In its legendary history as the premiere spot for fine dining and drinking in Zamalek, Don Quichotte has seen the city around it change drastically in its 38-year history. Many famous faces have drank at its bar, including artists, writers, and even foreign dignitaries. "We used to have US Ambassador Frank Wisner in on a weekly basis," says Hadia El Sayed, co-owner and daughter of the man who started Don Quichotte, after I asked her to tell me about the best stories the Zamalek mainstay has played host to over the years. "So many crazy things have happened, but the best story," she says, mischief gleaming in her eyes, "was a private party of Australians. They were so drunk they were hanging from the chandeliers. They meant well, though."
Hadia’s father opened Don Quichotte in December of 1977 during the term of President Sadat, which she fondly remembers as a prosperous time for Egypt. "Everything was running fine. All people had wonderful prospects. There was really an encouragement for small and family businesses," she recalls. Hadia goes on to explain Don Quichotte: "It’s really a family business. We learned this from my late father. He wasn’t originally a restaurant man; he was a civil engineer and working as the Egyptian manager of Exxon-Mobil. When he retired in 1974, which was a little bit early, he got his pension, which was 32,000 LE. The whole place cost us 50,000 LE," she explains. This difference required Hadia's father to take a mortgage out on the building housing Don Quichotte, which he owned. "I studied anthropology and psychology, but that all changed when my father established this restaurant. We had to work with him so I left everything else."
Right from the beginning, Don Quichotte was a hit. Being one of the only spots in Zamalek helped, and their penchant for using only the highest quality products and ingredients - I daresay fanciest - made Don Quichotte a singular experience not only on its tiny island but within Cairo as a whole. "We were very expensive, too!" she exclaims with a heartfelt laugh. "I have the menu from the 1980s, and we used to sell the jumbo shrimp for two and a half pounds," she tells us through another smile, making the photographer accompanying me nearly shoot whiskey out of his nose. "That’s expensive," he confirms. This imbued Don Quichotte an air of exclusivity, which in turn created a higher demand for table space.
Looking around Don Quichotte’s mellowing interior reminds me of a scene where prohibition-era American gangsters gathered at the local watering hole to discuss ‘business’ in a dramatically lit environ. The heavy wood, amber lights, and stained windows, bestow a slightly speakeasy-like vibe. "It was more of a classical restaurant, then, with a sitting bar and no high tables," Hadia tells me. Relatively recent renovations have resulted in the more tavernesque environment. "Starting in 2003 or 2004, we changed the ambiance and the furniture to make it more like a pub. There was no longer the need for classical dining. People have changed; when they come to drink, they come to drink - not to have a nice dinner and one drink. We changed from the sitting bar to more like a typical bar," she explains.
The changes don't seem to have driven anyone away, though. "The clients are the same. We have clients that have been coming here for 30 years. The staff, too," Hadia says. The kind gentleman that showed us to our seats started working at Don Quichotte when he was 18; he’s now in his 50s. "When we need someone new, it’s difficult to find somebody who cares for the business itself," Hadia elaborates. The staff can be as much a part of the family of Don Quichotte as anyone, making the restaurant a part of their home and part of themselves.
As we wait for our mezzes - Don Quichotte has an extensive menu of mezzes, main courses, and desserts - Hadia looks around at the mostly empty room. A lone couple sits at the bar, talking quietly with brief bouts of laughter scattered throughout the conversation. "We’re usually packed on the weekends and Tuesday. I don’t know why," Hadia says. "I think people that go out in Cairo go to the same places every day and Don Quichotte day is Tuesday."
When asked about the name, named for the French operatic adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote
, Hadia says, "I don’t know why my father called it that. He wanted to call it Le Gourmet, but we told him we didn’t think the Egyptian people would understand. That and 'le gourmand' are very close, and that means something else." Gourmand is synonymous with glutton. "All of a sudden he just said 'I will call it Don Quichotte'. I have no idea why."
We’ve just finished our first round of neat scotches, red wine, and gin & tonics, when the food begins to arrive. Hadia bids us a good meal and then heads through the door with a copy of Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban under her arm. In the brief few moments with her, she has cemented herself as one of my favourite people ever. The not-quite-quirky personality with the history of such an interesting time and place in Egypt makes me want to stop by Don Quichotte again, just to hear more of her stories.
(Egyptian caviar), shrimp cocktails, and mini lahma shawerma
s arrive and proceed to blow our minds in true Fancypants fashion. We get to pondering how mini versions of foods, like these shawermas, can possibly be this much more delicious than their full-sized counterparts. We chalk it up to the density of flavour particles and something about quantum mechanics. We pick at the mezzes and drink, and pick and drink some more, until the main courses arrive. A beef fillet cooked to perfection with mushroom sauce and an enormous seashell filled with stuffed shrimp and cheese grace our table and are almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.
Don Quichotte is a part of Zamalek’s history and full of its own to boot; an unpretentious entranceway tucked away in a cosy corner of the island, which opens up to a stylish and much-fabled interior. To think of the stories that must be told to this day of this place, by prominent members of the international community and locals alike, bewilders. I can only hope I can hear more of them the next time I visit the Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quichotte.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.