Cathie Anderson

Maalouf’s closing Friday; diners rush for one last taste of Lebanon

Rita Maalouf, right, works on preparing a beef shawarma with her husband Abdul Maalouf during lunch at the Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon restaurant in 2012.
Rita Maalouf, right, works on preparing a beef shawarma with her husband Abdul Maalouf during lunch at the Maalouf's Taste of Lebanon restaurant in 2012. Bee file

Diners have been giving Abdul Maalouf a big send-off this week as he closes Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon on Fulton Avenue and prepares for a long-awaited visit to his native country.

Layal Maalouf, the restaurateur’s daughter, hostess, server and social media expert, posted a note on Taste of Lebanon’s Facebook page to alert customers that the eatery would be closing Friday, and word spread quickly.

“Today was so chaotic – and yesterday as well,” she said. “We’ve had a real showing of love from all the people who care about us. They’ve been coming in to say goodbye. It’s been really emotional.”

Layal Maalouf, 28, also handles media interviews. She said her 56-year-old father isn’t as comfortable with English as she is. The family moved to the United States when he was 35.

“There was a war in Lebanon,” Maalouf said. “Dad was in the military, and it got to where he was afraid what might happen to me if he walked down the street holding my hand.”

The elder Maalouf had grown up listening to one of his grandmother’s stories about her homeland, the United States, so he emigrated as soon as he could. His parents and a brother also moved here, but he still has siblings in Lebanon.

“Everyone always talks about the American dream,” Layal Maalouf said. “Well, cooking was always a passion for my dad, and in Lebanon, I don’t think he would have been able to open his own restaurant.”

When the Maaloufs arrived in Sacramento, Maalouf said, they lived in someone’s garage, and her father worked as a gardener. He saved up his money until he could get a home and open a restaurant at 1433 Fulton Ave. in the Arden-Arcade area. His wife, Rita, did prep work and made the desserts.

“The restaurant … definitely made our lives a lot better than they would have been if we had stayed in Lebanon,” Layal Maalouf said, “and it allowed for me to get an education and for me to go to college.”

Maalouf earned a business degree from Sacramento State because she thought she might one day take over the family business, but that idea lost its appeal as Maalouf saw the restaurant through more adult eyes.

“Once I got out of college,” she said, “I realized what a sacrifice it is when you own your own business. You give up your life. … I wanted to enjoy my 20s and be able to go on vacations rather than working long hours.”

In the last few years, Maalouf’s father has had two heart attacks and a stroke. His daughter blames the demands of his work, standing at the kitchen’s grill five days a week for 13 years with no vacation.

Abdul Maalouf has said for years that he would sell his business, she said, and when a couple of Chicago businessmen recently came to him with a second offer, he accepted it. The new owners plan to offer Middle Eastern cuisine at the same location.

“Dad just needs a break,” his daughter said. “He’s not saying that he’s completely done, but he wants to go visit Lebanon for a while and get some rest.”

Layal Maalouf said she’s shed a few tears as she has thanked the restaurant’s loyal customers for sticking with them, even during a tough economic downturn that put many Sacramento-area eateries out of business.

“I was 14 when I started working at the restaurant,” Maalouf said. “We have people who have been with us since the first week that we took over. They’ve been at my graduation parties and at all my big milestones in life.”

Customers such as Sacramento attorney Jeanne Vance see it the other way around. She rented the place for one of her big milestone events, her wedding rehearsal dinner.

“They knew my food preferences and assured me they would put something together that would be fabulous, and they did!” Vance wrote in an email. “In addition to the wonderful food including falafel balls, grilled meats, and the crispest salad in town, they had decorations, champagne and a very large cake.”