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Restaurants have it tough. Sixty percent of them last less than a year. Eighty percent close within five. And yet, a few manage to persist and remain cherished dining destinations throughout the years. What’s their secret? To find out, pay a visit or several to our current Business of the Month, Moustache, at 90 Bedford Street, a thirty year old Greenwich Village institution where you can enjoy a wide array of pan-Middle Eastern classic specialties, as well as some inspired takes on them, in a casual and welcoming atmosphere.
Salam La-Rawi moved to Paris from his native Baghdad to study literature. He paid for his studies and expenses by working at restaurants, where he learned quite a bit about French cooking. While he loved living there, upon graduation, he decided to move to New York in order to experience first-hand what his radical student friends referred to as the land of imperialism. He found a place on Grove Street and a job at La Chaumiere (then at 310 West 4th Street), and he fell in love, not with the land of imperialism, but with his future wife. After a few years, the couple decided to move back to Paris. They had hoped to settle down there, but economic circumstances thwarted their plans. They came back to the city in 1988, and so launched Salam’s career in restaurants.
Salam’s first place operated out of a tiny storefront on Atlantic Avenue. It was inspired by Lebanese bakeries known as Furns — establishments where customers bring ingredients to be baked as toppings on bread. He wanted to do something similar, but providing the toppings himself. It was a good plan … until people started ordering falafel and demanding to know what kind of a middle eastern place had none. Salam protested, “but I don’t fry! I only have an oven!” until finally giving in after three months. Eventually, he decided to decamp to Manhattan in 1992 in search of a larger space and a better business climate. People encouraged him to find a space on an avenue; but he preferred an out of the way storefront on Bedford Street. There, Salam opened his new restaurant, this time with a full kitchen.
Moustache’s menu was the continuation of an evolution that began at his first place. There, it had all begun with the oven, particularly with the pitzas (a portmanteau of “pita” and “pizza”). These included one topped with zatter (a popular breakfast choice in Lebanon and a favorite of model Bella Hadid when she comes by) as well as the famous lahambajin (lamb, onion, tomato, spices).
There was also a fridge for the salads and mezze: hummus, foule, labne, and a baba ghanouj that will knock your socks off.
The installation of the kitchen then led to soup (lentil!) and ouzi (a spiced rice, chicken, and vegetable stuffed phyllo pillow). The grill gave us the baby lamb ribs and the ever-popular chicken kebab (120 orders of which were sold on the day before our visit. “Don’t ask me why!”, says Salam, “We don’t question it. We just sell it!”).
These dishes all came to the new Moustache along with Salam’s spirit of discovery and experimentation. Visits all over the Middle East and North Africa have inspired additions to the menu, as have recommendations by customers. The selection now includes a moussaka (the original Egyptian version, before the bechamel and the meat came along), a surprisingly delicious green pitza (leeks, scallion, and herbs), inspired by the ghormeh sabzi (a Persian herb stew), among other specialities, all made from scratch every day.
Asked to explain the popularity of Moustache’s dishes, Salam offers a succinct answer:
The approach to food; the freshness of the food. We do not accept any processed food. We do not buy or receive it. Everything has to be fresh. And people know that. People can sense that everything on the plate is freshly prepared. In house prepared. We cut and trim our own meat. We make our own merguez. We make our own yogurt. We make everything. Everything.
There are three exceptions, but but of a high quality of their own: the mozzarella, which comes from a Bensonhurst family-owned business and is made with milk from the family farm; the ice cream — pistachio and (hard to find) mastiha; and the baklava, which, like the ice cream, comes from Gaziantep, Turkey, a city world renowned for its pistachios and baklava, and reputed to be the birthplace of the latter.
Unsurprisingly, given the quality and uniqueness of the food, the restaurant quickly became a hit. So much so that Salam opened two other restaurants in the East Village a few years later — a second Moustache, and Mamlouk, a multi-course prix-fixe restaurant in a wonderfully cozy environment. Both lasted well over a decade before being claimed by rent increases. They are both sadly missed, and we hope, not for long.
Fortunately, the Greenwich Village Moustache is still with us, despite the challenges it and all restaurants have endured over the past couple of years. Salam describes the beginning of the pandemic as a financial storm, from which Moustache was only saved by improvisation, outdoor dining, and creditors’ flexibility. Even today, however, difficulties persist. Staffing continues to be a struggle and, most recently, a two year lease renewal negotiation with the landlord led only to an agreement to vacate by the end of the year. Lucky for us, then, that Salam remains as committed to the neighborhood as he ever was.
I had an attraction to the West Village from the day I landed in 1982; and the West Village never really lost much of its character. New York City has changed tremendously. But the West Village kept its integrity. Every time you enter the West Village you’re entering a different world. I could go back to 1982… you say hello to everyone and everyone says hello to you. And people know their neighbors and care about their neighbors. They know them by name. My [former] neighbor at the restaurant [Chez Michallet] was a Lebanese chef. And we used to barter staff food constantly. It’s that kind of rapprochement that is unique.
Given Salam’s affinity for Greenwich Village, and given his resourcefulness, it did not surprise us to learn that he has already found a new location for Moustache (on 7th Avenue South), and is already getting it ready for the transition.
If all goes according to plan, the restaurant will resume operations at the new location before it needs to vacate its current premises. And hopefully it will persist as a local favorite and as the family tradition it has been for many, As Salam recounts:
We have adults married with kids, and they tell us, “do you remember me when I was five eating at that table.” Almost every day we have someone like this. We know of many, many marriages that happened at Moustache. They meet at Moustache, and they get married, and they have kids, and their kids come!
Asked to reflect on the potential disruption of having to move a restaurant, even if only a few blocks away, after thirty years, Salam responds matter of factly:
It’s still there, Moustache. I became part of it and it became part of me. I’m not a person that will let go easily. I don’t work with emotions. It is what it is. Whatever. I don’t have expectations and whatever comes to me I deal with it; and I’m dealing with it. I’m putting cement blocks, and I’m pouring concrete and taking garbage out and all I have to do by hand to meet the deadline.
Perhaps therein lies the answer to our initial question about the secret behind restaurants that defy the odds and endure for decades. Circumstances threw Salam more than a few curveballs. He wanted to stay in Paris; he did not want to fry falafel; he wanted to be on a side street. And yet, here he is, after thirty years: in Greenwich Village, about to open on an avenue, with falafel on the menu. This perseverance, adaptability, and devotion to his customers have made Moustache an integral part of the neighborhood, and it has now made it Village Preservation’s June 2022 Business of the Month.
Stop by Moustache at 90 Bedford Street or visit their website.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: