By Ash Mayo and Calmetta Coleman
Photo by Robert Kozloff
From the time he was a young boy, Rashad Moughrabi remembers his father, Abed, an immigrant from Bethlehem, talking about why he chose to open his family’s restaurant in Hyde Park.
"He wanted to be near the University of Chicago to find a well-traveled community that, more than 20 years ago, was familiar with hummus” and other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, explains Moughrabi. Today, Moughrabi cooks alongside his father and co-owns the restaurant, which recently moved to a new location in the neighborhood.
The Moughrabi family first opened the doors of The Nile at 1611 E. 55th Street in 1991. Through the years it has become a Hyde Park staple – catering to a set of regular customers as well as to citywide and suburban grade-school youth looking for lunches to complement field trips to the Oriental Institute Museum on the University’s campus.
In June this year, the restaurant moved five blocks west to 1162 E. 55th Street, in a larger space that still offers up the family’s special mix of Lebanese and Palestinian dishes – including the $2 red lentil soup, a favorite among some University students.
Moughrabi said the decision to relocate was driven by a long-term lease that was about to expire. “We were looking for the next 20 years, so it was either stay where we were and remodel, or move,” he explained.
The family began looking at other options in Hyde Park and quickly landed on a spot in the same retail strip as Woodlawn Tap and Starbucks and next door to the soon-to-open Bergstein’s Deli. The 2,600-square-foot space, owned by the University, was 400 square feet larger than the old restaurant and was being completely renovated.
“The timing lined up so that we were able to offer a location that allowed a restaurant that is uniquely Hyde Park to remain within a vicinity that was convenient to its long-time customers,” said James Hennessy, the University’s associate vice president for Commercial Real Estate Operations. “At the same time, it also provided the kind of new space The Nile was looking for, for the future of the business.”
“We were able to design the space the way we wanted it,” said Moughrabi, who opted for an open kitchen where customers could see food being prepared. For the first time, The Nile also offers outdoor seating—behind the restaurant on a deck it shares with Bergstein’s.
One other design element Moughrabi wanted was a collection of photos depicting locations in the Middle East, so he reached out to the Oriental Institute. Although The Nile and the OI had never had a formal arrangement, it turned out Moughrabi and the museum staff were on the same page.
Jack Green, chief curator at the Oriental Institute, says even before the museum heard from Moughrabi, a member of his team had planned to contact the Nile about displaying some of the museum’s photographs at its new location.
“We’ve used the Nile and other local Middle Eastern restaurants for catering, and this was one more way to connect with communities in Chicago that have a connection to the Middle East,” Green explained.
The Nile’s new bright yellow walls now feature just over 20 black-and-white framed prints reproduced from the museum’s collection of photographic archives. Aside from the new look and location, The Nile is still The Nile. It still has the same phone number and—for the most part—the same menu.
More than 22 years after it first opened in Hyde Park, Moughrabi says The Nile will also offer more classic, home-cooked dishes for a community that is now well acquainted with Middle Eastern cuisine.
Originally published on August 19, 2013.