Mama’s Vegetarian, a beloved kosher vegetarian spot for falafel and other Israeli fare in Center City, closed permanently on June 23, according to the owner, Haviv David.
The restaurant had been closed since August due to disruption upstairs caused by renovations by the landlord, David said. He said that the landlord declined to renew the lease.
“It definitely will be missed,” said Rabbi Elie Hirsch, rabbinic administrator of the Center City Philadelphia division of the International Kosher Council.
Mama’s, with a small menu and cramped dining area, was the type of place often described as “no-frills.” But for years, the lunch rush brought lines around the block, visibly Jewish diners there for the kosher eats mixing with everyone else looking for a filling, reasonably priced vegetarian meal. It’s not every falafel joint whose closing inspires lamentations in Philadelphia magazine, but Mama’s was not every falafel joint, according to those sad to see it go.
“I’ve watched countless restaurants close over the years. Big ambitious projects that couldn’t make it to their first anniversaries. BYOBs that lasted decades. Restaurants I’ve personally loved; ones long gone that I still think about every day. But for some reason, this one hurts just a little bit more,” wrote Alex Tewfik, a food editor at Philadelphia.
Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski would travel an hour round trip from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to pick up Mama’s for his family’s dinner. All of the Serebrowskis knew to put french fries inside of the falafel sandwich; the falafel, it was said, was the best you could find outside of Israel. Rabbi Serebrowski himself was especially partial to Mama’s baklava.
“I’m very sad that they closed down,” he said.
Though David Fleishaker once lived above Star of David Kosher Grill, he still found time for Mama’s, home of “the best falafel in town,” in his opinion.
And in a Facebook group for Jewish people in Center City, dozens of diners, kosher and otherwise, expressed sadness at the loss of Mama’s.
Owner Haviv David, 76, was an engineer in Israel before he came to the United States. He drove a taxi for a long time, eventually saving up enough to open Mama’s in 2005 at 20th and Ranstead streets.
To David, who grew up with little, it was important that Mama’s be affordable: $11.50 got you a combo of three falafel balls, a thick slice of fried eggplant, a latke, hummus, tehina, tomato, cucumber, cabbage slaw and a pita.
The falafel, David said, was the cornerstone of the menu. He didn’t even know how to make it when he opened the store, but as he educated himself, friends and colleagues chipped in with tips and tricks, leading to the falafel that Mama’s would be known for.
“The falafel really was good,” David said. “It was unbelievable.”
It was a laborious job running Mama’s. At the beginning David did everything “from A-Z,” he said, heading to vegetable markets before the sun rose. The pita was baked fresh each day. As Mama’s grew, he hired more help.
“I’m sad, too, that I’m closing,” he said.
The address has been a spot for frequent turnover over the years, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. From 1980 until Mama’s opening, 18 S. 20th St. was home to Mandana, Sydney Harbour, Stock & Trade, and Pad Thai Shack, and served as an original location of the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance.
Hirsch, who helps restaurants in Philadelphia acquire kosher certification, said that Mama’s closing should not be read as a larger indictment of the possibility of kosher dining in Center City. The special circumstances here, he said, don’t reveal a significant negative trend.
David mused that Mama’s could be resurrected one day in a smaller form — “no promises,” though. But even if it doesn’t happen, David is proud to have run a restaurant that people enjoyed.
“If people don’t enjoy the food, then it’s all for what? You just make food? You can eat a sandwich at home! You have to make something special that people enjoy, and this is how you really succeed,” he said.
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