OXFORD—A.J. Liebling, the great journalist, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food loved to venture off the beaten tracks of New York and Paris to find little, overlooked restaurants and bistros. Places where a man with a taste for good dining could enjoy himself.
Liebling knew such places—"lost Atlantises" he called them—often have a precarious existence. "The small restaurant is evanescent," he wrote in "Between Meals," his 1959 classic "Sometimes it has the life span of a man, sometimes of a fruit fly."
More recently, food-and-travel TV personality Anthony Bourdain had this to say about the perils of the restaurant business in his book "Kitchen Confidential": "To want to open a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?"
Maher Alqasas, 50, a native of the Mount of Olives in Palestine and veteran restaurant owner here in Oxford, acknowledges the risks:
"This is a tough business. Imagine working 12 hours a day and having a smile on your face for 12 hours, and to like what you do. The kitchen is a fireball—booming, loud—and I have to be a part of that. What makes it worth it at the end of the day is seeing the smile on their faces."
He's talking about the smile on customers' faces at his Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurant Petra Cafe (no connection to Jackson's Petra Cafe), open since February in the corner of the town's famous square.
"Food is the moment of celebration," says Alqasas, who grew up in Qatar, "because when you are hungry, you are willing to eat anything, but if you know you are eating something good, it is a joy. You are nourishing your body."
The food at Petra isn't exactly what you'd find in most southern homes. But it's just as homemade and just as likely to be from old family recipes, says Petra chef and Alqasas' wife, Angela, also a native of Palestine.
"My customers come to my kitchen and tell me it's the best falafel they've ever had—customers from Chicago (and) Michigan," she says. "I love it. I remember when I was a kid, my mom asked me to do the falafel. We used to help my mom. I learned from my mother and my mother-in-law."
The Alqasas—their three children work at Petra, too—like the idea of a homey atmosphere, even though home for them would be exotic to most Oxonians. The walls feature paintings of street scenes and merchants from Old Egypt. The music is Turkish; the carpet at the front door is Persian.
"I'm trying to keep the Oxford look, too, the old and new," Maher Alqasas says.
Still, running a successful restaurant on Oxford's Square can require more than good food and atmosphere. Most of the two dozen or more restaurants and bars on or near the Square also serve alcohol. They're why the town's nightlife rivals that of much larger cities. Petra allows brown bagging but serves no alcohol.
It hurts business, Alqasas admits, "But eventually, it is going to be known: Customers can bring their own. It is worth the wait. It is all about the food."
Alqasas is Muslim. His religious faith is one reason he avoids serving alcohol. Another is the bar he once had in an earlier version of Petra a few blocks away. "It made my life miserable as far as inventory, keeping kids working, no stealing. ... I don't want to be a part of it."
At least some of his customers don't mind. "It didn't stop us," said Ole Miss student Shelby Herring, a 21-year-old hospitality-management major from Texas, during a recent meal there with her friend and fellow Ole Miss student Molly Thrush. "I like Mediterranean food. I'm a vegetarian, so I like the falafel (fried, ground vegetables), the salads, the hummus. Back home, I'd go once a week to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant."
Petra just suffered through the summer doldrums that tend to hurt the bottom lines of most college-town businesses. Many tables remained empty during the summer evenings.
Alqasis is optimistic, however. "I am a patient person," he says. On the other hand, he's ready for the fall invasion of Ole Miss students. "Can't wait!"
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist, and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.