What became of Ararat Restaurant? After 13 years on North Loop Boulevard, the rough-around-the-edges, perpetually crowded, BYOB purveyors of scrumptious Mideast eats suddenly closed its doors in late March. On a recent trip to its former location at 111 E. North Loop, where construction work is evident, a sign pasted to the door read: "Former restaurant closed, new establishment opening soon Phara's Mediterranean Restaurant & Casbah." And though the pungent aromas and familiar, entrancing ethnic beats are gone, not all of Ararat's famous belly dancers have left the building. Jeanette Friedman, aka Phara, a veteran Ararat abdominal entertainer, has acquired the lease (hence Phara's), and she hopes to reopen by August.
The eatery's demise, as it turns out, was the result of an inescapable storm of damning circumstances, perhaps collectively equal in force to the fabled, God-inflicted deluge that brought what's believed to be Noah's ark to the top of the actual Mount Ararat in Turkey. Specifically, Ararat's closure was the result of some less-than-savvy business management, a deteriorating money-pit building that couldn't affordably be brought into compliance with several violated city codes, staggering debt in excess of $200,000 including delinquent taxes and a related legal claim and a dramatic falling-out between former business partners that contributed to Ararat proprietress Kelly Abshire's decision not to extend the restaurant's lease on North Loop.
Abshire, one of three longtime waitresses who bought the restaurant in 2003 but the only one still involved with the business retains the rights to the Ararat name and has been catering fundraisers to get the business back on its feet financially, at least enough to afford the move into a prospective new location near Downtown. The next such fundraising event is scheduled for June 21 at Cafe Mundi (see details below). Abshire was hesitant to discuss the bad blood between her and a former business partner (not Phara), saying only that "it wasn't just cut-and-dried business; there were some heartstrings attached." She does blog the animosity on Ararat's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/araratrestaurant), however, where she also posted an entry recounting a protest she organized on April 1 against the new restaurant set to re-emerge at Ararat's old North Loop locale a demonstration that elicited a visit from the Austin Police Department and orders that Abshire remain 100 feet from the premises.
On most nights, Ararat was packed and required call-ahead reservations, so it's hard to believe the business was in financial straits. But Abshire explained that she naively assumed significant debt when she and two other former waitresses acquired the business, ultimately inhibiting Ararat's profitability. She recounted that year's dilemma of whether to temporarily close shop and shed the Ararat moniker, a move that would have allowed her to shed some of the hefty debt but also would have jeopardized the immigration sponsorship status of five Tibetan refugee kitchen staffers. Abshire chose to push forward, in an attempt to "save the Ararat family," she said. Of the refugees, only head chef Tenzin Topjor still remains affiliated with Ararat. He has been able to bring his family to Austin from India, where he left them after fleeing Tibet.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wasn't the only government entity threatening the Ararat family. Last July, after hosting a theatrical performance of An Arabian Midsummer Night's Dream in Ararat's back yard, Abshire said the city notified her that the restaurant didn't have the necessary permits to serve patrons out back or in their patio dining room, effectively limiting legal operations to their Persian-rug-ensconced main dining room, capacity: 21. (That room, incidentally, was a drive-through in the building's past life as a burger joint.) Abshire admits to using Ararat's back patio illegally after the initial city bust. She adds that the fire marshal had also deemed the restaurant's vent hoods illegal. Abshire says she was erroneously informed by Ararat's previous owner that these issues were grandfathered into compliance and that her landlord's unwillingness to fund repairs to the building, all coupled with the business' lingering debt, made funding the projects necessary to bring the building into code difficult.
With so many problems coming to a head, Abshire, unwilling to continue strained relations with her estranged business partner, who held the building's lease, elected to cease operations on March 24. The city's code enforcement division showed up the following Wednesday prepared to shut Ararat down, she said, but found the space empty. Jill Mayfield, public information officer for the city's Solid Waste Services Department, said Ararat originally caught code enforcement's attention last June, thanks to an anonymous complaint that Ararat's additional seating areas lacked an approved site plan and requisite additional parking much like the well-publicized South Congress Cafe fiasco.
"Every business on North Loop is dramatically underparked," says Patrick Goetz, who lives three blocks from the restaurant and has participated in the surrounding Northfield Neighborhood Association for more than seven years. Goetz knew of no problems between neighbors and Ararat and said that many Northfielders patronized the restaurant and were disappointed to see it close.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," said Phara, the new belly-dancing leaseholder, of her attempt to reopen the venue. One contractor's estimate to bring the building up to current code was as high as $100,000, she said, also describing the kitchen's condition as appalling. It took two trash bins to clear debris out of the back yard, where homeless people had been sleeping and relieving themselves. Despite the obstacles, she appears undeterred. "I have a love for the work I do, and I've dreamed about owning my own restaurant," she said.
More importantly, however, Phara envisions dedicating the restaurant to the legacy of her son Christopher who passed away last year after battling cystic fibrosis by holding regular fundraisers in the back yard to aid other families struggling with the disease. Phara says the landlord approached her about acquiring the lease before the restaurant last changed hands, and again recently, when Abshire's relationship with her cohort began going south. "I offered to work together with Kelly," she said, but Abshire declined.
As for Ararat, Abshire says she has worked with the Downtown Business Alliance and Austin Unique, which promotes and markets small local businesses but has had little success due to Ararat's financial woes. Close to securing a near-Downtown location, Abshire says the Ararat family which includes former waiters, kitchen workers, and belly dancers is "in desperate need of help from the community," now more than ever.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our June 29, 2007 issue: In the June 22 News story "Down but Not Out: Ararat moving to new location," we misspelled the name of Ararat chef Tenzin Topjor. We regret the error.
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