The waiter approaches our table to see what we want. He’s an extremely friendly man and customers have been coming in and greeting him like a long-lost uncle. He has no notebook to take down our order but we feel confident he’ll get it right. And he does. He delivers the food with a smile, and he sets it down proudly.
We have met waiters like this in old-fashioned cafes in Europe and the Middle East and we’ve admired how they have kept up this friendly, efficient pace for decades. Because as we all know, at some establishments, younger waiters sometimes can’t keep pace for the few hours you’re at their table.
This remarkable man is Sami Salameh, 65, owner of Cafe Barada with his wife, Claude, 53, who is the cook, their daughter, Therese, 32, and sons Charbel, 31, and Joe, 27. The business was established in Arlington in 1985 by Sami Salameh’s brother, Youssef. They moved to Cambridge 11 years ago, and for a while they all worked together, explains Charbel Salameh. In 2004 Sami bought the cafe from his brother.
In mid-June, after closing for several months for an extensive renovation, Cafe Barada reopened. Designer Nichole Carroll of Carroll Design Studio in Cambridge has done a remarkable job revamping a 19-seat space into a 49-seat dining room, with curvy red beaded hanging pendants, black spherical pendants, a black-and-tan tile wall with peekaboo cutouts to hide the kitchen, and banquettes upholstered in maroon and cream in another spherical pattern. Huge copper and brass trays hang on walls. There’s even keg wine from ultra-hip Gotham Project.
Sami, Claude, and a couple of the children were born in Lebanon (Sami worked with the Lebanese Army and first came here to spend some time in Washington, D.C.). Charbel says they were raised with traditional values (which might account for why all the children work with their parents in the restaurant).
Claude Salameh, who learned to cook from her mother, can take ordinary ingredients and do wonders. In fattoush ($11), the bread salad with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, the dish is showered with chopped parsley and sumac, and studded with crunchy pieces of baked pita. Top it with grilled lamb ($5, or falafel, beef, chicken for $3-$4) and you have a meal.
For ful mumadamus ($6), essentially canned fava beans in oil, she recooks the beans with lemon and garlic until they’re meltingly soft, bathed in olive oil, and garnishes them with tomatoes and parsley.
She does the same transformation with hummus ($5.50). This uncomplicated spread of ingredients is so thick and creamy, you’d think there was more to it than chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, and lemon. Sami Salameh tells us they don’t like to thin the hummus, which accounts for its appealing texture.
Mujederra ($5.50 and $11), in which lentils and rice cook with onions, looks like a soupy brown dish you’re sorry you ordered, until you taste the earthy, slightly hot, cumin-scented lentils. The dish seems to be made from nothing and has so many layers.
Shish kebab (chicken $13, beef $15, lamb $17) is almost too generous, giant bites of meat sitting on a mound of rice with big hunks of zucchini or summer squash, onion, and tomato.
Even the roll-ups ($7-$9) are gigantic, and deliciously satisfying with crunchy vegetables and tahini sauce rolled with plump falafel balls or kafta, the grilled ground beef.
Baklava ($3) seems like every phyllo dough version you know already, but this one is barely sweetened, made with walnuts, and sprinkled with pistachios. Milky rice pudding ($3.50) garnished with cinnamon, is made with highly perfumed rose flower water, which you have to have a taste for in order to enjoy this.
What distinguishes Cafe Barada is a sense of hospitality that is not often carried over from home to restaurant. “We have people over and we’ll say, ‘Mom what are you doing?’ ” says Charbel. “There’s roast beef, chicken, all the Lebanese food. The way the culture is, you’ll never have an empty table.”
Nor will you. Lots for lunch tomorrow.