Peace in Little Mezze

When a thousand years of culinary conflict find a new battleground in an unlikely neighborhood, everybody wins.

With the March opening of Hummus Café, a half-mile square of Greenwood is now home to eight Mediterranean restaurants. At one intersection alone—N. 85th Street and Greenwood Avenue N.—sit five Mediterranean joints: Hummus Café at the southeast corner, the Olive and Grape at the northeast, Mr. Gyros, Kouzina and Istanbul Kebab on the southwest. Heading south along Greenwood, Gorgeous George’s is at N. 78th Street, and Yanni’s a few blocks further; west, on 85th and 3rd Avenue NW, is Georgia’s. 

Outside the International District, there’s no tighter cluster of regional cuisine in the city. In light of that fact, I hereby designate this corridor Little Mezze—so named after the small-plate cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean, so thoroughly and surprisingly well represented in this sleepy, leafy corner of the city.

The names of these restaurants draw from the staples of a shared culinary heritage: hummus, kebabs, gyros, olive oil. (Sadly, King Falafel didn’t survive two separate neighborhood iterations.) Owners and chefs hail from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, nations that have historically staked out overlapping empires, religious traditions, and cultural mores—and have never not feuded over them. Among the restaurants of Little Mezze, life today is not much different than the last thousand years in the Cradle of Civilization. Encroachment has given rise to competition, not always friendly.

Take, for instance, Gorgeous George’s, a white-tableclothed restaurant with impeccable food and service; Mr. Gyros, a quick-fix, rock ’n’ roll lunch counter; and Hummus Café, a casual, home-style café.

George Rashed, the 35-year-old Israeli Catholic chef-owner of Gorgeous George’s, worked at Mr. Gyros when he first moved to the U.S. a decade ago, under its original, Egyptian owner. In 2002, when Seattle-native brothers Sammy and Joni Arsheed took over with financial support from their Palestinian father, Rashed stuck around long enough to decide he didn’t get along with the new owners. He opened Gorgeous George’s five years ago. Now he and the Arsheeds, who regularly see lunch lines out the door of their tiny storefront, maintain an uneasy peace, wishing each other well from a distance.

“George always wanted sit-down, five star, fine cuisine, bottle of wine, candles on the table,” Sammy Arsheed says. “Mr. Gyros was not for him. Whereas this is what I want, because I wanna meet people, I wanna have fun, I wanna wear a greased-up, garlicky t-shirt and not have a chef hat on. We need people like George, and we need places like ours, too.”

Rashed wouldn’t go on record to detail his departure from Mr. Gyros other than to say it wasn’t amicable. Trained at cooking schools in Tel Aviv and Haifa, he sees little comparison between his former employer and Gorgeous George’s.

“He can’t beat me with my spices and my quality,” Rashed says of the Arsheeds in heavily accented English. “I say good luck. The business is from God, not from the people. I don’t judge. How many Mediterranean food is here is good for me because I need the people to know who’s the best.”

As the newest entry, Hummus Café could be considered an interloper. Egyptian-born, Edmonds-dwelling husband and wife owners Jamie and Nani Konswa, both in their 40s, say they were unaware of the neighborhood’s preexisting Mediterranean establishments when they leased their space last November. 

“I didn’t care what my neighbors think,” Nani Konswa says in an Egyptian accent, a Bluetooth headset perched in her left ear. “Not all Mediterranean is the same. I think Egyptian cuisine is the number one.”

Arsheed acknowledges that what’s playing out is the sort of pride that only millennia of history can cultivate.

“I’m not here to say who’s right and who’s wrong, but in that part of the world more than anywhere else, pride is everything,” Arsheed says. Each culture, he says, wants to take credit for originating or perfecting the cuisine.

In an ideal world—in Little Mezze, say—appreciation of detail leads to tolerance. And in these restaurants, details are rife. Each claims it makes almost every menu item from scratch. Each is a model of attentive, convivial hospitality. And each offers a distinctly different dining experience.

With its bright, unusual mint-basil salad dressing, lavishly rich, silky hummus and light but flavorful meats, Gorgeous George’s has perhaps the best Mediterranean food in the city—expensive but worth it. If you’re lucky, Rashed will sing for you or dance with a bottle of wine balanced atop his head; he’ll certainly send you out the door with an earnest farewell of “God bless your heart!”

Mr. Gyros combines kebab-shop universals (cheap food, Euro-techno blaring from a boombox, European soccer playing on a flatscreen) with supremely personal service. Their gyros and falafel sandwiches consistently provide an enticing, upbeat lunch experience. Upon your second visit, Sammy will call out your order before you reach the counter.

The falafel at Hummus Café, crunch-crusted and richly spiced, is the winningest of the three, and Nani Konswa’s traditional green soup is a light, fresh original. Her homemade desserts—flaky baklava and a tender cakelike treat called basbousa—are sublime. Eating here is like eating in the kitchen of a fussy Egyptian mom.

Rather than a continuation of an epic cultural struggle on the other side of the world, maybe these are simply three small businesses finding their way in a competitive market. Either way, the saga of Little Mezze adds dramatic luster to three very worthy establishments. More than just a good meal, in the balance is peace.

323 NW 85th St.
The Olive & Grape
8516 Greenwood Ave. N
Hummus Café
8420 Greenwood Ave. N
Mr. Gyros
8411 Greenwood Ave. N
8403 Greenwood Ave. N
Istanbul Kebab
8317 Greenwood Ave. N
Gorgeous George’s
7719 Greenwood Ave. N
7419 Greenwood Ave. N
Photo by Nate Watters.