Cairo, a metropolitan city where rich history meets modern society. Strolling down the crowded streets of Cairo, you will find that the city is packed with everything from small local coffee shops to lavish restaurants. Nowadays, finding the most popular restaurant to dine in is only one Google search away, thanks to millions of people posting their reviews and sharing their experience on the internet. But there is another commentary that speaks of the fine quality of a restaurant. Longevity and continuity are reliable ways to judge a restaurant’s worth. Felfela, an iconic Egyptian cuisine restaurant in Downtown Cairo has managed to stay relevant for more than sixty years. Felfela has seen history unravel before them and yet have stayed standing through it all. Let us take you on a journey through history to better understand how the restaurant managed to remain timeless.
The perseverance of the founding mother of Felfela
Felfela was founded in 1959 by Amina Zaghloul. Before opening the restaurant, Amina was an acclaimed fashion designer and had her own atelier. One day, Amina surprised everyone around her by deciding to open a kiosk in Downtown Cairo selling Foul and Falafel. The idea came to her because there was no restaurant catering for vegetarians at the time. Hoping to get friends to invest, Amina shared the idea with them and was mostly met with a disapproving and underwhelming reaction. Mind you, this was in the late fifties and Egyptians still struggled with the idea of integrating women business owners.
Amina did not back down, in fact her perseverance and commitment is one of the reasons why this place still maintains its prowess till today, her identity effectively reflected in the Felfela brand, Amina would constantly push boundaries and persevere despite the obstacles.
What started off with a small kiosk slowly started to expand into an established restaurant when Amina started buying more land around the area. Amina’s vision was coming to life as she started opening several branches all over Egypt, “My Grandmother was a visionary, she could turn dust into gold” commented Adham, Amina’s grandson. Adam explained that, “before she passed she was planning on building a dolphin bay in our branch in Hurghada, where people could enjoy their meal while watching a dolphin show. She was way ahead of her time and taught us to always think of the future”. Lateef, one of the waiters that have worked at Felfela for over 40 years told us that Amina was a hands-on lady, “she had an impeccable eye for detail and she even hung up this early 1900 vintage chandelier on the ceiling with her own two hands” he said as he proudly pointed at the shining chandelier, “she would always taste everything in the kitchen and never left anything to chance”. Tarek another waiter spoke of her down to earth character and continuous support of the staff, “she was the main reason behind the success of this place and her son Mr Alaa is following in her footsteps”.
Two generations later, Amina’s son Alaa and his sons Adham and Adam, continue to adopt her commitment to customer satisfaction. Felfela’s continued success, is fuelled by the legendary identity of Amina Zaghloul and their desire reclaim their heritage.
Décor with a window from the past to the present
From the moment, you set foot into this historical gem you are immediately transported back in to the past. I can assure you that you will forget about the chaos of the city. Every corner you set your eye on is telling you a story. The place has an eclectic feel to it that combines different oriental and arabesque styles symbolizing core Egyptian heritage. You first walk into the restaurant’s entrance hall that is decorated with a white stone ceiling and walls. You must not miss taking a picture with the life like statue of a man dressed in a traditional “galabeya” and smoking shisha. Right before you enter the dining hall you will engulfed by the smell of fresh bread hot from the oven. Now, on to the dining hall that is divided in to two main sections, with the one on the inside usually catering to larger groups.
Felfela’s dining hall brings the outdoor world indoors. With lush greenery hanging from the ceiling, whistling birds and sea turtles and dining tables made of tree trunks. These eccentric elements provide an ideal setting for an experience that satisfies the senses of the customer. The green chairs perfectly complement the trees growing on the ceiling. Dimly-let, the restaurant relies on the stained-glass ceiling for a naturally lit atmosphere in the morning.
“Most of the furniture is preserved and has not changed since the restaurant first opened its doors. The idea is that no matter where you are seated whether it’s next to the fountain or behind the birds you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time. Through displaying our antiques and vintage pieces, we aim to provide the customer with a historical experience that will keep them coming back”, commented Alaa.
Felfela’s walls show off history. Celebrity and notable guests autographs grace the walls of the restaurant. Politicians, actors, artists and world leaders have once visited the downtown gem. Amongst the most famous A-listers are Naguib Mahfouz, a laureate icon, and prominent Egyptian actor Ahmed Zaki. You will also find autographs of ambassadors from all over the world from Japan to Britain. To my surprise, I even came across a picture and an autograph of former US president Jimmy Carter with Amina Zaghloul. There is more to this than just visiting and looking at signed autographs, it’s rather a documentation of the historical presence of the place and the stories eagerly told by the waiters about those famous celebrities. The restaurant managed to stay relevant by positioning itself as a go to place for notable guests from all around the world and amongst all generations.
The storytelling Staff
The staff are friendly, hardworking, smiling and give off the feeling that they are very much part of the Felfela identity. Most of the chefs and waiters have been working at Felfela for a minimum of thirty years and consider themselves the Felfela storytellers, “we consider ourselves family, I have worked here for thirty years, no one would work in a place for thirty years if they do not consider it their home. I remember during the 2015 revolution, it was very dangerous because the restaurant was very close to the Tahrir square. We would often seek coverage from the tear gas downstairs in the refrigerator room. We insisted on staying and taking shifts to protect the place even though we were told we could leave.” Taking care of the staff and their wellbeing builds a loyal staff a major reason for Felfela keeping afloat despite everything.
As a local Egyptian restaurant Felfela wanted to gain international recognition and so the restaurant participated in several food competitions internationally such as the Grand Prix in Madrid, “myself and the other waiters travelled to Portugal for 6 months to participate in the Food Expo in 1992. We were always fully booked and people used to line up waiting to be seated”. Also, managing to gain international media coverage from news papers such as The New York Times has put the restaurant on the map. The place is a popular destination for tourists, whilst I was there I met an American group who are visiting Egypt on a post retirement trip. Betty was one of them and she said, “the place captures the essence of Egyptian culture, not just through the delicious food but also the whole setting”.
WE SAID THIS: This is truly an inspiring and timeless story.