The Mecca, an eight-decade time capsule on East Martin Street and the city's oldest restaurant, has been sold. But its new owner promises the downtown Raleigh landmark will live on unchanged.
The Dombalis family, who has operated the restaurant at 13 E. Martin St. for 88 years, announced the sale Tuesday to developer Greg Hatem and his restaurant group Empire Eats, which owns several downtown Raleigh restaurants.
"I love The Mecca," said Hatem, who took over the restaurant Friday. "I think The Mecca is a fantastic restaurant just the way it is. We're excited about carrying the torch."
Hatem said he plans to keep the name, menu and staff.
"A place like The Mecca, you don't own it, you're a steward of it, and we're proud to keep it going," Hatem said.
In a statement, Mecca owner Floye Dombalis said the sale came down to just needing a break.
“The Mecca has weathered the myriad of changes to the downtown landscape and continues to thrive as more and more people choose downtown Raleigh as a destination,” Dombalis said. “But after almost 90 years, the day-to-day responsibilities of running a small business have taken a toll, and my son Paul and I have decided it’s time to retire.”
Floye Dombalis, 91, and her late husband, John, were the second generation of Mecca owners, taking over the restaurant from John's father, Nicholas Dombalis, who founded it in 1930. For the past 16 years, their son Paul Dombalis, 60, ran the restaurant, though Floye remained a fixture at the cash register, greeting diners as they came and went. Floye Dombalis retired from the restaurant late last summer.
“We love and value the faithful customers and loyal employees who have served our customers these many years," Floye Dombalis said. "We want to express our heartfelt gratitude for the many memories and friendships we have made in our little spot in downtown Raleigh. We take great comfort in knowing The Mecca is in good hands, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds.”
Hatem has been one of the busiest downtown Raleigh developers and landowners of the last decade. His Empire Eats also owns The Pit, Sitti, Gravy and Raleigh Times.
In taking over, Hatem promises more consistent hours from The Mecca, which in the last year had been known to close unannounced, as well as a few modern updates in the kitchen.
"We'll ramp it back up to opening every day, every day for dinner," Hatem said. "The only change is we might start opening on Sundays."
Hatem may be one of The Mecca's biggest fans, frequenting the institution since the 1980s, sometimes for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single day, a move he calls the "three-fer," and eating innumerable pieces of chicken.
For Christmas a few years ago, an Empire Eats co-worker gave Hatem a card good for one "all-you-can-eat fried chicken dinner," negotiated with Paul Dombalis. Hatem called it one of the best gifts he's ever received.
Dombalis and Hatem said informal talks over the last year turned into negotiations the last few months to buy the restaurant. Hatem said his intention is to preserve the identity of The Mecca that allowed it to survive for 88 years in an industry famous for its turnover.
"Our main focus is preservation and revitalization," Hatem said. "Preserving the building, our heritage and culture. We do it in the Pit, honoring the heritage of Eastern North Carolina barbecue. We do it in Sitti, carrying on the traditions of our grandmothers. The Mecca fits in perfectly. It's been a wonderful restaurant for almost 90 years, we wanted to make sure that heritage was preserved."
Tuesday afternoon, Hatem said a team had located the Mecca's famous 25-pound country ham in a basement freezer, given to Nicholas Dombalis from a local farmer in 1937 and displayed annually on the restaurant's anniversary. Hatem vowed the ham will return May 1, 2019.
Dombalis said she has enough Mecca stories to fill volumes, collected over the years from her perch behind the bar feeding blue plate specials to Raleigh's power brokers. Lawyers, politicians, judges and everyone else hungry in Raleigh were known to frequent the Mecca, a restaurant opened by a Greek immigrant and passed through his family, surviving decades of boom and bust development trends.
Today it exists as one of the few historic haunts within a thriving restaurant scene, itself known for serving simple and tasty fare and for welcoming wooden booths and bar stools.
"Sometimes I would sit there and hear people laughing and talking and having a good time," Dombalis said of her time at the Mecca's register. "I'm proud we could provide an atmosphere were people could do that. I'm reminded of the quote, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' "