As the owners of Mecca Restaurant promised, the downtown Raleigh institution has reopened after a lengthy break, but with a noticeable exception.
Floye Dombalis, the woman behind the counter and Mecca’s beating heart for more than five decades, isn’t there.
She’s not calling it a retirement, though.
“I don’t like the word ‘retirement,’ ” said Dombalis, who is 91. “I have a goal, and I hope that I will get back down there and greet my customers.”
Mecca closed for its annual July Fourth break but didn’t reopen for a month and a half, with little explanation, prompting some to wonder if the restaurant’s neon sign would be turned off for good. Dombalis, when contacted earlier this month, said the family decided to take an extended vacation and would return.
Then, a sign was taped up in the window and a post went up on Facebook saying Mecca would be back in business Aug. 18. And so it was.
Floye Dombalis became part of the Mecca family when she married her husband, John. John’s father, Nicholas Dombalis, founded the restaurant in 1930 and later passed the restaurant onto his son.
But a life in the restaurant business was never Floye’s plan. She went to Hardbarger Business College and worked at an insurance agency before she retired to raise her family. One day in the 1960s, Floye was asked to fill in. For 50 years, she hasn’t looked back.
“I joke now that maybe I shouldn’t have done such a good job that day,” Floye Dombalis said.
She won’t talk about her favorite regulars among the downtown Raleigh lawyers, politicians and everything in-between who have cozied up in Mecca’s booths and on its barstools over the years.
“I wouldn’t like to mention any names,” she said. “The way I look at it, the way we operate, everyone who comes into the restaurant is special.”
The way I look at it, the way we operate, everyone who comes into the restaurant is special.
But she will tell you about the time Mike Wallace of CBS came to town. The legendary “60 Minutes” reporter was in Raleigh covering the trial of Joan Little, who in 1974 was tried and acquitted in the killing of a Beaufort County prison corrections officer.
“He came in the restaurant with his whole entourage,” Floye Dombalis recalled. “I thought, well, that looks like the mafia. They walked right up the stairs like they knew what they were doing. People recognized him.”
As Dombalis remembers it, Wallace and his fellow diners were meeting a group of News & Observer reporters upstairs. The drinks were filled and filled again, she said.
“They were just having a big party up there with Mike Wallace,” Dombalis said.
Floye Dombalis said Mecca really has belonged to her son, Paul Dombalis, since John died in 2002. She said it’s his work she gets credit for.
But Paul said he’s learning a few new skills with his mother no longer coming to the restaurant,
“She handled all the bookkeeping,” Paul said. “I’m not too good at the bookkeeping, but I’m learning.”
This week, Paul Dombalis stood behind the counter, just like his mother has. He called diners by their first names and asked about football tickets from a man seated at the bar.
With many of Mecca’s diners asking him about his mother’s whereabouts as they pay their checks, Paul Dombalis has thought of a solution.
“I told her I’m going to ring her up around noon and let everyone talk to her on their way out,” he said.
Though she’s not there, at least not yet, Floye said it’s nice to have the restaurant back open. At the age of 91, her complaints are few.
“I’m very blessed and I count my blessing every day,” she said. “I loved greeting my customers, and I hope to get back and enjoy life as I was doing before (the break). My family, my church and the Mecca, that’s been my whole life.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson