Classic restaurants like Mama Ayesha’s in Washington, D.C. are beloved because of the traditions they have forged over the decades, the communities they have served, and the standards they have maintained — oftentimes thanks to chefs and servers who have worked there for a very long time and kept the same quality through their dedication and craftsmanship.
A restaurant like Mama Ayesha’s has so much history, but it represents so much more.
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The restaurant is named after Mama Ayesha Abraham, who was born in Jerusalem in the late 1800s. She came to the United States in the late 1940s — and importantly, brought her culture and heritage here. She cooked for the Syrian Embassy and many local restaurants before opening her own restaurant, Calvert Cafe, in 1960. There, she served politicians and dignitaries for decades, until her death in 1993. Now run by her nephews and great-nephews, the restaurant, with its new name, has continued to hold a special place in the city.
Even though Mama Ayesha is no more, her culture and heritage are preserved through the restaurant, through her recipes, and through her flavors.
A lot of people talk about food made modern, about fusion, and about gastronomy, but at the end of the day, the basis of all cuisine and recipe are old, traditional methods and flavors. For example, a lot of Indian restaurants will make modern Indian food, but if you dig into the cooking, they are based on old, traditional recipes.
Through recipes. Through restaurants. That’s a crucial way how culture and heritage get passed along from generation to generation, how they can be shared with new communities. That’s why it’s so important to have classic restaurants around — they help the culture and community persevere.
That is why restaurants like hers matter, and why they are important to support. And it’s how we can all remember a woman like Mama Ayesha.
Vikram Sunderam is the James Beard award-winning chef of Rasika in Washington, D.C.