Mo's Diner at Moore Square

By Daniel Pearson


Mo's Diner at Moore Square
SUBTLE SURPRISE, EXCELLENT CUISINE

 

Driving by the corner of Hargett and Person streets in downtown Raleigh, you may have noticed the little old house that is Mos Diner. There patrons wearing everything from evening gowns and suits to jeans and T-shirts sit on the front porch during warmer months, perhaps passing the time with polite conversation or pontificating about the latest political disaster up the street in the state government complex.

Mos Diner doesn't exude an exterior vibe of fine dining. It looks a little like a greasy spoon, some place where the wait staff goes home smelling of fried food and the daily special might include two eggs cooked to order with a couple of slices of bacon and a side of grits.

Mos owners Holly and Hamid Mohajer call it a diner, but really its more of a caf, or even a bistro, where patrons happily select their meal from a quaint menu that includes appetizers such as beef carpaccio with virgin olive oil, capers and parmesan ($7.95) or an entre of spicy sea scallops and shrimp with saffron rice and cucumber salad ($19.95).

Mos is the epitome of the subtle plate when compared to the flashy, southern-haute cuisine that many restaurants from the Triangle to the Coast now attempt to emulate in the shadow of local culinary lions like Chef Ben Barker of the Magnolia Grill or Chef Bret Jennings of Elaines on Franklin. In fact, Hamid is so low-key about his creations that he balks at labeling himself a chef, deferring the success of Mos Diner to the staff of seven that radiates the restaurants personality.

Were not out there to try to impress other chefs in town, Hamid says. I don't really care what they do or what they might think of us. The people that grew up in Raleigh are the people who talk about us and make us known. Hospitality is such a big part of our restaurant. In my own mind I've always thought there was a lot more to Mos than just the food that's being served. We always stay with our intuitions when it comes to people joining us for dinner.

It seems that Hamid has always listened to that little voice in his head; he followed his intuitive instincts all the way from Iranwhere he was bornto Buies Creek and Campbell University during the late 1970s. There he met and befriended John Kilgore, who years later would be the opening night chef for the Magnolia Grill in Durham. Hamid was not graduated from Campbell, however; he transferred to North Carolina State University in 1978 right about the time the American embassy in Tehran was invaded by revolutionary forces that held 52 Americans hostage until Inauguration Day 1981.

A full 23 years before the U.S. would experience Sept. 11, Hamid remembers being herded into an NC State gymnasium with other Iranian students where their U.S. loyalties were questioned by authorities and their visas checked for authenticity.

Even though I had switched to NC State, my visa still said I was a student at Campbell, Hamid remembers. I had already sent it to immigration but hadnt received a new one with the proper information. They didn't like the fact that my visa said Campbell, and I was at State. So I had to go to court down in Atlanta where they told me I needed to go back to Campbell, which caused me to lose a fair amount of credit hours. Then the Iranian government cut off all student aid, and I had a choice of either going home or staying here and working. My parents discouraged me from coming home because, although it was bad there at the time, it wasnt as bad as it is now. The same opportunities are just not available as they are here.

Needing just 17 credit hours to complete his bachelors degree, Hamid opted to quit school, stay in the Triangle and begin working. He started busing tables part-time at the now defunct Darryls on Hillsborough Street back when it was still locally owned. And it was there that he began developing an interest in the restaurant business. At Darryls he worked his way up in the kitchen and eventually landed a job on the prep line before starting his bounce around several Triangle restaurants. These included Cappers, which was owned by Kilgore, and Karens, a highly regarded former Cameron Village restaurant where he would become head chef and meet his future wife Holly, whose sister owned the eatery.

Eventually, Holly and Hamid began sketching an outline for a restaurant, combining the experience they gained working on several kitchen staffs with the lessons they learned by watching mistakes made by managers and owners. The results of their labors would come to fruition as Mos Diner. At the time they had very little money and even less collateral, but Holly and Hamid took the unsettling leap that comes with starting your own business and began looking for a hospitable home for Hamids dishes.

We took out little loans and used credit cards, Holly says. We figured out a way to get whatever else we needed. We quit our jobs two weeks before Christmas and signed a lease for this place on Dec. 19, 1996.

The house which is Mos, built in 1886, had been vacant ever since the Meetin & Eatin Place, a popular downtown Raleigh lunch house, closed its doors four years earlier. But it still contained all of the basic equipment required to run a restauranta hood, a fan, two ovens, a stove with four burners, a flat grill and a fryer, which is no longer used.

The houses age lends itself to hang-ups. Hamid, the lone cook at Mos, has a kitchen he says is probably 10 feet by 12 feet and is too small for a freezer.

When we first saw it, we thought everything was here that we needed except for linens on the table and a little dusting to be done here and there, Holly says. We basically had a shoe-string budget so we called people we knew around town to help out and get us what we needed. We unloaded our house, and people gave us things they had tucked away. We grabbed other stuff from my mothers closet, made some curtains, threw them up and opened on Feb. 28, 1997. And weve still never advertised; its all been word of mouth.

At the time, the south side of downtown Raleigh was still transforming itself into the pedestrian-friendly center it is today, thanks in large part to the emergence of City Market as an entertainment destination. Holly and Hamid remember spending more on security during Mos first year of business than they did on rent.

But their loyal patrons were never dismayed, and Mos began to blossom into the American Beauty it is today. Nowadays, getting a table most nights requires a reservation, although Holly nods when asked if the number of diners dims a little early in the week. Just call and ask for Wes Ammerman, the matre d, and hell squeeze you in where he can. Holly and Hamid only seat a handful of people every half an hour; the restaurant has room for 50, not including the porch. Its just me, and I can only handle so much at once, Hamid says.

If you want the ambience of a highly rated restaurant with matching cuisine but youd rather avoid a quiet, stuffy dining room, Mos Diner is the place. On a recent visit, Metro tasted two entres: the pan-fried catfish with remoulade and sauted spinach (a staple at Mos at $18.95)the filet so moist each bite seemed to dissolve on the tongue, and the lemon linguini with spinach, tomatoes, feta cheese and mozzarella ($14.95), which proved a tangy surprise compared to the usual bland treatment lemon linguini receives in many kitchens. As an appetizer, the steamed mussels with garlic and lemon cream ($7.95 when available) were even irresistible to one of Gourmets guests who swore off shellfish years ago.

Holly and Hamid say they are proud of their diverse clientele but there is one famous Raleigh face they have yet to see at Mos Diner. I'm hoping Governor Easley will come here one day, Hamid says. I mean, the governors mansion is only right around the corner. Then again, Holly grew up in Raleigh, and she had a tough time picturing where the house was until we actually went there. Maybe he just doesn't know were here.