posted March 28, 2011
Back in the early ‘80s when I was performing at the Bagdad Cabaret on Broadway, a customer strolled into the Northbeach nightclub and told me about a little known restaurant (well, little known to me at that time) located out in the avenue boonies of the outer Richmond District of San Francisco; it was called The Grapeleaf. Not to let any performance opportunity pass me by, I set my sights on auditioning for the owner, and a week later I drove out to find a single building restaurant adorned with a blue and gold awning. Little did I know that on that very day, my life would change forever!
The Grapeleaf was owned by Gabriel Michael, a first-generation Lebanese American who was born and brought up in Brooklyn, New York–one of nine children. A Vietnam war veteran, Gabe, as he was affectionately called, opened his first restaurant, also called The Grapeleaf, in Burlingame in 1973. After several years of successful operation, he moved his restaurant to San Francisco to the location where I had driven, to audition. After renovating and upgrading the inside of the building, Gabe opened The Grapeleaf at 4031 Balboa Street in December of 1976 with DeAnn of Light Rain Belly dancing non-stop for three days.
The dining area resembled that of a courtyard setting, reminiscent of a Moorish garden, and diners felt like they were dining outdoors. The banquettes were made of tuck-and-roll maroon vinyl and the floor was painted a dark brick color. A canvas, hand-painted by DeAnn, depicted the Lebanese country side and hung on the east wall while an indoor awning shaded the diners from its make-believe sunlight. A profile line drawing of a camel named Clyde (the name appropriated from the lyrics of Ray Stevens) gripped a grape leaf in its mouth and oversaw the menu as the restaurant logo. Gabe offered Lebanese cuisine made from his family’s recipes and hired the best in Belly dance performers. I was proud to have been hired as one of them on that day of my audition. That was in 1984.
Gabe and I became man and wife in 1986, and I quit my day job with the U. S. Post Office. During the time we were joined in matrimony, I embraced all aspects of restaurant life and learned the workings of the restaurant business. The Grapeleaf served customers from the Egyptian Consul General to the private parties of corporate CEOs and catered parties from the United Arab Emirates to health food promotions. I started out as Wednesday night dancer and soon graduated to a weekend dancer. Soon, I became immersed in the business in more ways that I could have ever imagined!
The Bilezikjians playing at The Grapeleaf; Sausan dancing
The Grapeleaf opened the doors of opportunity for me in many ways. Gabe and I introduced a prepared packaged food line under the name Culinary Clyde’s to the health food industry. The line was distributed to over 100 health food and specialty stores across the Bay Area for about ten years with four independent distributors. Susan Green’s California Cuisine gourmet catalogue, which was distributed nationwide, featured our Limon Wa Zeit salad dressing in it s pages for about five years. We catered the Desert Dance Festival for over 12 years as well as many other belly dance festivals during that time. Before the birth of the Internet, I produced and mailed a free quarterly newsletter and called it Dining with Clyde, which included event and class fliers from local and out-of-area dance teachers in its mailings, to the over 2000 belly dancers in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area as well as a free annual magazine called Clyde’s Resource Directory Guide which was supported solely by advertising to over 12,000 belly dancers across the globe. Every Christmas, we presented “Christmas with Clyde and Friends” and invited celebrated Belly dance guests including Sese, Dunia, Siwa, Jordan Dancer, Amina and others to perform on that evening. On several occasions, we featured the diverse musical talents of John Bilezikjian and his wife Helen to packed houses.
From 1986 to 1996, The Grapeleaf featured live music every Sunday of the month. During its span of ten years, well known and celebrated musicians including DeAnn and Doug Adams of Light Rain; Mimi Spencer, Devija Kroll, and Vince Delgado of Jazayer; Ellen Cruz and Coralie Russo of Coral Rose; Mary Ellen Donald, Marty Coyne, Nazir Latouf, Jad Elias, George and Hany Dubai, Reda Darwish, Mohamed Ameen, Louai, Imad, Musa Hanhan, Susu Pampanin, Amina and her many students, and many others played on those nights to up-and-coming Belly dancers who took advantage of this wide array of musical talent.
Pillars of the dance community held their grand extravaganzas at The Grapeleaf. Magaña Baptiste celebrated her after contest events at The Grapeleaf and hosted Bobby Farrah and Dr. Mo Gedewi. Horacio Cifuentes, now of Germany, was among them as well as Leila Haddad of Paris, France and Tamalyn Dallal of Florida. Amina and Jacques El Asmar hosted educational events at The Grapeleaf. I, in partnership with Shamira, sponsored various and sundry dance teachers including Rebaba, Alexandra King, DeAnne, Shareen El Safy, Tonya and Atlantis, Amaya, Bert Balladine, Rhea, and Giselle. All of them performed their knowledge and experience atop The Grapeleaf dance floor to awe-struck viewers and packed houses.
The Grapeleaf also saw the AIDs epidemic strike home during the late 1980s when the partner one of its waiters fell victim to the deadly disease. The plight of Kamaal and Vince sent shock waves through our dance community. In an effort to raise money, Sharifa, Jaleh, and I banded together, convinced the president of the San Francisco’s Lyons Club to donate their stage, and we held one of the biggest aids benefits in the history of Belly dance in its lodge. While well-known San Francisco Bay Area dancers donated their talents in support of the benefit including Suhaila Salimpour, Devi Ananda Baptiste, Amina, Sharifa, Hoda, Dunia, Leea Aziz, Karri Duke, Horacio Cifuentes, Asia, Baraka, Jawahare, Sabiba, Shamira, Hassan Deeb, Rashid, Jordan Dancer, Neyehma, Lynette, Jaleh, and myself, Gabe gave of his Middle Eastern cooking expertise and donated all the catered cuisine to the effort as everyone paid for food as well as their entrance tickets. Again, we saw a packed auditorium who came to give their support to Kamaal and Vince. It was another testament, under The Grapeleaf umbrella, to what could be done when the community of Belly dancing like-minds banded together in support of each other.
Mimi Spencer, Devi Delgado, Sausan. (Vince Delgado on drums behind Sausan)
On numerous occasions, guest dancers would arrive in San Francisco from out of town and call The Grapeleaf to perform as a guest. One of these lovely dancers was Ameera Phaedra. Shahira also graced the dance floor with her performance as did Fahtiem and numerous others.. And occasionally, local teachers would bring in their students in for a student recital. Leea Aziz, Asia, and Jordan Dancer were among the many. Moataz, a former cook, and Kamaal, a former waiter, both danced at The Grapeleaf.
But The Grapeleaf was not without its own dance talent and beauty. Dancers including Stasha, Asia, Jaleh, Rashid, Zulya, Yvonne, Dhyanis, Claudia, Shamira, Connie, Neyehma, Baraka, Karen, and DeAnne; and, of course, myself, were among the many regulars that passed through its dance floor. In fact, GS’s own Lynette Harris had her start there. And each year, the five current belly dancers of The Grapeleaf met at the restaurant for photos with Gabe as the Pasha, and a calendar was printed for its patrons.
Sadly, in December of 1996, Gabe and I parted ways. It was the beginning of the end, and suddenly, I felt lost. In 1997, I found myself alone, trying desperately to run a restaurant as well as make and distribute a food packaging line by myself with little to no help. I felt a kind of despair that comes with the loss of a partnership. The energy that I tried to put into continuing the events at The Grapeleaf was robbed by the depression that took over, feeding into the emptiness that I experienced when Gabe left. Consequently, I closed Culinary Clyde’s, stopped publishing my newsletter and magazine, and began to withdraw from the Belly dance community. In 1998, I met Dr. Hatem El-Sayed, an Egyptian-born artist who offered his help and support in moving forward; and in December of 1999, after a year of renovation, Al-Masri, an Egyptian restaurant, opened in its location.
Culinary Clyde’s prepared packaged food line
I hold dear the days of The Grapeleaf. While, at the time, it didn’t seem to me that what I was doing was important (certainly, those who were a big part of it may have felt betrayed when it closed) I am forever grateful to those who believed in The Grapeleaf and who helped to make the restaurant a place and a time to remember. The Grapeleaf was a significant place for those who ventured in an out of it during those years, much like the Bagdad and the Casbah were on Broadway. It was a place with rich offerings which helped to promote and support dancers and musicians alike, who have since gone on to play or dance at bigger venues or to teach other up-and-coming dancers and musicians of today.
The Grapeleaf still lives in the space of Al-Masri. It’s spirit still dances on its floor and brightens the courtyard setting with remembrances of yesteryear, and I’m happy to see past participants begin to venture back into its dining room. While Hatem no longer walks the floor of its dining area expounding on his beloved Egyptian homeland, and Gabe no longer dictates the dishes of its Lebanese menu as they were taught to him by his mother, I have gained a sense of pride and responsibility for the importance for such a place and of great respect for its former and present diners and participants. Now a restaurant owner and celebrated chef in my own right, as well as Belly dance performer and teacher, my vision has become clear. The thirteen years I worked at The Grapeleaf in entertainment and food production, coupled with the twelve years I have worked off and on at Al-Masri as chef and owner of the restaurant, have taught me that without the contributions of everyone who participated in any way — small or big — that The Grapeleaf may not have been the hub it was in its heyday. For these are the very people, with their very participation, support, and contribution, who make a place like The Grapeleaf, albeit Al-Masri, come alive.
While Al-Masri may have replaced The Grapeleaf, it replaced it only with a business name and regional cuisine. It is still one and the same, run and now owned and fully operated by the same person; namely, yours truly, Sausan. From my first audition at The Grapeleaf in 1984, until it closed in 1996, and the end of the second partnership under the Al-Masri name in 2008, my own personal management style brought about by experience of the past 26 years makes the restaurant space unique and safe for the Belly dance community. You can experience it once again–or for the first time–the magic of The Grapeleaf inside the doors of Al-Masri, for it truly was, and still is, a magical place!
Outside The Grapeleaf with Claudia, Neyehma, Gabe Michael, Yvonne, Shamira, Sausan
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