Thayer Street’s most consistent quality is that of constant change. Anyone who’s traversed its sidewalks regularly has seen a host of shops come and go, sometimes booming and busting faster than the nearby universities’ graduation cycles. Nevertheless, one of the thoroughfare’s few mainstays, Kartabar, defies that trend. Founding owner Philippe Maatouk has held court there for what amounts to a century in restaurant years, with no sign of stopping. Read on for what he shared about his restaurant’s endurance, the story behind the menu and what we’d spy inside his refrigerator.
You’ve been in operation roughly 15 years. What explains Kartabar’s lasting power?
Number one, I’m always there, day and night. Second, I treat every customer as a VIP. But in the end, there’s not one or two things that will make you successful. Whether it’s the glassware or the music or the food, everything has to be cared for. It’s a total package.
Tell me a little about your regulars.
Although students are a great part of our clientele, our foundation is made of loyal guests who are local residents. That gives me a lot of joy. These are people who have been coming in for years and years. They become like extended family.
Kartabar is a unique name. Is there special significance behind it?
I’ll tell you the story! It’s tied to my heritage. Kartaba is the town in Lebanon where I was born. Since I knew I wanted a restaurant that had a solid bar program, I added an “r” to the end of the city name – for a play on words. It speaks of where I came from and what I do.
Do you cook?
Of course, not everyday, but I love to jump in. The last thing that I made was for a staff meal, a Middle Eastern dish called Mujaddara. It’s humble, but delicious: lentils, rice and lots of caramelized onions.
So you don’t shape the restaurant’s menu per se? It’s pan-Mediterranean, but there’s a lot of Lebanese influence.
Oh, no – I definitely contribute. All of the Lebanese dishes are my recipes. They’re things I’ve made for years that I brought with me.
How did you get into this mad industry?
When I came here from Lebanon, I didn’t have a degree in something. But I knew hospitality from my culture and my family. I knew food and I knew how to welcome people. After I immigrated, I taught myself English, and I taught myself the business, and that was that. My first shop was called Hot Pockets, which I ran out of the building where the Urban Outfitters is now on Thayer Street. That lasted from 1989 to 2000, and then I started Kartabar in 2001.
One last question. What would people be surprised to find in your home refrigerator?
[Laughs] Fruit. Tons of fruit. And lots of juice. I’m around food all the time as part of the trade, so I don’t actually eat much on my own!
284 Thayer Street, Providence