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Friday, August 26, 2011

Meet-and-Three: Raleigh's Mecca

Posted by on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 9:38 AM

mecca.jpg
Mecca, Raleigh’s oldest family-owned restaurant, seems like a tattered, cardigan-wearing grandfather compared to the minimalist hip style of its new down-the-street neighbor, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a modern meat-and-three. It is. But well-worn cardigans are cool, and Mecca has managed to keep up with the times.

Inside the dark, narrow restaurant, a long counter with red vinyl stools recalls Mecca’s start as a lunch counter that served Raleigh’s downtown workers. At the time it was located on Fayetteville and Hargett streets. Five years later, the entire restaurant and its furniture—dark wooden booths and a mirrored-backed drink counter—moved to the current spot on Martin Street. Back then, Mecca was one of the first, if not the only, restaurants in the area. “If you worked downtown, you probably had to eat here,” says Floye Dombalis, whose father-in-law, Nick Dombalis, started the business.

From the beginning, Mecca served a hot meal, three meals a day—a style of cooking that harkened back to the traditional family farm dinner. There was no need for advertising. Customers filed into the restaurant out of necessity, sticking around out of loyalty or habit once the competition moved in with other offers.

Today, some 80 years later, things are about the same. Businessmen and women pack the restaurant’s booths on their lunch breaks and before and after work, and they order from a menu that is practically unchanged. A tribute to Nick Dombalis’ Greek heritage, the restaurant has long featured Zorba’s marinated beef tips on rice with garlic bread and a salad ($9.35, plus an additional 75 cents for a Greek salad). There’s also the Gary Dorn Burger, veal cutlet topped with lettuce, tomato and onion.

“Who’s Gary Dorn?” two customers asked a server on Monday night. She shook her head and looked at another employee, who shrugged. “We should brush up on our history to work here.”

To do so would require a lengthy course. The restaurant is a hodgepodge of memorabilia. Displayed high above the counter are cartoonish figurines, each about 1 foot tall, of Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan and The Three Stooges. Floye Dombalis says her husband, John Dombalis, ordered them from Saks Fifth Avenue in collaboration with a regular customer who was also the voice of the Wolfpack, Gary Dornburg.

Other restaurant relics include faded framed pictures of folks like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and baseball giant Carl Yastrzemski (the latter photo is signed). “That picture has caused more comment among men and women than anything else,” Floye Dombalis says. (It got a shout-out in The Boston Herald in 2009.)

But most of the talk about Mecca has to do with a ham. “The old ham is so ugly you can taste it,” read a headline from 2007 in the Chicago Tribune.

The story goes that in 1937, Nick Dombalis bought a 44-pound country ham from a man who was passing through town. He placed it in Mecca’s window, where it sat and rotted for 33 years and became a local celebrity. Now preserved in a freezer in the restaurant’s basement, the black ham is carted out for special events, including Mecca’s 80th anniversary last year. Aside from the deteriorating ham, however, most of Mecca’s food is fresh. “Locally grown sides,” a display board advertises from the restaurant’s front sidewalk.

Ideas are fresh, too. After 81 years, they have to be to keep Mecca relevant and running. In January, the restaurant extended its hours to midnight during the week, and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. In its early days, Mecca was open from 6—12:30 a.m. with the slogan, “It is the Mecca’s purpose to please you at all times.”

It is, however, the first time the restaurant has doubled as a bar. Cocktails, bottled beers and wine are stocked as a means to “bring in more revenue,” says Floye Dombalis. Her son, current owner Paul Dombalis, came up with the bar concept. His son, fourth-generation Mecca employee John Dombalis, who spends most days as a banker, oversees the turnout on Saturday nights. Manager Alec Barrows oversees the turnout on evenings and weekends. “I’m the old school,” says Floye Dombalis. “I was not in favor it.” But with the success of the new venture, she sees the point. Mecca is old fashioned with a twist. And these days, you can order that sentiment as an actual drink, complete with a side of greens.

Mecca (13 E. Martin St., Raleigh) is open 7:30a.m. - 12 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and 7:30 a.m. - 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday.

Correction (Sept. 1, 2011): See comments below.

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