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30 Restaurants in 30 Days: Nicola’s Restaurant

photo 3-3

The house special lamb shank

Have you ever seen Nicola Ayoub dance? I still haven’t.

For the 15 years I’ve lived in Atlanta I’ve been hearing about hearing about the extroverted owner of Nicola’s Restaurant,  the gent who likes to coax diners up and out of their chairs, all the while balancing a tray of lit candles on his head.

And every time I drive by this 27-year-old Lebanese fixture on my way to Buckhead, I think it’s an Atlanta dining experience I need to have, like a Ghetto Burger at Ann’s Snack Bar or a Frosted Orange at the Varsity.

Sunday may not have been the best night to first go.

What we found on this quiet weekend night was a sweet, creaky restaurant from an earlier generation.

Chicken a la beef

Chicken a la beef

With its dim lights, knotty pine paneling, framed pictures of landscapes and flowers lining the walls, silverware in burgundy cloth napkin rolls, enormous ceremonial pepper grinder, paper place mat menus, it made me think of the immigrant diners I grew up with in the mid-Atlantic, the ones that got nicer and a little more upscale with each renovation. It was like the place my mother liked to go because it was kind of fancy,  and where my dad liked to go because it was cheap and unpretentious. The place that had a famous chicken cacciatore or moussaka.

I feel a soft spot for this place, particularly when I pause in the foyer to admire all the awards  Nicola Ayoub has earned from groups as diverse as the United States Army and Refugee Family Services. He seems like a good soul who has given so much to his adopted country.

The food? It also belongs to another generation. The award-winning lamb shank still brings its A game — tender, fatless, with that silky, shreddy texture that shows an experienced hand in the kitchen. Chicken a la beef is kind of a hoot –a multi-animal rice party topped with raw almonds and sided by a vegetable stew made with those “baby” (actually mechanically infantilized) carrots.

A Mediterranean salad with feta and olives comes in a sugar-sweet house dressing — probably something that played a little better in the 1980’s when folks didn’t know what to expect from Lebanese food. Tabbouleh, on the other hand, brings a pitch-perfect parsley and bulgur salad.

Unfortunately, a plate called “Nicola’s Mediterranean Delight” felt old and off. Dry stuffed grape leaves met up with a square patty of kibbe (rather than the crunchy torpedo you find elsewhere) and a kofte kebab that didn’t taste at all fresh. Only the rice topped with eggplant stew was appealing on this plate.

But when some lovely gratis baklava came with the check, we couldn’t stay mad for long. I’m not sure Nicola’s serves the kind of Lebanese food I search out, but it has a spirit I won’t forget. Even without dancing.

-  by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

21 comments Add your comment

Wilbur

July 22nd, 2013
12:12 pm

The mechanically circumcised carrots are actually better for you than real baby carrots. The former have the beta-carotene of an adult carrot whereas the latter don’t (and have minimal nutritional value).

I had the chicken a la beef around 14 years ago. It was ok, not bad, not great, kind of like you said: it’s an unpretentious, lower cost, ‘nice’ experience.

JDJ

July 22nd, 2013
12:31 pm

My family has been going there for special gatherings probably since they opened! Kind of like the big feast at gramma’s once a year. The hummus is just the best, the house special chicken never fails. But the joyous music, atmosphere, dancing thru the tables, and loving graciousness of Nicola and staff is like being enveloped by your favorite great uncle. Give it another try on a Friday or Saturday. And be prepared to leave your dinner on the table and hook up to the conga line as it goes by.

bc

July 22nd, 2013
1:17 pm

Marsh

July 22nd, 2013
2:06 pm

It’s not blech, it’s a neighborhood restaurant. I’ve seen Nicola dance, but it was with a glass of water on his head. I’ve since moved to the burbs but just recommended Nicola’s lamb shank to someone a few nights ago. The sides are nothing to crow about, but that shank is great, the eggplant solid and the hummus and tabbouleh completely delightful. Don’t knock a man that has made a go of it for 30 years – his clientele love him, and he deserves every bit of it.

Ned Ludd

July 22nd, 2013
2:37 pm

Great Man—Great Place. Nicola worked hard at many jobs for many years and finally realized his dream of owning his own restaurant. It is a fun place with a great menu and when you see Nicola there is no doubt that he is indeed living out his dream. I dare anyone to go to any chain and see anyone as happy and as determined to make his customers happy. Truly a unique place. Prices are VERY reasonable, especially beer and wine. The American Dream resides here and anyone who doubts that hard work pays off needs to stop by. stin igia sou !!!!!!!

Baltisraul....

July 22nd, 2013
2:57 pm

Hope he stays open another 30 years!

Edward

July 23rd, 2013
9:15 am

The food is acceptable, it’s not going to win awards. But, you cannot put a price on the absolute joy Nicola and his family and staff bring to this restaurant and its patrons. This is what a neighborhood joint should be, welcoming and fun for everybody. It is dinner with your Lebanese granny and uncle and a huge family, even if you’re not Lebanese.

sarah

July 23rd, 2013
12:19 pm

It’s hard to beat his veggie plate. I don’t care that its not hip. If a young couple goes in with an infant, Nicola will watch him grow up and still be asking you about that kid 30 years later. Hip restaurants come and go. Nicola’s is like a big house full of relatives. Everyone is welcome and everyone is treated as a guest.

google

July 23rd, 2013
12:43 pm

I haven’t been since i left the area 8 years ago but i always loved Nicola’s. the rice with cinnamon was my favorite.l the fish i always ordered seemed to be frozen at one point but it was passable. the hummus and the baba ghanoush are always excellent!! he would always give us a free dessert and coffee after we paid our check. very sweet man and his employees love him.

