The island of Zamalek has long been considered a playground for the affluent and leisured and though some may argue that this sentiment might not ring as true anymore, it certainly remains one of the most desirable areas in Cairo, even in the face of the capital’s suburban expansions.
Zamalek attracts Cairenes from far and wide for its dining and nightlife scene – scenes that, historically, have had rather high turnover. But among those that have lasted the test of time, few have done so with as much grace – or for as long – as Don Quichotte.
As the first bar and restaurant of its kind in Zamalek, Don Quichotte was born of the mind of retired engineer, Mohamed Nabih El Sayed, in 1978 in the ground floor of a family-owned building on the hushed Ahmed Heshmat Street.
Sitting behind a shade of trees, Don Quichotte enjoys a soft, whispered existence; its exterior doesn’t give much away.
Still family-run, it was initially opened as a straight restaurant and quickly garnered a fiercely loyal following – one which exists today – but, over the years, it has adjusted to meet the evolving demands of Cairo.
“We have regulars that have been coming here for decades, but things have changed over time,” granddaughter of El Sayed and now co-owner, Dania Hafez, told us as we chatted about the contemporary rituals of ‘going out’ in Cairo.
“People valued a good, long meal with a couple of drinks much more back in the day. Now, people ‘go out drinking’ and food is a plus, an afterthought.”
The change isn’t necessarily a simple one. When you look back through the annals of Cairo nightlife, there have been more failures than successes, especially with the vague notions of a gastropub combining the tropes of a bar with top-notch food. It’s a concept that doesn’t quite sit well with Cairenes.
“We’ve adapted to our customers,” Dania explains. "It was open as a chic, sophisticated restaurant and stayed like that for 15 years before we changed it to be more of a pub or bar.”
It’s a hurdle that many restaurateurs have faced over the years in Cairo. Balancing a vision with the demands of the market is no easy navigation and it’s been the death of many concept restaurants - think Alchemy and the Vegan Kitchen. The latter is a world away from Don Quichotte, but both received unanimous praise from all quarters, before eventually perishing. As a bar that went to great lengths to ensure that its food is of top quality, Alchemy eventually found itself in no-man’s land, with the concept – the closest to walk the gastropub tightrope – just not fitting into the Cairo loop.
It’s a proven to be a difficult complex to traverse for the Don Quichotte team, too, but one that, whether by default or by design, they continue to come out on top with.
“Of course we have an older generation of regulars that have stayed loyal and that loyalty has been passed on through different generations of the same family. But we also have younger crowds – and they’re ‘going out’ habits are very different. They come much later on in the evening and so that in itself has caused us to make some adjustments.”
But despite the changes, Dania and co have maintained Don Quichotte’s essence and you needn’t look further than the stream of loyalists that haven’t wavered.
Stepping into what is roomy yet intimate space, you’re immediately hit by a sense of nostalgia; that’s not to say that the bar looks worn – far from it, in fact. But there’s an inviting warmth and an organic stillness that harks back to the subtle sophistication of yesteryear.
(Photo courtesy of Nadir Hashem)
“People aren’t necessarily looking for a regular sophisticated experience anymore,” Dania suggests, pointing to the idea that to the chasm between formal and casual is growing more and more, with few places able to truly capture elements of both.
So, what is the key to the endurance of Don Quichotte? Many, including yours truly, will speculate towards their own theories in the wider scope of life in Cairo, but for Dania and her family, it’s much simpler.
“It’s cosy, homely and comfortable – maybe that’s why. And consistency is the most important thing for us. Yes, we’ve made changes over the years, but we’ve never compromised on quality or the values Don Quichotte was founded on.”
(Photo courtesy of Nadir Hashem)
And that quality extends to all facets of the bar. Dania was quick to point out that Don Quichotte has never fallen to gimmicks and trends – and maybe that, with the little bit of luck any venture in Egypt needs, is indeed the key. It’s not as extreme as an adapt-to-survive mentality, but Dania, her sisters and their mother take pride in what has become an institution in Zamalek.
“It’s a family business and we live in the same building,” she states proudly. “It’s more than a business to us; we’re always involved, we always try to be very present.”
It’s this hands-on approach that has also fostered a loyalty among the staff, too, many of whom have been part of the Don Quichotte family for years.
“We celebrate the Don Quichotte anniversary a little differently,” Dania explains. “We don’t invite customers, we don’t have a special night – we have a private dinner with the staff and we cook for them and treat them as we would customers. It was my grandfather’s idea.”
Despite the many potential roadblocks that have met Don Quichotte, Danya and her family have lost no enthusiasm when it comes to what is a labour of love.
“Don Quichotte was the first of its kind in Zamalek. My parents would often tell me how excited they were when the idea of a restaurant came up and how it was a new era in their lives. We owe it to that sentiment to keep it going – but it’s not an obligation. It’s a passion, it’s pride.”
By Lance Uppercut