Authenticity adds flavor at Fairhope’s Sage restaurant
Story and photos by Emmett Burnett
Restaurateurs Nader and Maritza Salibi take pride in hometown menus. His home is Beirut, the one in Lebanon. Hers is Cuenca, the one in Ecuador. Their restaurant is Sage Lebanese Cuisine and Cafe, the one in Fairhope.
But regardless of who is where, the food is amazing here. It is also surprising. “People visit not knowing what to expect,” says Nader, as we sip homemade lemonade over a plate of freshly baked baklava. “Customers don’t expect the flavors. They are surprised how familiar entries taste different.”
He explains that food varies between countries, regions, even cities. For example, fried chicken is common in the south. But South Alabama’s differs from South Carolina’s. The same holds true for Mediterranean – Lebanese.
Kebab varieties of grilled prime beef, marinated chicken breasts, and spiced ground beef are examples of the aforementioned “unexpected flavors.” Other favorites include grilled savory lamb chops, beef over hummus with pita bread, and the Mousaka Plate – eggplant, yellow rice and house salad.
Sage offers 11 sandwiches including the Shawarma Mix – mammoth portions of beef and/or marinated chicken wrapped in pita bread – or the Kafta Burger – ground beef, caramelized onions, brioche and Swiss cheese.
Everything is cooked on site. Everything is oven/stovetop fresh. The only thing missing is a microwave oven.
An international love story
The Salibis readily admit that Lebanese cooking in small-town, south Alabama is unique, just as unique as the couple’s story, a 3,000-mile journey spanning three countries and ending in Fairhope.
About 20 years ago, Nader at age 17 left Beirut for New York City to study business courses at Brooklyn College. While in the Big Apple he met another college student and future wife, Maritza Astudillo. Short version: They fell in love, married and moved to Ecuador to work in Maritza’s family’s business. But not for long.
“I wanted to be in business for myself. I wanted to open a restaurant,” Nader recalls. “But I did not want to return to New York. It’s crazy up there.” A friend told him about a really cool town in America.
The couple knew nothing about Alabama and neither had ever heard of Fairhope. But both agreed to research the restaurant-business venture, cautiously and slowly for 3 to 6 months. It sounded good – in theory.
In the spring of 2015, Nader left Ecuador for the “Heart of Dixie’s” Eastern Shore. He visited Fairhope, loved it, and leased a building – his first day in town.
“I called my wife and said, ‘I think we’re opening a restaurant, uh, actually, I’ve signed a lease.” And he laughs, “Her version of the story is a lot more dramatic. She expresses her feelings more.” She did.
“I was in shock,” Maritza laughs, recalling the South Alabama-Ecuador telephone conversation. She hung up the phone and Googled “Fairhope.”
“Nader said I could stay home for six months to a year as he rebuilt and prepared the vacant building for business.” But she answered, “No. My place is with you.”
And so it began. Maritza packed her bags and with three young children boarded a plane for a cross-world flight to the town she only knew from Google Maps. “We worked hard for months, refurbishing, repairing, remodeling. We did everything,” she says. “It was hard work.”
Sage opened in August 2015. It still is hard work but a labor of love. “You always have opening day jitters,” says Nader, recalling the first day of business. “But my mindset has always been about work. I have the skills to do this and so does Maritza. I believe in working hard and doing your job well. People want good products, quality, and service.”
He continues, “We serve the very best. Much of our ingredients and foods are imported. New Zealand grass fed beef isn’t easy to obtain when you’re a small town restaurant, but we get it.”
Customers agree. “Nader and Maritza are my friends who cook great,” says Dick Bacon of nearby Barnwell. “You come here once and you know them.”
When asked to name her favorite dish, weekly patron Mary Reiser of Daphne pondered, “I can’t. Everything is good. I order something different every week. Once you smell the aroma from the sidewalk, you’re hooked.”
As for Fairhope, “We loved it,” says Maritza. “It has excellent schools for our children, safe streets, and genuinely friendly people who have been so supportive.” Many locals refer to Maritza as ‘Sage’ –“because ‘Maritza’ is often difficult to remember,” she smiles.
As for Sage the restaurant, find it on 319 Fairhope Avenue, the original spot Nader closed the deal on the day he came to town. It seats 55 and often.
“We came here with nothing, just our bags,” recalls the lady who took a leap of faith and landed in Baldwin County. “I was supposed to return to Ecuador from college and help our family’s business. But then I met Nader in New York. Things changed,” she smiles.
Maritza flips the restaurant’s front door sign from “closed” to “open,” welcoming 11:30 a.m. diners. Watching happy customers file in, she ponders, “Sometimes things you plan do not work out. But sometimes things you do not plan, do work out. It did for us.”
Sage advice from Sage the restaurant.
Sage Lebanese Cuisine and Café
319 Fairhope Ave., Fairhope, Ala.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m., Monday-Friday;
11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday