City Journal: Finding Paul’s Mecca

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It’s a cold and blustery Wednesday night, the wind whipping down East Martin Street as Paul Dombalis stands watch at the front door.

Mecca Restaurant's bright sign lights up the Raleigh night

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Mecca Restaurant\’s bright sign lights up the Raleigh night

Business is unusually slow. He opens the door, wedges in a worn-out, wooden doorstop and allows the cool night air to flood the 79-year-old confines of the Mecca Restaurant.

The wind comes through a door flanked by glass display windows, passes the 49-yea-old silver antique cash register, and brushes up against an autographed picture of Hall of Fame baseball legend Carl Yastrzemski. It gently sails over the nine worn out bar stools that have had their red leather fabric torn and frayed to reveal brown foam padding.

The menu hasn’t changed for decades and dusty fuzz grows on the two lamps fixed against each wooden booth lining the left side of the eatery.

The interior of Mecca was recently decorated for Halloween

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

The interior of Mecca was recently decorated for Halloween

This is your grandfather’s restaurant. For Paul Domabalis, literally so.

“When I was 11 or 12, my grandpa came up to the house with his horn going beep, beep, beep,” Domabalis said.

“He would yell for me to get out and come to the restaurant. I worked the elevator, pulling it up and down all day for people who wanted to eat upstairs. I’ve basically been here ever since.”

As the story goes, Paul’s grandfather, Nick Dombalis, sailed from Patras, Greece to Montreal, Canada in the summer of 1913 with a mere $19 to his name.

After years of working as a coal miner, bus driver, chauffeur and waiter, Nick and his wife Helen moved to Raleigh in 1930 and opened the Mecca Luncheonette on the corner of Fayetteville and Hargett Streets, just blocks away from the North Carolina State Capitol. Five years later, Nick and Helen moved everything to the current location so they could utilize a larger area.

For a dollar, customers could enjoy a T-bone steak, side salad, a Coke, and an ice cream sundae. When Nick’s three children — John, Gus, and Pauline — were old enough, the two boys stood on a Coca-Cola crate to wash dishes while Pauline helped her parents behind the lunch counter.

In 1952, John, Paul’s father, took over the restaurant and, along with his wife Floye, became the face of Mecca until his death in 2002.

Now it’s Paul, 56, who runs the restaurant with the help of his mother. His attire — a long sleeve, plaid button down shirt tucked into faded jeans — is as casual and laid back as his thick Southern twang. He cracks jokes faster than you could order his San Francisco chicken.

Paul Dombalis has been working at Mecca for 38 years

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Paul Dombalis has been working at Mecca for 38 years

“I’ve been working here for 38 years,” Paul said, leaning back.

“The furniture is the same, but we’ve changed. I wrestled with the idea of opening up at night for five years until we finally did it. We only started serving liquor and taking credit cards four years ago.”

As Paul talks of adjusting to the times, “Call Me Maybe” starts playing on the restaurant’s radio.

“You know, I used to listen to an oldies station for most of my life, but about three years ago I got sick of it,” Paul said.

“The kids like the new stuff, and I’m OK with it, too.”

Two of Paul’s grandchildren run back and forth along the empty booths before jumping up on a pair of stools to sip soda. Their drawings, including one of a rainbow-colored kite, are proudly taped to an old bar mirror next to a 95.0 sanitation rating, the first dollar ever earned at the restaurant and faded instructions on how to close.

Paul Dombalis watches over his daughter-in-law and grandchildren

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Paul Dombalis watches over his daughter-in-law and grandchildren

Across from the kids is a wall littered with artifacts, newspaper clippings, and autographed pictures of famous customers such as Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame and singer Clay Aiken. Pictures of governors like Jim Martin and Pat McCrory are next to a painting of FDR that looks at you as you walk into the restaurant. Paul remarks that they have an even amount of Democrats and Republicans on the wall for good measure.

“At the Mecca we don’t take sides,” Paul said with a laugh.

“We are friends to everyone.”

The pictures of many politicians line the walls of Mecca

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

The pictures of many politicians line the walls of Mecca

Through all of the 21st century adjustments, two things have stayed the same.

The first: Paul’s mother, still sharp as a tack, still works the cash register Monday-Friday.

Her exact age remains something of a mystery.

Paul turns to his son John. “How old is grandma?”

“I think she’s 89,”

“Let’s round down and call her 88!” a server calls out from behind the bar.

Paul hesitates.

“Either 89 or 90. Let’s just say she’s been here forever.”

The second thing to stay the same is Paul’s routine. His day starts when he gets to Mecca at 6 a.m. Biscuits are rolled, grits are cooked and bacon is fried. Lunch prep begins at 7:30.

The menu ranges from meatloaf on Tuesday to the famous homemade lasagna special on Thursdays. Lunch prep takes around five hours.

“It’s no picnic,” Paul said, shifting his weight and lowering his voice.

“That’s the most difficult part of the day, but I take the most pride in food preparation, particularly the vegetables. Fresh ingredients and attention to detail is what matters to me the most.”

If there’s a rush during breakfast, he comes out to help before finishing up.

Around two, he heads back to his Fayetteville street home, where he naps until the five o’clock dinner rush.

Paul Dombalis patiently awaits the evening dinner rush

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Paul Dombalis patiently awaits the evening dinner rush

His day ends two and a half hours later when he kisses his grandchildren goodbye and heads home.

Paul goes on vacation once every year to Kure Beach when Mecca closes for the week of July Fourth, but the man who has carried on his family’s tradition spends most of his time working.

“It’s a needed vacation when I take off for the week, but I love my life here,” Paul said.

“I live in the restaurant every day. I was born here and I will probably die here.”

Paul Dombalis stands outside the doors of Mecca

James Borden / Raleigh Public Record

Paul Dombalis stands outside the doors of Mecca

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