because I wasn't happy with the sauces that were coming out. So I've been going through section by section, I worked a tremendous amount of time with the guys in the kitchen to get things right. Now that they've been trained properly and I've gotten rid of the riff raff, all the guys that stuck around for the past year have actually grown with me and now we're a good humming team.
My next step is I'm going to be moving onto the bar. At first I hired mixologist guys and those guys are like a disease to the bar industry.
What do you mean?
They make great drinks, but there's a lot of stuck up attitudes. I had one guy that worked with me and he's a really good bartender and he knows tons of stuff, but a guy ordered Crown Royal and the bartender laughed at him. The guy was insulted. The next day I bought two cases of (Crown Royal) just to shut that bartender up. I also didn't like that it took 16 minutes to make one drink.
What has surprised you most in the first year?
One thing that has surprised me is how many people have been to the Middle East. I've had a lot of older ladies telling me how many Arab lovers they've had. The first night we had a full house, 300 people, that blew me away. I was also surprised how many haters are out there that just don't want to see people succeed. They watched you as this little guy selling falafels out of a fryer with a propane tank in a gangway, then they watched you grow over the 20 years and you think they'd be happy for you.
What did it feel like to finally get this open after 10 years?
It really dawned on me that now the real work starts. Before it was at my leisure and I had a lot of thinking time. That's when I realized that I've never been this tired, I've never worked this hard for something. When you open your doors you have critics, I would kind of take it personal because this is my child, you know? I poured my heart and soul into this thing and to see somebody bad mouth it, it really hurt. Now, it's surprising to see how thick my skin is.
What was the biggest thing that went wrong around the opening?
The first week we were open, everything and anything that could have happened, happened. We were going to open for Christmas Eve and all the employees were asking for days off. It will be slow, we'll just keep it open because we got a reservation for a few people, just me, my mom and one guy washing dishes. I put in a little ad saying we'll be open for Christmas Eve. Well, lo and behold the restaurant filled up in 15 minutes. It was so many people that I had to shut the door. It was a disaster, man. It was awful. I was so embarrassed.
Have you gotten a lot of feedback on the photos downstairs of the celebrities in the Arab garb?
Oh man, I've had tons. It's funny because if you don't explain it to somebody it's just going to be awkward—people are going to believe those are ancestors or something. I've heard people say "why would he put a picture in a bar of all these holy people" or "why would he put a picture of all these terrorists." That's when I jump in and say, "guys, look that's Robert De Niro." They feel silly and they crack up about it.
Do you have any regrets?
I regret the 10 years—those are the best 10 years that any man is going to have in their life. I do regret taking so long. From 25 to 35, when are you ever going to get those years back? But it was so much money and so much time that I couldn't have done it any other way. You think your life is infinite when you're young, but as you get older, you think, "I could have had a family, I could have had kids, and I'm still single."
Is there anything new in the works?
Our rooftop is going to be officially opening so now if anybody wants a good view and hang out in the sun instead of being in the downstairs garden, you can be on the roof.