Ali Baba's Cave owner Husein Dawah says his restaurant doesn't fit on a changing Valencia Street. Photo by Eric Murphy.

“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.”

Hard at work at Ali Baba’s Cave. Photo by Eric Murphy.

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.”

Join the Conversation

13 Comments

  1. Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear of Ali Baba’s Cave closing. I was one of those New College students who frequented this place on a regular basis. I must stop in and get a shwarma and bid farewell to Hussain, who was always a friendly and gentle person.

  2. So sad. We always loved going to Ali Baba. Why did we think they changed hands? We stopped because one time we went and they said they no longer served lamb, our favorite. But was this not so? I think the place is perfect for those of us needing something down home. I and many others need a place like this. Sick and tired of the restaurants that give little food for big prices. Sad sad sad. It’s not his decor. Signage. Lights. Brighter color on the outside.

  3. Just another example of this new breed moving into our community who want to homogenize, sanitize and sterilize the uniqueness of our neighborhoods to an all the same white, yuppie, techie, cookie-cutter communities of outer suburbia.

    If we do not stand up to this latest invasion to our neighborhoods, then San Francisco will die of the consumption of the well to do.

  4. Oh, no!…Husein, his staff, and Ali Baba’s are the best of the best! I have loved this restaurant for as long as it has been open, though I now live at a distance and don’t get there as often as I’d like. I am so sorry to see the business go and to see Husein leaving. However, he has given back so much to the neighborhood and has made the best falafels in town for so long…I wish you the best, Husein, and will stop by for farewell and a final falafel on Friday or Saturday.

    This closing is part of a sad trend…Lucca’s, Ali Baba …what next?

  5. Let’s face it. “They” came in, jacked up prices, ruined what was a lovely blue-collar street and now leave vacant stores in their wake. Christ, how many restaurants do we need?
    Valencia Pizza and Pasta is the last stronghold. Always busy when I stop by around noontime. Real good quality food, prices are right, and patrons are “regulars”.

  6. Husein Dawah has been a terrific ally to us muralists! I’ll never forget him catering our inauguration of the New World Tree mural on the Mission Swimming Pool for over $200 people, a tremendous donation. His spot has provided warmth and solidarity for so many of our movements, and kept our bellies and palettes happy over the years. Spectacular hot chili sauce. We will miss you Husein! Please keep in touch.
    Juana Alicia

  7. Oh no! I have loved this place for so long especially their baba ghanouj. I used to eat here at least once a week when I lived in the mission. The last time that I was there I thought to myself “when this place closes I’ll break my heart bc the parts of Mission I loved will be really gone – Borderlands, etc. So sad. Thank you for the great story about the owner. I wish him luck in retirement.

  8. This is a bummer but glad Husein is getting to retire after so many years of hard work and found a successor he’s happy about. One factual correction: I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been on Valencia for 36 years. I moved to the neighborhood in 1997 and remember being psyched when he opened there after having gone to the Lower Haight one for years.

  9. I am so sad right now; but I’m glad he will be able to enjoy a well-earned retirement….

  10. Agh, losing another SF gem! Many good memories from the Lower Haight days… I suppose it’s a well-deserved retirement, but now where to find that magic combo of eggplant & french fries in a shawerma?

  11. Words are insufficient to describe what an incredible community partner Husein Dawah has been to The Women’s Building for the past 36 years!. So many of our events have been enriched by his wonderful cuisine, We echo what our muralist Juana Alicia has said about his bottomless generosity and his commitment to the Mission Community. We wish him a wonderful retirement. He has a friend at The Women’s building forever. Thank you so much! You will be missed and never forgotten

  12. Likewise with his generous donation for the dedication of the Santana and Aztec mural by Mel Waters at 19th and Mission. Community people trusted he would be there, could count on him, and he was.

    Not only was it generous, but there was a special care that donated food would be ready, hot and fresh at the right time to serve.

    He will be missed.

  13. So sorry to hear this. We love Ali Babas. OUr very favorite falafel anywhere. And a wonderful business. Wishing Husein a happy retirement.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *