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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 05:18 am

No room at the inn

Beloved Holy Land Diner serves its last meal at its downtown location on Saturday

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I’d like to tell you a Christmas story. I’ve got a few of the main elements — a stable, some livestock, three wiseguys, and one devoutly religious couple, desperately seeking shelter on Christmas Eve.

The couple is Afaf and Jamal Rashmawy, who just happen to have been born in Bethlehem — specifically in Beit-Suhar, or Boaz’s Field, where shepherds watching their flock by night were once visited by a throng of angels. For the past 23 years the Rashmawys have lived here, in Springfield. Jamal, a microbiologist, retired in 2004 from his job with the state Department of Public Health. Afaf used to operate a home daycare, but for the past dozen or so years, she has run her own restaurant — the Holy Land Diner.

“She does all the cooking by herself,” Jamal says, gesturing toward the kitchen at the back of the long, narrow room. “I can fry certain things, like falafel, cauliflower . . . . But she mixes everything and tells me just do it — and I do.”

In the lull between lunch and dinner, Afaf’s voice — carrying on a conversation while adding a layer of butter to her baklava — drifts all the way to our table in the middle of the diner. “She’s always praying,” Jamal explains.

Baklava done, Afaf comes toward us speaking to Jamal in their native language, telling him to chop green onions into small pieces for the red cabbage salad she’ll serve tomorrow.

When they first opened the Holy Land, in 1995, the restaurant was on Veterans Parkway, in the space now occupied by Xochimilco. In 1999, they moved the diner to its current location, downtown near the Old State Capitol. Afaf says their best customers are like me — “people who used to live outside Springfield and now live here.” The true locals prefer steak and potatoes, she says.

Regulars know how to serve themselves — not just tabouli and hummus from the lunch buffet but even their own soda pop and tea — while Afaf scurries back and forth from the kitchen. “I feel the customers are like my family,” she says.

But their diner home is in jeopardy. Last month, Afaf received a letter from her landlords saying that her lease would not be renewed. Just a few lines long, the letter did not ask if she could pay a higher rent; it simply informed her that she needed to vacate the premises so that a new renter could begin remodeling on Jan. 1.

“Thank you for being such a great tenant,” the letter concludes.

Afaf put a sign in her window announcing that Holy Land would serve its last meal Dec. 23. What happens after that, nobody knows. The landlords — a group headed by Mike Aiello, Claudio Pecori, and Mario Perrino, under the name Gap LLC — offered to rent Holy Land a different building, but it has a basement kitchen, and Afaf simply cannot run up and down stairs all day.

Pecori, who eats at Holy Land about twice a month and loves the potato cream soup with corn, says he asked Afaf a year ago if she would be willing to move out, and, he recalls, she agreed. Afaf says she told Pecori — “who has always been very nice to us” — that she preferred for Holy Land to stay in its present location.

“They’re wonderful people. We think the world of them. . . . It’s not that we’re throwing them out on the street,” Pecori says. “It’s just a business decision we had to make.”
The new leaseholder is Wilma Stuller, from the founding family of Steak ’n Shake. She plans a new restaurant to reflect the historic ambiance of downtown, according to her longtime office manager, Mary Bruno.

“We’re going to completely gut the place and remodel it from the floor up,” she says. “We’re going to take the walls down to the old brick, put a new floor in, new heating and air conditioning, just a brand-new store in an old place.”

Bruno’s husband, Hartzel — operations manager for Steak ’n Shake — collaborated with Stuller on the concept, and Mary Bruno positively bubbles with excitement as she describes their plan for a soda fountain in the front, a grill in the back, and an assortment of genuine horse tack to add decorative authenticity.

“The motif will be that of an old livery stable. There’s going to be booths along the side that will look like stalls, and we’re going to have tractor seats for the stools and galvanized buckets for the lights,” she says. The concept came naturally, because Stuller raises and shows Tennessee Walking Horses and the Brunos raise a small breed of draft horses called Haflingers. “We’re going to have a lot of artifacts from the olden days, like horse hames and harnesses,” Bruno says.

What the new place won’t have, she emphasizes, is anything to do with Steak ’n Shake. “In fact, it’s The Livery Inc. — a corporation all to itself.”

Bruno also says Stuller played no part in the Rashmawys’ losing their lease. “Holy Land was going away long before we spoke with [the landlords],” she says. “It was going to be an empty building as of Jan. 1.”

Afaf might dispute Bruno and Pecori’s version of events, if it would do any good, which it won’t. “The lease is over, and this is his building. I can’t say anything,” she shrugs.
Besides, she is too busy looking for a new home for the Holy Land — something downtown, about 2,000 square feet, and all on one level. “I am praying that God will provide me another space. But I am praying no steps,” Afaf says.

So, like I said, I wish I could tell you a Christmas story. But there’s still one ingredient missing: a savior.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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