Goodbye, Mama’s Vegetarian
Bidding a sad farewell to Center City’s beloved falafel shop.
Normally, I’d go to Mama’s alone. It’s a small space, and when it was open, it was very, very busy, so going alone meant you had a better shot at finding a seat, particularly one at the counter in the front window. During the day, there was plenty of foot traffic on the stretch of 20th Street where Mama’s sat for the past 15 years. Eating falafel and people-watching from that particular vantage point was pseudo-meditation.
I’d go alone, and I’d always order a large falafel sandwich. I’d always ask for it spicy. If I was feeling frisky, I’d add a slice of fried eggplant. If I was on one of my health kicks, I’d opt for whole wheat pita, and I’d add some avocado to it, knowing full well that you can’t healthy up a sandwich stuffed with deep-fried anything. Ignorance is bliss, even if it’s willful.
I’d watch as the boys in the back built my sandwich, plastering the falafel balls onto the inside walls of the pita, loading in some crunchy salad and shooting sauces all over it. It was hasty and expert at the same time, like all the greatest butchers, like all the greatest sushi chefs. I always found it funny that the final product, the sandwich in full, looked like nothing. Like an amorphous blob wrapped in tin foil. But if/when you were really hungry, it looked like everything.
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Every order at Mama’s came with an empty plastic cup, and you’d fill that cup with things from the salad bar. The salad bar was magic: a spread of hot sauces and olives and gherkins and pickled turnips and mini eggplants and spicy carrots and sweet peppers and banana peppers and, on the best days, roasted long hot peppers you’d poke into your sandwich with your fingers. Like all the salad bars lost to history, Mama’s salad bar was a gesture of generosity from the owner, Haviv David.
I’d go alone to Mama’s a lot. Before my shift at a nearby restaurant. During my internship at Philly Mag in 2013. On a weekly basis, when I started at Philly Mag full-time in 2017. (Our offices were a block away.) When we moved our offices to the Curtis Center, I’d order delivery Mama’s on payday. And when Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook opened Goldie a few blocks away back in 2017, I got nervous for Mama’s. I was worried that our Solomonov fever would take a toll on Mama’s bottom line. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but Mama’s stayed open on 20th Street until 2019.
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According to the Inquirer, the landlord began renovating the space upstairs last year, which affected Mama’s business, so David closed “temporarily” last summer. The landlord decided not to renew the lease, so Mama’s is closed for good.
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. There’s something about the closing of a beloved falafel shop — a place that didn’t exactly create memories, but contained them.
The fact that coronavirus had no say in this death almost feels worse. The fact that a restaurant’s biological clock doesn’t stop ticking, even in exceptional times, makes a matter-of-fact landlord-related restaurant closure feel that much more tragic. Mama’s stood in place as time passed it by, as Center City built itself up around it.
And now, Center City is boarded up. The neighborhood is unrecognizable. The sidewalks are empty. And the people-watching is terrible.