By Nina Silberstein
If you’ve ever been to the original location of Nicholas Restaurant on SE Grand Ave., you would undoubtedly see your fellow diners waiting outside the door to get in.
Built by word-of-mouth and a reputation for delivering great service and a flavorful meal, the Dibe family has been serving up Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine for more than 30 years.
What follows is the story of how Nicholas Restaurant came to be and why even in a pandemic, the family legacy lives on.
Nicholas and Linda Dibe moved their family to Portland in 1982 from Beirut, Lebanon. There was a war going on at the time, Nicholas lost his job and their house was hit so bad that part of it was gone.
“My aunt lived here for a long time and she sponsored us to come,” says their daughter, Hilda Dibe.
Nicholas took his life savings and invested it in the family-owned restaurant, which opened in 1987. For the first few years, few came in. Lebanese food hadn’t really caught on yet for the Portland palate and some people didn’t even know where Lebanon was on the map. Dibe says they were asked many times, “Lebanon, Oregon, is that where you’re from?”
In the beginning, pizza and calzones were sold to bring people in. Then came a lot of sampling. Nicholas enticed diners with a taste of tabouli or hummus, and when they tried it, they were smitten.
Today, the most popular dishes served are the mezzas – small plates for sharing – that offer a chance to try a little bit of everything. The vegetarian mezza, for example, consists of hummus, tzatziki, tabouli, falafel, mini spinach pie and a baked macaroni feta cheese dish. The hummus, tabouli and falafel are also staples on their own.
Then there’s the pita bread.
Pre-pandemic, the enormous round came right out of the oven to your table still steaming hot. Paired with a zaatar dip of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and olive oil, it’s a winning combination.
In addition, there are plenty of vegan, gluten-free and keto-friendly options on the menu, too.
Dibe took over the operations in 1995 and manages the Grand Ave. and Gresham locations. There’s a Nicholas Restaurant on NE Broadway that is run by different family members. In fact, employees are all family at each location and some own other businesses.
Nicholas passed away in 2009, but Linda is still involved at age 75. Hilda’s 15-year-old son started working for the restaurant when he was 13. She has two other sons, 11 and 4, and an 8-year-old daughter.
The biggest thing on her mind today is COVID-19.
“We were doing our thing, making sure the food was good and keeping the family recipes. We never had to advertise and then the pandemic hit,” Dibe says. “We haven’t had dine-in since the beginning and gave in to the delivery services because we had to.”
Since business slowed down tremendously, they had to switch gears and figure out what food was good for takeout. Brainstorming and creativity have become the norm. They’re spending extra money on advertising and becoming more involved in social media.
“It’s definitely more marketing than I ever did in my life,” she adds.
Catering was almost like another full-time business for the family and they did a lot of it prior to the pandemic.
“We had about 40-50 orders per week going out to different offices. Of course, that dropped off a lot,” Dibe explains. “We’re still doing some – a lot of individual box lunches, mostly to essential businesses.”
At the Grand location, there were a lot of disadvantages of the small setting.
“We’ve been looking for a new space for about three or four years now,” she said. The family wanted to stay in SE and be able to provide ample parking.
The East Side Deli at SE 11th Ave and Madison was closing down and the Dibes landed a good deal. The site is about 4,000 square feet with a 1,500 square foot-outdoor patio.
It’s still in the construction phase and being remodeled, with a target opening date of February 1, 2021. It will replace the Grand Ave. location – a space they have outgrown.
“The new place will have really high ceilings and a new ventilation/purifying system to make it as safe as possible,” Hilda says. It will also have a banquet area upstairs big enough to hold about 30 people.
“The new space will have a full bar with a lot of neat Lebanese cocktails, which we’re going to integrate with dates, tahini and pomegranate, and we have our own mix we’ve been working on.”
“The pandemic definitely makes you work harder,” Dibe says. “But we’ve lasted this long and we’re going to get through this.”
318 SE Grand Ave.