[Photo credit: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune]
On Monday, one of the pillars of St. Paul’s Grand Avenue landscape will shutter its doors after nearly 30 years.
The Barbary Fig, a neighborhood fixture since Brahim Hadj-Moussa opened the Mediterranean restaurant in 1989, will serve its last customers with the owner-chef commanding the kitchen and the dining room, as he always has.
So will Hadj-Moussa shed tears when he at last closes up shop?
It’s doubtful, unless they’re the joyful kind. He’s too busy laughing and planning his retired life.
“I’m so happy,” Hadj-Moussa said, sounding more like a man opening a restaurant than closing one. “First of all, I’m going to sleep and get really bored,” he said. “And then I’m going to be doing a lot of traveling and eating and drinking.”
“I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business this long. It tricked me.”
It “tricked” Hadj-Moussa because he was able to stay busy for nearly three decades. His customers – many of them regulars – proved to be incredibly loyal in a turn-and-burn restaurant environment in which the new hot thing is always cropping up around the corner.
The restaurant served Mediterranean food with a North African flare and included dishes like chicken tangine, roasted lamb and falafel.
A Facebook post officially announcing the end – his regulars knew through their conversations, he said – featured dozens of comments from patrons about what the restaurant meant to them.
Hadj-Moussa – a man with a vivacious personality who seems to thrive on poking fun at himself and making people laugh – that said that success build on personal connections is no accident. His entire business plan was based on treating each customer like a friend. In effect, they became just that.
“I’m here all the time,” he said. “St. Paul is small. So I get to know them, I know their kids, I know their grandkids… people who love me, they don’t even come for the food. It’s the whole thing, the food, the ambience, it’s me. I have become part of them.”
Still, he’s ready to go. Hadj-Moussa, 61, said he opened a restaurant to cook, but quickly realized that was only 10 percent of the job. As a chef-owner, he said he learned how to fix sidewalks, mend equipment, patch leaks in the ceiling and play the role of “manager”, which he finds infinitely less interesting than “chef.”
“When you first open a restaurant, you get all excited,” he said. “It’s like a mistress. Life is really good. And then after that, the grind of the every day is like ‘get me out of here,’” he said, chuckling.
Hadj-Moussa is lighthearted about the closing, joking that he wanted to go out on top of his game.
But even as regulars continued to pour through the front door of the converted house, he saw changes lurking, a new order replacing the old.
“Restaurants that run like mine did, they are obsolete,” he said, turning serious. “People don’t want this anymore. People don’t want to come in and get to know people, they want to be impersonal. They want fast – get them in, get them out, good enough.”
It’s a sea change that’s clearly struck a chord. But in an instant, Hadj-Moussa’s bubbly side will return, explaining why he has to close now and not in a couple years at a round three decades.
“It’s so cliché,” he moaned. “And anyway, I’m afraid if I do 30 [years], I’ll end up doing 50 no problem.”