'It hasn't sunk in yet': Jerusalem’s owner faces the loss of his restaurant

Jerusalem's is known for its simple, but iconic Middle Eastern food. They were among the first Middle Eastern restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Jerusalem's is known for its simple, but iconic Middle Eastern food. They were among the first Middle Eastern restaurants in the Twin Cities. Mecca Bos

Jerusalem’s Restaurant is the very definition of a mom-and-pop shop.

The 37-year-old Middle Eastern institution is a little ragged around the edges, with dusty, billowing fabrics stapled above to conceal what is likely a dodgy drop ceiling, and a bathroom you can only reach by walking through the tiny kitchen.

Still, it’s a beloved old establishment, a touchstone for those of us who remember the Minneapolis restaurant scene before new restaurant announcements were made every week. As far as I’m concerned, their lemon soup is one of the iconic dishes of Minneapolis.

But on March 10, Saleh Azem received notice from his landlord that he had until September 10 to vacate the premises. The property had been sold to a developer who would build a mixed-use affordable housing development at Nicollet and 15th Street East.

While Azem understands that the language in his lease makes the demand a legal one, it’s little salve when he contemplates the fate of his business, which has been in his hands for 22 years.

Azem bought the business from his friend Ishmael Mubarak, who opened the it in 1980 in a St. Paul location, then moved it to its current spot, with the distinctive domed architecture, in 1982.

Azem is a graduate of the hotel and restaurant management program at University of Wisconsin-Stout, and this business is all he knows. He says he’s been with the restaurant in one form or another all of his adult life.

Indeed, the place feels a bit like somebody’s dimly lit living room, with its many tchotchkes, a wall tapestry of a buxom belly dancer, and potted plants absorbing what little natural light flows into the room.

“You’re cooking food, but the end result is people. Abut 90 percent are regulars and friends. You develop a relationship. It’s a part of your life. It is your life,” says Azem, leaning back in a dining room chair with a hot mug, greeting customers as they come and go. One man stops to ask about the sale. He says he'll keep his fingers crossed. 

“See?” asks Azem, throwing up his hands.

The Loring Park neighborhood association Citizens for a Loring Park Community says they are rooting for Jerusalem’s to get a space in the new development. Azem says that his City Council member, Lisa Goodman, is pushing for the same. It’s far from any guarantee, says Azem, and even if he were granted a space, the expense of such a proposition is in itself daunting.

“That’s all fine and dandy, but they give you walls. To establish a place from zero, that’s a lot of money.”

City Pages reached out to the developer of the project, Dominium Apartments, to see if they had a plan to include Jerusalem’s in the new project, but they did not respond. Azem says he’s contacted them twice and has been told that they would “get back to him.”

He added that he never received any personal correspondence from the landlord of the property, either, and said that it feels like “We don’t mean a damn thing to this guy.” We did reach the landlord, Barry Anderson, and he said that the building has been for sale for years, that Azem knew that, and that the plan to sell is “nothing personal.”

It feels personal to Azem, who runs the kitchen while his wife, Duaa, zig-zags around the tiny room handling the tables and the cash register.

“This is a solid business. A lot of customers have been coming in since they were two years old. They’re big now and have kids of their own! You can’t just bury the Jerusalem’s name. People go and check out other Middle Eastern restaurants, but they always come back here.”

He’s been notified that after he vacates the building, it will take around 18 months for the new development to go up, and he doesn’t know what he plans to do in the meantime, even if he gets a new space there.

“This isn’t about being confrontational.... It’s your life. You’re here seven days a week. It hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s not going to be easy."

Jerusalem’s will close at the end of August.

1518 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis