SALT LAKE CITY — Downtown Salt Lake City will be losing some of its flavor and cultural diversity in June as the first Middle Eastern restaurant in the capital city serves its last customer after nearly four decades in business.
Cedars of Lebanon, a family-owned establishment that has been located at 152 E. 200 South since 1981, is closing after 38 years as a staple of the downtown restaurant community. Started by Raffi Daghlian and a friend soon after graduating from the University of Utah with a biology degree, the eclectic eatery would become a unique place in the local culinary landscape serving Lebanese, Moroccan, Armenian and Greek food — far different from the traditional fare usually found in Salt Lake City at the time, Daghlian explained.
"We never had a full eastern Mediterranean restaurant (in Salt Lake City)," he said. "I just wanted to introduce the Middle East and Mediterranean culture to Salt Lake City."
Upon undertaking the endeavor of becoming a restaurateur, Daghlian went "all in" and was there every day doing whatever was required to keep the establishment running. After six months, he bought out his partner and took over full control and responsibility for the business.
"I was there doing everything from cooking, hosting and washing dishes," he said. Additionally, he also ran a small Oriental rug business, but keeping the restaurant going became his main priority, he said.
At the time, he was focused on bringing a new cultural culinary experience to diners and visitors in downtown Salt Lake City, he said.
"I kind of wanted to elevate our image, to be honest. Because people who haven't been to Utah they don't know (what to expect)," he said. "They know polygamy and cowboys — that's all they would talk about. Coming and seeing something like (our) restaurant — and we're educated and can talk to them — this way they don't think Middle Eastern people are backward."
He said he was proud that his family business was able to represent Utah in such a meaningful way. Though he is anxious to begin the next chapter of his life, Daghlian said he'll miss socializing with many friends and patrons that he has come to know over the years, but he's looking forward to spending more time with his family.
"It's a mix of emotion," he said.
"My dad always tried to get people to be a little bit more adventurous and try different ethnic foods," said eldest daughter Rina Daghlian.
Patrons of Cedars were treated to traditional Middle Eastern belly dancing shows on the weekends. Additionally, the space included a Moroccan-inspired Casbah room adorned with colorful plush couches and furnishings — all which served to express the family's Middle Eastern heritage, she said.
"It's a place that kind of intertwined into all of our identities," she said. "I pretty much grew up dancing on the tables, and once I was old enough to actually help, I started helping out in the kitchen washing dishes. When I was 14, I started serving tables."
Eventually, her younger brother and sister also worked in the restaurant in various capacities over the years. Her father also ran an Oriental rug store, Daghlian Oriental Rug Imports, which kept him busy as well, she said. But the main priority was always Cedars of Lebanon.
"The restaurant has always been the main endeavor just because it's so labor-intensive," Rina Daghlian said. The decision to close was a long, painstaking process, she said, with the family considering many alternatives before coming to the final determination.
Because the oldest children were already into their own individual careers, taking over the business would require sacrificing those professions — something neither wanted to do at this point in their lives, she explained.
"We figured that it's probably best that it's their legacy and we should just move on," she said. "If we ever wanted to come back and open up business again, then we would definitely take a lot of inspiration from (Cedars)."
For now, the time has come for Raffi and his wife, Marlen, to move to the next phase of their lives, she said.
Raised in Lebanon, both Marlen and Raffi Daghlian are of Armenian descent. Their families settled in Lebanon after fleeing the genocide in their native country.
Marlen Daghlian said while her husband started out with the restaurant as a "side job," it eventually became his primary focus. When she moved to America from Lebanon in 1984 to get married, it became her main priority, too, she said.
She has been one of the main cooks, preparing authentic Armenian dishes for more than 30 years.
"We built clientele, we expanded," she said. "We have such a nice clientele. Whenever you have 38 years in business, most of our life is in that building."
She noted that while they don't have extended family nearby, their customers and employees became like family. Realizing that they won't see those people very much anymore has been very emotional, she said.
"It's been overwhelming," Marlen Daghlian said. "We expect when restaurants close or owners retire that customers will (be sad), but the messages from other restaurants and (people) on the phone have been overwhelming."
She said former workers have messaged from out of state to say they will be flying in to wish them well before they close. That outpouring of love and support has been especially touching, she said.
"To (have someone) come from another place makes you feel good," Marlen Daghlian said.
She attributed part of her decision to retire was to needing a second knee replacement that she's been putting off for some time. After taking time to heal and recover, she and her husband hope to spend time traveling and enjoying retirement, she added.
The thing she will miss the most will be the people she has met and befriended over the years, Marlen Daghlian said.
"I have contact with lots of them. I've been getting call and texts from Seattle and San Diego and even from a waitress who worked for me 10 years ago that lives in Istanbul (Turkey), " she said. "I knew it would be overwhelming (and emotional), but I didn't know it would be this much."
The last dinner service for Cedars of Lebanon will be on June 8.