Morningside Heights’ two restaurant dynasties
By Yasemin Akçagüner
Feras Samad greets me at the door and extends a red-dyed hand. “Promise I haven’t killed anyone,” he says. He’d been making jello shots for a fraternity event that will take place later that night at the Heights.
Feras is the son of Youssef Samad, who opened up his first restaurant in Morningside Heights in 1971, after he came to Columbia from Lebanon for a language program in 1969. A businessman by day and poet by night, Youssef published five volumes of Arabic poetry as he built a collection of successful food enterprises including Samad’s Gourmet & Deli and the Heights Bar & Grill.
His first restaurant was Amir’s Grill, then located on 112th Street in the present location of Le Monde’s bar. “There is actually no Amir,” Feras tells me. “I think [my father] wanted a name that was Arabic, Persian and Hebrew. The name Amir could be used for all three peoples.”
What began as a one venture soon became a series of restaurants that constantly adapted to changing neighborhood demands. In 1971, Youssef Samad expanded to Samad’s Gourmet & Deli. Six years later, he opened up Au Grenier, a high-end French restaurant that catered mainly to professors and administrators, in what is now the Heights. In 1991, in a shocking transformation, Au Grenier turned into Nacho Mama’s Burritos.
“We’ve tried every single concept possible,” Feras says. “It became stagnant, the neighborhood needed a change. Similar to today, there were a few changes in the neighborhood, Columbia was picking up more real estate, renting to more restaurants, so we decided to change it.”
Nacho Mama’s lived on until a devastating grease fire on December 30, 1995 burned down the whole building. “I remember that day really well. I drove my father into the city to check on the building after it was completely burnt down. The building was totaled. We built a whole new building in 1997.” The Samads turned the place into the Heights Bar & Grill and opened up the rooftop.
The Samad family’s strategy of survival in the increasingly competitive Morningside Heights market has been to reinvent themselves constantly, a message passed down from father to son.
“I think my father has always taught me to keep up with the times. Always innovate,” says Feras, who has been running the family restaurants since 1989. “In our line of business— all three actually, between Samad’s, Amir’s and the Heights—there are also a lot of external factors with the neighborhood changing.”
To keep up with the times, in addition to making jello shots, Feras says they’ve been incorporating new menu items and renovating their stores.
“At Amir’s recently [which Columbia moved to its current location in 1989] we’ve had beignets and coffee, which is very French. Not necessarily very Middle Eastern, but yeah…” At the Heights, the Samads have been doing all they can do adapt their menu items to changing customer demands. “The new fad of kale … we try [to keep up], but there’s a new fad every day.”
Keeping up is the key to Samad’s success especially at a time when making the rent has never been this hard. “It’s a struggle every month,” Feras says. “Especially after the fire, it’s been more of a struggle,” referring to the Citibank fire of January 2014. More than a year on, the burnt-out vacated lot is causing headaches for its neighbors, including the Samads, who have complained about rodents and flooding caused by the giant hole in its roof.
If constant change has kept the Samads afloat, the owners of the Hungarian Pastry Shop and Symposium have relied on the opposite mentality.
When Panagiotis Binioris handed over the keys to the Hungarian to his son Philip in January 2012, they came with a stipulation: “Keep it the same!” Binioris is originally from the Greek village of Kokla. “That was my mission, as given to me by father,” Philip says. “You don’t just change the nature of something.”
Panagiotis started out working as a busboy and dishwasher at Symposium in 1974. With the help of Symposium co-owner Yanni Posnakoff and then-Columbia architecture professor Ted Maggos, Binioris took over the Hungarian Pastry Shop in 1976. The Binioris family has been running it ever since.
The Hungarian Pastry Shop has looked exactly the same since the Biniorises assumed ownership. Philip Binioris says there are no plans to change the space anytime soon.
“We’ve done, obviously, upkeep renovations. But in terms of the layout, this is how it will look until it looks no more.”
While the Binioris family tried and tested several other restaurants—an American style bistro named Strauss Park in the seventies and eighties, and a sandwich shop Panagiotis and his wife Wendy opened in 2001 called P&W Sandwich—the Hungarian and Symposium have remained constants.
According to Philip, the Hungarian never changes “because something has to stay the same. It’s just what it is and people keep coming, and as long as people keep coming, why would they change it? It offers them exactly what they need.”
Philip adamantly opposes technology that would minimize social interaction. Purchasing coffee through an app, for example, is out of the question: it would turn the Hungarian into a “dispensary.” With its lack of electrical outlets and wireless Internet, and its abundance of real human contact, the Hungarian is for most an escape from “the modern world.”
“At this point, if [the Hungarian] doesn’t offer them what they need, there’s plenty other places that offer them other things,” he says.
“Where everything else is flat, new or modern or forward-looking, always, this place isn’t trying to go anywhere forward. It’s just trying to maintain some kind of essential self that it always has had. If we change that then we’ll probably fail as a business.”
Even though their business strategies are different, Feras and Philip, who have both grown up in the neighborhood, worry about losing touch with many independent business owners. The neighborhood is changing fast, partially due to what they perceive to be a change in the University’s real estate policy.
“I don’t know that many business owners anymore, because they’ve either all gone bankrupt and left the neighborhood or I’m just not acquainted with them. But, I feel like, you walk on the street yourself, you see a lot of empty shops now,” Feras says.
Empty shops are even more visible from Feras’ vantage point, as next-door neighbor Vareli went under in early 2015.
“I think Columbia’s policy, whether official or unofficial in terms of real estate, was anti-chain up until the last couple of years,” Feras says, noting that he has seen fewer family businesses move into the neighborhood in the past few years.
The University reiterated its commitment to leasing to small businesses with a statement to the Spectator in 2013. It reads, “Columbia has a long-term retail strategy that favors small local businesses to help create a lively, energetic neighborhood that reflects the character of the people who live and work here.” Yet Columbia went on to work with the Winick Realty Group, whose clients include many national chains like Starbucks Coffee, Duane Reade, AT&T, and Chipotle, to lease the space that was previously Card-O-Mat to Dig Inn, a chain restaurant.
“When you charge forty thousand dollars a month for rent, you kind of limit the options for who is going to take over a lease,” Philip says.
“I think Columbia’s retail policy, if they have one, is basically soulless. They’ve gutted the neighborhood that I thought had a lot of character.”
“There are no owners. Maybe that’s what I miss about the neighborhood. I would go down the street and I would look in the window and I knew that person. That’s a neighborhood. That’s a community […] It’s a quality to your lived experience that’s missing. Maybe most people don’t even have any idea that that’s possible. You are walking down the street and you’re just a robot, visiting a dispensary. You present your keycard and you get your coffee. And that … it ain’t cool. It ain’t cool.”