Originally called the Near East, the Middle East changed its name after its dad got a job transfer to the next town over. Get a taste of the real Middle East with today's Groupon: for $15, you get $30 worth of Middle Eastern cuisine at Mama Ayesha's.
Named for the Jerusalem-born matriarch who opened the restaurant's aromatic interior to ambassadors and foreign dignitaries in the 1960s, Mama Ayesha's crafts a menu of Middle Eastern delights from decades-old family recipes. A dish of kibbeh magila ($6.50) ensconces spiced beef, pine nuts, and almonds within a crispy bulgar-wheat shell. Eclectic entrees include warak inib mahshi ($16), bundles of seasoned ground lamb and white rice within tangy grape leaves and teeming with cool homemade yogurt and hot pickup lines. The musakan ($16) bakes a hearty half chicken to a golden brown alongside sautéed onions, nuts, and sumac, and the zesty rice and lentils of the m'jadarah ($14) streak across tables meat-free and unashamed.
An extensive drink list balances palates primed with Near East spices. Mama Ayesha's gilds glasses with red, white, and sparkling wines, as well as creative cocktails forged with top-shelf spirits. Guests sip and savor amid gold-damask upholstery and lush greenery in Mama Ayesha's ornate dining space as exotic aromas waft skyward toward scintillating orb lamps, elaborate ceiling tiles, and customers who forgot to anchor themselves.
By the 1940s, Mama Ayesha Abraham had already established herself as a successful young farmer in Jerusalem. But instead of adding to her more than 20 farms, she decided to move to the United States, where she found work in the kitchen of the Syrian Embassy. After many years and countless orders for Capital Hill’s elite, she opened a restaurant called Calvert Café.
Today, her nephews and great nephews manage the restaurant, which has been renamed Mama Ayesha's and has been family-owned-and-operated for more than five decades. But her presence is still felt. Her recipes are used to make the eatery’s kebabs and Middle Eastern dishes, and her image appears outside the restaurant on a large mural that also features several recent presidents.