Last week I posted a couple of photos on Instagram from my trip to Sitti Lebanese restaurant in downtown Raleigh, along with the promise that I would soon review this fine place. Today I make good on my promise! Where to start? This restaurant has so many things going for it, that I find it hard to figure out what to say first.
I guess I should start with first impressions. Sitti is located right in downtown Raleigh on Wilmington Street, just a couple of blocks from Moore Square and Marbles Children's Museum. This location translates to "not so easy to find street parking; plan on a parking deck." No bad on the restaurant. That's just the way the downtown area is. Once we finally got inside Sitti, my first thoughts were "Wow" and "Gorgeous."
The dining room is gigantic. This photo features the 26-person sitti (grandmother's) table that runs through the center of the dining area. What it doesn't show is all the seating on either side of it, plus the big bay window area in the front that is home to hip tapas tables and comfy-looking armchairs. Nor can you see from this vantage the entire downstairs dining room and the indoor/outdoor courtyard. I will say it again - this place is huge. Huge and beautifully decorated at the same time. The walls are lined with antique portraits of (presumably) the owners' families, along with old looking maps of Lebanon. Hookahs and beaded curtains are placed just so, creating a suggestive mood of entering another place and time, without feeling cluttered or crowded by knick-knackery.
Now keep in mind, I visited Sitti last Saturday for lunch, along with a fair slice of the other 20,000+ people who were downtown for the Women's March. So the fact that I noticed all this while being in the midst of one of the largest crowds the restaurant has even seen at one time (especially during a Saturday lunch), attests to Sitti's spaciousness. This brings me to the second shining quality about the restaurant - the Lebanese culture of hospitality has been well inculcated in all of the wait staff.
It is only fair to give a disclaimer here that the general manager of the restaurant happens to be my friend's brother-in-law, who personally checked in on us a couple of times during our visit. Even so, I could see that the other diners around me received as much attention from their waitresses as we did. All of the host and wait staff were genuinely warm, helpful, and cheerful, despite being slammed beyond belief by this unexpected lunch rush. It was so busy that Tony, the GM, was bussing the tables himself! How often do you see that? I was deeply impressed by this level of service, especially because I know how easily I become overwhelmed when my tiny world becomes hectic.
(Tony, the host with the most, seen here with honey from Sitti's hives)
I have said all of this, and we haven't even gotten to the food yet. Sitti has a good-sized lunch menu that is very clearly marked with different symbols for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Hallelujah! Having a clearly marked menu always makes things so much easier. There were a significant number or vegetarian/vegan options to choose from, which didn't make ordering easier (in a good way). No problem there because while you peruse the menu and wait for your order, your waiter will bring you a basket of the best pita in the world along with some pretty delectable olive oil to dip it in. I really could have been okay with just feasting on a couple of baskets of that bread for lunch. (BTW, the bread is vegan, though not gluten-free.)
Fortunately I did get to try some of their other food too. I am not that familiar with Mediterranean food yet, so with my friend's assistance I whittled down the long list of options, finally deciding on stuffed grape leaves and the vegan, tofu-fied version of a salmon dish that they serve. My friend got the Vegetable Kabob, which to my surprise, is flame-roasted on the kabob, but not served with the skewer intact. I have had kabobs and grape leaves before, but let me say that Sitti's versions way exceeded what I have had in the past. Sitti is definitely a fancier, sit-down dining experience than its Lebanese deli counterparts (don't worry, Med Deli, I will still always love you). My entree plate even came dressed with an orchid blossom. Whoa. Let me tell you, I don't frequently eat at places fancy enough to care about plate dressing. The best part is that for all the niceties of dining at Sitti - beautiful atmosphere, top-notch service, good-quality, beautifully presented food - you really don't even have to pay that much extra. I definitely, definitely recommend taking the time and spending a little extra to treat yourself to this little slice of the Old World come to the New.