Dr. Socrates

July 23rd, 2013
1:14 pm

It’s hard to rate food that, by it’s very nature, is little more than a chewable laxative. This review was far too kind. Went here once three years ago. Never again.

Matt

July 23rd, 2013
1:30 pm

Your use of the term “mechanically infantilized” has motivated me to read more things by you.

Pattty

July 23rd, 2013
1:35 pm

I ♥ Nicola’s! So much that I even have a photo of him on my desk at work! In the pic, he is balancing a bottle of wine on his head. He is a sweet man and, for a large fellow, he can really dance! The food is good. His hummus rocks and I really like the baba ghanoush, as well. Yes, the décor and recipes are dated, but you can’t beat this place for value, consistency and a good time.

TNT 65

July 23rd, 2013
1:58 pm

If you are too “Buckheaded” to enjoy this place, you need to chill! Food, wine, fun, and a great host. I love the avgolemono soup.

thrasher

July 23rd, 2013
2:44 pm

John, you should know that Nicola’s food is authentic family style, not any modern version. His “square patty of kibbee” is baked, not fried, which is exactly the way my grandmother made it who was born in Lebanon.

How in the world you could have gone there for 15 years and never seen him dance is beyond me. He must not like you!

John Kessler

July 23rd, 2013
4:23 pm

Hey, Thrasher — Thanks. I know there are many different ways prepare kibbe, but I just wanted to let folks know that it was different from what was expected. Also, I’m sorry if it was unclear, but I’ve never been to Nicola’s until now. This was a first visit. As I said, it seems like a really sweet restaurant, and Nicola seems like a great guy. My reaction to the food was a bit mixed, though I did love the tabbouleh, the eggplant with rice and the lamb shank. But food is only part of the equation. Thanks for your comment.

thrasher

July 23rd, 2013
8:54 pm

Oops, sorry John, I guess I misread your 15 years comment. My bad. Now, if you want to get really adventurous, ask for the Kibbee Neyah (only made on Fri and Sat nights – you might have to call ahead). It’s essentially like steak tartare with bulgur wheat, olive oil and spices. Delicious, a true delicacy, but very rich and a little goes a long way!

xxx

July 24th, 2013
4:42 pm

Went there once, had the distinct displeasure of trying to choke down the delight platter. Blech is right.

Tom

July 24th, 2013
5:57 pm

Being Lebanese, I went there when I first came to the US 15 years ago. That was enough to let me know never to go back! There is very little that’s authentic about the food….and it’s pretty tasteless. BTW, the Kibbe you describe, John, is called Kibbeh B’ssanieh. It is baked in the oven but if made properly, is never dry since it is smothered in clarified butter and olive oil before being baked in the oven. What you describe sounds pretty terrible!

Finn McCool

July 24th, 2013
6:21 pm

My wife and I use to go here back in the mid 90’s when we were dating and after getting married. I’m glad they’ve weathered the years. We also used to go to Benedetti’s (a little closer) to Emory but I think they tried to expand the restaurant and went under in the early 00’s.

Anyone know what happened to Benedetti’s? If expansion was the problem then they might want to remember the restaurants in Italy which will actually close their doors once they have all the customers they can take that evening. Nothing like being the second couple to sit down at Ristorante Guidoriccio in Siena and 3 couples later the doors get shut.

That’s when you take time to get to know the owner and his wife (who I think was the one in the kitchen cooking – exact same thing happened in a Rick Steve’s suggested place in Rome. 6 tables fill, door closes, wife is whipping up some incredible stuff in the kitchen for 6 tables.)

CD

July 25th, 2013
11:16 pm

I’ve been to many Lebanese restaurants, and I think Nicola’s is the best. The hummus is delicious. Grape leaves are fantastic. I have had many versions of grape leaves at multiple Lebanese restaurants but Nicola’s standard of grape leaves far exceeds any others I’ve had. His artichoke hearts are pretty amazing. The kibbe goes well with the yogurt sauce. His rice is awesome. I love the many versions of the salads that come with the meza. It all goes great with the house red wine. The bill is always surprisingly low. The main attraction is the dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. If I bring a group of friends, young or old, they always have a great time. There’s something truly special about this place and the people that you just can’t get from some ultra-expensive stuffy restaurant.

dora sumner

July 28th, 2013
12:22 pm

My family has known Nick since 1982, before he opened a restaurant. Fortunately, he was able to buy this bldg. from Chinese ppl. and start his Lebanese restaurant. He is one of the sweetest men we know. He will see to it that you have a great time, great food, and good service! Celebrate an occasion with him, like we did last night (our 45th anniv) and you will truly enjoy yourself. Go on the weekends (make reservations) and see his dancing. He truly LOVES children too! We drive 90 miles to eat here and it is well worth it………..Luv U Nick and thak you……