Mecca, Raleigh's oldest family-owned restaurant, seems like a tattered, cardigan-wearing grandfather compared with 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 in 1930 as a lunch counter serving 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 mirror-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. Businesspeople 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.
Other restaurant relics include faded framed pictures of folks like FDR 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 like Mecca's 80th anniversary. Aside from the deteriorating ham, though, 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 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." In January, the restaurant extended its hours.
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. Manager Alec Barrows oversees the turnout on evenings and weekends. "I'm the old school," says Floye Dombalis. "I was not in favor of 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.
Editor's note: Meet-and-Three is a series on the Indy's Big Bite blog that occasionally appears in print. Defined as a place with a plate lunch or dinner that offers a choice of one meat entrée and three vegetable sides, meat-and-threes began to proliferate in the South during the early 20th century.
The series presents the people and stories behind some of the Triangle's meat-and-three-style restaurants, such as J.C.'s Kitchen in Durham, the Riverside Restaurant in Hillsborough and the Toot-n-Tell in Garner.
Correction (Sept. 1, 2011): Manager Alec Barrows (not John Dombalis) oversees the turnout on evenings and weekends.