Kalamatas’ co-founder Maher Fawaz was in a happy mood one day before his Green Hills restaurant recently celebrated its sixth birthday.
“Do you like salmon?” Fawaz asked this writer, who had called to arrange an interview.
“Actually, I’m a vegetarian,” I responded.
“That’s OK because we feed our salmon only vegetables,” Fawaz cleverly quipped.
In the rough-and-tumble industry that involves serving people food and beverage, you don’t thrive for six years — much less six months — without embracing your customers. And Maher Fawaz is as appreciative of his supporters as they are thankful for his tasty hummus, dolma and falafel.
“It’s a family affair,” Fawaz said. “We’re not just making a living, but enjoying what we do and trying to educate customers about healthy foods.”
Because Fawaz has a Mediterranean /Middle Eastern background (he was born in Lebanon and has lived in Saudi Arabia and France) and is not shy about playfully razzing his customers, some of the Kalamatas’ faithful playfully refer to him as a much more likable and personable version of the so-called “Soup Nazi” of Seinfeld television show fame. Some patrons visit the restaurant numerous times per week just to get a dose of Fawaz’s quick wit and humorous barbs, as he gleefully barks orders.
Lisa Ballard loves the Fawaz zingers, noting, “He has a way with people. He can get along with anybody [because] he has a big personality. He knows how to build a community.”
Pointing to that sense of community, Ballard visits Kalamatas two to three times per week. She enjoys sitting at the counter and watching Fawaz and his team — including veteran employee Phil Klein — weave their magic to create superb Greek and Mediterranean dishes.
“It’s better than a bar because there is no smoke and no [alcoholic] drinks,” she said. “I know a lot of people who come here often.”
A vegan and a former chef with Whole Foods, Ballard suggested many restaurants are not up to the task of satisfying her demanding palate. Kalamatas is an exception.
“I get the Mediterranean sampler,” she said, before adding Kalamatas ranks among her three favorite Nashville eateries.
A fit man with stylish eyewear and strong features, Fawaz moved to Nashville in 1982. His wife Kitty is a Music City native and offers assistance in both the Green Hills and Brentwood restaurants. Executive chef and co-owner Beth Collins works the Green Hills space, while sister Ghada Fawaz and her fiance, Will Zaitz, oversee the Williamson County Kalamatas.
Fawaz said a key to the Kalamatas’ success is “fresh daily preparation.” Like skilled surgeons, the veteran restaurateur and his team do everything by hand, chopping parsley, as well as working with chickpeas for the hummus and eggplant for the babaganoush. No machines. No cans. Olive oil only.
“It’s all made here,” said Fawaz, who lists Mexican and Southern French among his favorite cuisines. “I do some shopping myself, [but] a lot of items I order are imported from Lebanon. The olive oil we use is imported from the Middle East. The feta cheese is imported from Bulgaria. The kalamata olives are from Greece and not from Spain or Italy. The basmati rice we use comes from India.”
The result is superior Mediterranean food.
“We’ve tried all the other [Mediterranean restaurants] in Nashville, and this is the best,” said Philip Connelly, who on this night was enjoying a pleasant meal with his wife Debra.
But being the best in Nashville is one thing. How about in other more “food sophisticated” locales?
“We’ve been to Greece,” Connelly replied with a smile.
The Connellys dine at Kalamatas about once every three weeks. They said the vibe — and Fawaz, in particular — is as enjoyable as the food.
“What’s kind of intriguing about the place is that it has the same allure, but not quite the same intensity, as the restaurant with the Soup Nazi,” Philip Connelly said.
“My experience with asking for extra vinaigrette — though ultimately well received — generated a response like [that of] George Costanza asking for extra bread,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s all about the experience.”
Maher Fawaz likes to hear such praise. The man has studied the atmospheres and vibes of similar eateries in other locales. No doubt, he knows his Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Fawaz lists La Pita in Detroit, Washington D.C.’s Lebanese Taverna, and Byblos in Atlanta among his favorites. But it is New York City stalwart Mamoun’s that offers a key comparison.
“A lot of my customers who have eaten there say our falafel is as good as Mamoun’s,” said Fawaz, who in addition to speaking English speaks Arabic, French and some Spanish.
So how killer is Fawaz’s falafel? This vegetarian writer spent the summer of 1991 in Manhattan completing an internship and thriftily surviving on slices of cheese pizza and falafel sandwiches. By any standard, the Kalamatas’ falafel is truly outstanding.
Within six years, Fawaz has created a distinctive dining jewel in Green Hills. The dishes are affordable, the scene casual but classy. Children, the elderly, the upscale Belle Meade shopper, the high-powered businesswoman, the bohemian, the hip. All are welcomed.
“It’s a neighborhood-like place,” Fawaz said. “Sometimes we know immediately what our customers want before they even order.”
Make no mistake, Fawaz delivers those orders — with charm, wit and culinary skill.
Happy sixth, Maher.
3764 Hillsboro Road
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
330 Franklin Road