The Wednesday lunch crowd at Al-Amir restaurant in Columbia is a decent size. About half the tables are taken, and servers are constantly moving from the kitchen to the dining area carrying plates full of salads and gyros and Damascus hummus to eagerly awaiting diners.
The food is fresh, light, on the healthier side and — especially in the case of the Damascus hummus plate of roasted vegetables and your choice of protein, drizzled with tahini sauce, sitting atop a large serving of hummus and served with a piece of freshly baked Damascus bread — quite filling.
So why does a banner outside Al-Amir's front door at 1734 Main St. announce "The Epicurean Southern Kitchen: Coming Soon"?
Owner Mohammed Saadedden, who was smiling and greeting a longtime customer just a moment before, looks almost to the point of tears when asked about the sign. He says that it's because he has to try something different, something new, to bring customers through the door and keep the restaurant open.
"We've been struggling on this corner (across from City Hall) for two years," he says.
To him, it feels like the city has concentrated revitalization efforts on the 1300 through 1600 blocks of Main Street and have skipped over the block where Al-Amir is located to focus on North Main.
Although Local Yokal, a New York-styled grocery store/bodega will open soon at 1712 Main St., and DaufusKEYS Gullah Bistro is in the same block, the remainder of the buildings are home to law offices rather than lively retail spaces that bring pedestrian traffic. Across the street is the Richland County Courthouse and Columbia's City Hall. There are no retail shops or restaurants nearby — unless you travel five blocks north, crossing Elmwood Avenue to North Main Street.
"At night, the lighting here is bad and there are homeless people, and people doing drugs (along Laurel St.)," he said.
It feels unsafe, but he hears that Columbia Police are putting a substation in the former United Way location at 1800 Main St.
"After 18 years (in the business overall, Al-Amir has been on Main St. since 2014) and pouring every penny we have into the place, we've had to maneuver to keep the restaurant," he said. "We have loyal customers ... there just isn't enough to sustain the business."
Not selling alcohol has become an issue, especially with the newer restaurants and bars opening just a couple of blocks away. And he thinks that Columbia is still a franchise city. "Good or bad, people here ... 90% of them who go out to eat at restaurants will go to chains," he said.
Saadedden admits that he has to try to please a wider clientele.
But at what cost?
Saadedden's restaurants have never served alcohol, and never will. Changing the menu is a better option, he believes, than closing the doors.
So Saadedden has begun adding a few Southern classics to the menu at Al-Amir.
The lunch specials on Wednesday included meatloaf sandwiches, and hamburger steak and mashed potatoes, in addition to Damascus hummus. More items will be added for lunch and dinner, probably beginning the first of June. There will be more salad options — with fried shrimp and fried chicken as add-ins — and Saadedden will continue to source his food as fresh and local as possible.
He and his kitchen staff will be offering healthier versions of Southern staples and some Mediterranean items will have to go to make room on the menu. But fear not, loyal customers, the best-sellers — such as falafel, grape leaves, baba ghanouj, gyros and Damascus hummus — will remain.