“The newcomers to the neighborhood, they’re young, high-tech, making a lot of money. They need something to fit what they like.”
After nearly four decades running Ali Baba’s Cave on 19th and Valencia, owner Husein Dawah says it’s time to retire.
“When you stay in a certain area for a long period of time, it’s not easy for you to say goodbye,” he said. But, facing an expensive remodel he said would be necessary to keep the restaurant relevant to a more upscale Valencia Street customer base. Instead, Dawah decided he would have to close. Saturday, June 29, will be the last day the restaurant is open.
Dawah’s journey to San Francisco started in Syria. He grew up in a refugee camp there, along with 10 siblings, after his family was displaced from Palestine by the war that followed the creation of Israel in 1948. Despite the conditions of the camp, which he called “the lowest level of living a human being can live,” Dawah’s father pushed him to pursue more education. After studying philosophy at the University of Damascus and teaching Arabic literature in Libya, Dawah came to San Francisco in 1980 with the idea of studying for his Ph.D with some financial support from his father.
But when war broke out between Iran and Iraq shortly after Dawah arrived, it cost Dawah’s father his job and his ability to support Dawah’s studies. Dawah started working to support himself and, three years later, he opened his own business, an Arabic deli and health food store.
“You could get lunch and a drink for three dollars. It was cheap,” he said.
The low prices quickly attracted people from the neighborhood. When Dawah opened in 1983, a lot of his early customers were students at the New College of California a few doors down. Others came from several political organizations on the street that had been set up to support causes in Latin American countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. He remembers exchanging thoughts and ideas with this diverse, artistic, and political crowd that he said he would never have been exposed to otherwise.
“It wasn’t just money and food,” he said. “It was cultural work.”
Once he had children and the deli was no longer enough to support his family, Dawah decided to open a full restaurant on Haight Street in 1995, and called it Ali Baba’s Cave. “It was a big hit,” he said, especially with the European tourists who would flock to the area. “From the first couple of weeks I opened we started having a line all the way to the street. A few months later we got rated the best falafel in the city.”
The restaurant was so successful, he converted the original business at 19th and Valencia into a second location.
Through the years, Dawah said the restaurant donated food to neighborhood organizations like the Women’s Building when they had events, and gave unsold food to homeless people who lived in a parking structure that used to exist nearby. “I benefit from the community,” he said. “I have to give back to the community too.”
The restaurants stayed successful until recent years. The location on Haight closed in 2011, and a gentrifying Mission District has taken many of Dawah’s customers at the remaining location. “In [the 1980s and ‘90s], most of my customers were students, hippies, punks. They love this kind of atmosphere,” he said. “They don’t like fancy stuff. I was able to do it because this was a need for that kind of crowd. But those people have been completely moved out from the neighborhood.”
Now, he says, his restaurant is too “old-fashioned” to fit the needs of the new arrivals on Valencia. He is not resentful of them, but says his restaurant serves a different crowd. “The newcomers to the neighborhood, they’re young, high-tech, making a lot of money,” he said. “They need something to fit what they like.”
Dawah has a succession plan. He chose to sell the business to people who will keep it as a Mediterranean restaurant. “Even if I’m gonna leave, I wish this place will continue as it used to be,” he said. The building will close for remodeling, giving the space a facelift to make it more appealing to the new neighborhood residents.
Dawah says he’ll be using his retirement to take some time to visit family and friends in other countries, which he wasn’t able to do while running the business. He also hopes to do some volunteering with community organizations. And he’ll be stopping back in the neighborhood occasionally because of the strong connection he developed with the Mission and its people over his decades here.
A large sign hanging in the window of Ali Baba’s Cave displays Dawah’s message to the community. “I love you all,” it reads in part. “You are a part of my history. I will never forget you. Keep us in your memory. IT’S TIME FOR RETIREMENT!”
“If you’ve survived 36 years anywhere,” he says, “I believe you have done excellent.”