Skip to Content
Fresh Hell

A Proudly Palestinian Restaurant Thrives in NYC

Ayat opens its first Manhattan location during a deeply fearful time.

The new Ayat in the East Village. (Hell Gate)

On the northwest corner of the intersection at Loisaida Avenue and East Seventh Street in Alphabet City, an awning reads "PALESTINIAN CUISINE," printed in bold white capital letters against a green background. The sign is for the newest outpost of the restaurant Ayat, the fourth of its name, which opened for its first dinner service last Friday, during a deeply troubling time in the world—and specifically, for the people and region it celebrates. 

"I think we're the only 100 percent-branded Palestinian restaurant in the country," Ayat's co-owner Abdul Elenani said. (The business is named after his wife and co-owner, Bay Ridge native Ayat Masoud. Elenani is of Egyptian descent, and Masoud is Palestinian American.) Palestinian restaurateurs have long walked a tricky line—how to highlight their cuisine and culture, and run a business, in a climate where merely asserting their culture and ethnic background is often seen as a political provocation. Historically, Palestinian restaurants in America have hidden behind the catchall safety blanket genres of "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean," for fear of economic reprisal, not to mention harassment. 

But from the time the first Ayat in Bay Ridge opened its doors in 2020, its relatively young owners haven't run from their restaurants' identity, or been shy about merging their politics with their food—indicative of a new perspective, from a new generation of outspoken, unapologetic Palestinian Americans. It's not just their awning. Following a week of horror, Ayat's Instagram account is combative and unfiltered, angry and sad. On their grid and in their stories, the account echoes the statement printed on their menus and on the side of their pizza boxes and take-out bags: "END THE OCCUPATION."

"If you say 'Palestinian,' to some, it brings in politics," Elenani told me. "I don't really bother with people who talk like that."

The interior of Ayat (Hell Gate)

As I pulled up to Ayat's latest location on Friday, there was a group of protesters out front, but no protest. It was a crew of maybe a dozen 20-somethings who might have been Arab or Jewish or Latine, with a thick stack of cardboard signs, who had just come from a 5,000-person rally that began in Times Square and ended in front of the Israeli embassy. They had marched up an appetite and were waiting for a table. "It was lovely," one of the attendees told me of the protest.

The interior of Ayat's new location is composed of a mosaic of cobbled together materials, concentric spirals of Arab tiling and cement and exposed brick. An accent wall features a moving, political wildstyle mural larded with iconography: Half of a weeping face with a single tear wrapped in a keffiyeh, a mosque crowned with a gold dome, a literal olive branch and a Palestinian flag. The ceiling is covered in a canopy of branches and silk vines. The effect is a space that feels like reclaimed rubble. Even on its first day, the restaurant hummed with the competent professionalism of a rapidly expanding fast casual chain. It wasn't packed but it wasn't empty, comfortably full through the hour I spent hanging out and watching. 

For a snack, I went with an old standby: muhammara, a vibrant, charred, and sour roasted red pepper and walnut dip, swimming in olive oil and drizzled with pomegranate molasses, served with tiny ramekins of olives, olive oil, za'atar, and a flatbread, which had come straight out of the oven and was still hot to the touch. 

As Ayat has experienced, there's a reason others might be hesitant to proclaim their cultural and political identity and heritage. "We have people coming, throwing shit at our restaurants almost every night," Elenani said. Because of its stance toward Palestinian liberation, Ayat has served as a lightning rod since its inception, receiving waves of politically motivated one-star reviews from people on Yelp, including in recent days. Over the weekend, Elenani and Masoud's Al Badawi, the more formal grill and "pizzeria" in the heart of a formerly Arab district on Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn, received dozens of what Elenani described as "shitty phone calls." 

But Elenani and his restaurants are unafraid of the blowback, speaking clearly and unequivocally on the conflict here, and overseas. "Forget Hamas, forget IDF. Fuck both of them," Elenani told me. "What drives me crazy is how people aren't standing with the innocent people, whether it's innocent Palestinians, innocent Israelis. There are a lot of innocents on both sides that are getting affected, but a lot more right now, at this point, on the Palestinian side. Literally, they're bombing hospitals, schools. They tell them to evacuate and go to the south from Gaza, and then they start bombing the ambulances going there."

He added, "It really upsets me, because it affects all of us. We have Jewish friends, we have Israeli friends, we work together, we do business together. It affects that relationship from human to human. It creates this useless debate that isn't really called for."

Muhammara (Hell Gate)

For Elenani, the good has far outweighed the harassment he's received during the past week.

"I'm realizing that there's a lot more good people out there than bad people," he said. "There's been a lot of support. And not just from Muslim people or Arabic people or Palestinian people. I'm talking about support from your average Joe that's walking down the block." Laughing, in slight disbelief, he said, "People even left messages on receipts like, 'Free Palestine!' or 'Fuck the occupation.' I'm like, what the hell's going on here?" 

While I mopped the muhammara with my bread, I looked out over the dining room. The diverse and multi-ethnic crowd resembled the crowd at any other Alphabet City restaurant—young single diners at the bar, with green streaks in their hair; nebbish old couples with novels by Booker Prize winners peeking out of designer purses; nuclear families with small children. Toward the end of my meal I asked my server how service had gone, and how she was feeling. She seemed caught off guard, surprised anyone would ask, and hadn't had time to consider the question until now. She shrugged, smiled, and said, "Good, busy."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

Shame Upon New York City: Kawaski Trawick’s Killers to Face No Discipline

Five years after police killed Trawick, the NYPD announced there will be no consequences in a late-Friday news dump

April 12, 2024

Vampire Weekend at Their Most Serious and Least Fun

The youthful mischief, the pangs of heartbreak that punctuated them, they're only memories here.

April 12, 2024

And the Winner of Hell Gate’s 2024 March Madness of Hot Takes Is…

You'll never look at someone clipping their nails on the subway the same way.

Steal a Boat in Your Mind and Sail Away on This Playlist

And read these links while you're out there, if you have service.

April 12, 2024
See all posts