What makes a restaurant special is the sum of the parts. Of course, the food is central to all that. But sometimes my favorite restaurants are not always the ones that I think have the best food ever. You have to enjoy the food, the setting, the service, the aesthetics of the restaurant. I really notice things like silverware, white tablecloths, the wine, what the acoustics of the place are like. For example, most of the restaurants in New York City are really loud, and I think that's because we build restaurants now in a different way. It's all hard surfaces and the noise just bounces around. Also, people are louder and slightly more obnoxious than they used to be, as a species.
I think another thing that sometimes irritates me about restaurants in New York is when hosts are not hospitable. You walk in, maybe you don’t have a reservation and you look at the host and say politely, “I was wondering if I could get a table?” And they look at you dead in the eye and go, “That'll be two hours and forty-five minutes.” And it's just like, OK, I appreciate that you're busy and I'm happy that you're doing well as a business. But at the same time your job is to be hospitable. Even if you're turning me away, I don't want to be made to feel like I'm an idiot. So being hospitable is another part of the whole equation. I really love an old world maître d’. It's kind of more of a European sensibility or an old world thing, having this very gracious person that's there greeting you. In New York City, career servers are a dying breed. I think so few people are setting out to do that; it's becoming an in-between career option. You're a musician or you're a doctor or you're an artist and you're working in the restaurant industry in addition to doing whatever it is you do. Whereas I think in a lot of different areas where I come from, like Mediterranean and European countries, it's a career. It's something that runs in families where people spend 60 years of their life doing that. People take a lot of pride in that job.
So all of this is to say that my most beautiful restaurant experience was this place in Cairo where I grew up. It's called Andrea. Just outside of downtown Cairo, maybe 15 kilometers outside the center of the city, but still considered to be part of greater Cairo. It was just by the pyramids of Giza. Because of how the pyramids are photographed, people assume the area is desert, but in reality, that patch of land around there is very fertile and there's a lot of agriculture. And you don't see that in most of the pictures just because of the angle. This restaurant was right there, right by the pyramids. It was a house, like a villa that this man turned into a restaurant. It felt like you were in an ambassador's residence or something like that. It had a big garden around it and tables all around with white tablecloths. The food was a whole bunch of mezze and salads, and then they specialized in roast chicken and roast quail. There was this giant spit rotisserie. It was mostly outdoor seating. There was one area that was under a canopy and all around was fertile farmland, in the middle of this very green, lush area. I remember when I was a kid I would go there with my family. As soon as you sat down, you wouldn't really order, the mezze would just come right away and there'd be so many different little plates. And the smell of the roasting chicken and quail was just everywhere. The roasting spit was like a grid, this massive thing that would roast maybe a hundred birds at the same time. It was a giant thing and you would see the fat, the grease, drip off the chickens. I would sit there mesmerized as a little kid, just watching drip by drip of fat while the chicken turned and then browned and then charred. The only thing you would order was chicken or quail, and then they would just keep it coming. There was a donkey on the property, it was like the mascot of the restaurant and the little kids would go and play with the donkey. He was very sweet and would freely roam around.
More than anything, I remember how the place made me feel. Going there felt exciting. Even if we went there all the time, it was still something to look forward to. To me, that's what makes a restaurant experience memorable. It has to be exciting. You have to feel like, wow, what a luxury that I'm able to go out. What a privilege that I'm able to be here. But at the same time, it feels warm and familiar and comfortable. That's how I felt there. Because the property was pretty big and wasn't on a street, my sister and I could just kind of roam by ourselves around this property. And they had a brick oven, this dome, where they would make all the pita bread. Egyptian pita bread is very particular. It's a yeasted dough and it’s lightly coated in this bran husk (the part that’s usually discarded). So it has a texture. And it's particular to Egypt. I think that it was originally an ancient Egyptian baking method. These women that lived around in the community would make this bread. I was curious and would be like, What are you doing? And they would just hand you these fluffy, hot, puffed-up pita just as they were pulling them from the oven. I would always go hit the oven before the bread would even get to the table. I'd be like, Oh my god this bread is so fresh, while my parents were waiting at the table.
There was a canopy area that most of the tables were under. I remember how the light would change and filter from this canopy onto the different tables. And it would cast all these shadows, especially into the glassware. My dad always had the beer, and the light would filter through the glass and cast a shadow onto the table. It was really special. It remains my favorite restaurant in the world. Sadly, the restaurant in that iteration doesn't exist anymore. They moved it to another part of town. It's very far away. Cairo is obviously a huge, very popular city and they're continuously expanding it and building on the outskirts. And there's kind of this giant migration of people that are moving from greater Cairo to these newer kinds of compound-like areas. And I find them really unfortunate. They're modeled after the gated communities in the U.S., very suburban. The restaurant moved to one of these areas, which I think made it lose a bit of its magic. They're still serving the same food and the same bread. But the sum of the parts is different. The equation doesn't add up in the way that it used to because some of the factors changed. I went to the new location once, maybe three years ago. I didn’t regret it, but I decided that I never need to go back. I'm very happy with the memories of the experience that I used to have.
Laila Gohar is an artist born in Egypt and based in New York City. She creates singular food experiences through multisensory installations around the world.
Joanna Neborsky Illustrator
Literary, frenetic, and bold, illustrator/animator Joanna Neborsky’s darkly humorous collage work has been featured in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, and W magazine, and has attracted notice in Bookforum and the Paris Review. Her latest book, her own modern take on the Proust Questionnaire, was published in 2016. Neborsky lives in Los Angeles.