The original Ray’s Lebanese restaurant is closing after 42 years | Food | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Ray's Lebanese owner Raymond Khattar is ready to retire after 42 years of serving falafel to Haligonians.

The original Ray’s Lebanese restaurant is closing after 42 years

Raymond Khattar, owner of the popular Burnside-based falafel hot spot, is ready to retire.

Beyond the glass door that leads into Ray’s Lebanese in Dartmouth’s Burnside neighbourhood, restaurant owner Raymond Khattar is bent into a plastic-backed chair and thinking about all the years that came before, along with what still lies ahead. After 42 years of serving Haligonians his signature falafel wraps—a run that cemented the 64-year-old Khattar as Halifax’s “falafel king”—he’s less than a week away from the end: On May 31, he’ll don his black button-up shirt one last time and open that door to his customers for a farewell.

“I love it so much,” he says, speaking with The Coast on a Tuesday afternoon. “But the reason it’s about time now to sit down, relax, is I’m getting too tired. I have to look after myself, my wife. I’ve been working too long; it’s time to settle down now.”

He has grandchildren to dote on. Lost time with family and friends to make up for. Places to travel. Meals to share. Above all, he’s looking forward to sitting down for lunch with his family—something he was only ever able to do on Sundays, he says, because it was his only day off.

“When you have your own business, you don’t have your own time,” Khattar says, reflecting on a career that began in 1981. “Always, somebody has to be at the store.”

It’s a dedication that earned Khattar loyalty from generations of his regulars—even as his falafel shop moved from a portable barbecue on Barrington Street to a stall in Scotia Square to a full-fledged restaurant on Akerley Boulevard. And now, he’s ready to call it a career.

Humble beginnings

The first thing you need to know about Khattar’s falafel is that it wouldn’t exist without spaghetti. A reformed fussy eater, he tells The Coast, Khattar would return hungry from school as a boy in Hadchit, Lebanon, only to protest whenever his mother had cooked the Italian dish—one he couldn’t tolerate.

“Go make your own food,” his mother would reply.

He did. Week by week, Khattar would recreate his grandmother’s specialties, seasoning them to his liking: A pinch of salt here, a swish of olive oil there.

“Cooking is taste,” he tells The Coast. “If you have the taste, you know how to cook.”

Khattar moved to Halifax in 1979. He was 20 years old. Lebanon was in the midst of a 15-year civil war. His then-girlfriend and now-wife, Hattie, had already applied for permanent residency in Canada; she had lived with her brother for a year-and-a-half in Halifax before she returned to Lebanon to reunite with Khattar. The two married, then moved to Nova Scotia for good.

Khattar arrived as a French speaker, and on the last stretch of completing his civil engineering degree. But Dalhousie University’s courses were in English. Instead, he got a job as a quality control inspector working in construction. He was laid off after 18 months. At the same time, he saw a restaurant listed for sale in The Barrington Hotel. It seemed like a promising business venture—his brother-in-law had owned a restaurant in Scotia Square—even if the tuna sandwiches Khattar served were a departure from his favourite cuisine.

“I don’t even know nothing about the food,” he recalls, with a laugh. “When customers used to come and eat, they would say, ‘Your sandwich looks ugly.’ I didn’t know how to present it, but they’d said, ‘It tastes good.’”

He sold the business. But the brief venture taught Khattar about food and presentation—and it set the wheels in motion for his next move.

Grand plans and falafel stands

Even as Khattar sold tuna and chicken sandwiches by day, he never let go of falafel. For years, he tells The Coast, he would open a booth at the Nova Scotia Multicultural Festival on Dartmouth’s waterfront and sell his creation to anyone who listened—even if the word “falafel,” in those days, drew the occasional blank stares among Haligonians.

“People didn’t know you could make a wrap with a pita,” he jokes. “I used to call it a veggie burger.”

The original Ray’s Lebanese restaurant is closing after 42 years
The Coast
The former Ray's Lebanese storefront at Scotia Square.

When he opened a storefront at Scotia Square in 1981, he took a similar word-of-mouth approach. On weekends, he’d bring a portable barbecue and a wok and set up by the old Halifax Central Library. He grilled shish tawook and gave samples to passersby:

“For every person, I said, ‘If you like it, go to Scotia Square. I have a Lebanese restaurant.’”

They listened. Ray’s Lebanese lasted 33 years at Scotia Square’s food court, before rising rents forced Khattar to move his business to Burnside. He’s been at 75 Akerley Boulevard ever since. He won The Coast's Best of Halifax Reader’s Choice award for Best Falafel so many times—13 years in a row—that we had to retire the category in 2007.

The secret, Khattar will say, is in the spices: He doesn’t compromise on the falafel ingredients he grew up with.

“Whatever I eat at home or in Lebanon, I do it here,” he told The Coast in 2007. “Some people like to add ham, cheese or mustard to modernize it, but to me, you gotta make it the right way.”

But the main reason for the restaurant’s popularity is Khattar himself. He’s kind. He chats with his customers and knows many by name. When he left Scotia Square in 2014—the mall’s management told him they needed to double his rent—an online petition garnered more than 5,200 signatures in his support. When customers came without money, he told them to eat anyway.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Khattar says. “You come back tomorrow, you pay. If they didn’t come back, I didn’t lose sleep.”

The last days of Ray’s

Khattar’s retirement does not mean the end of Ray’s Lebanese altogether. Friend and fellow Lebanese transplant Hady Bahliss has operated a second location in Bayer’s Lake (120 Susie Lake Crescent #20) since 2015, and it will continue. It’s a business he began with Khattar’s encouragement, after Bahliss shared his interest in owning a restaurant of his own.

“Ray was the first to introduce Lebanese food to the Canadian people,” Bahliss told StarMetro Halifax in 2018. “And that’s a privilege to any Lebanese or Canadian people because our food is healthy, fresh and made from scratch.”

For now, as he stares at the end of a long chapter, Khattar is grateful—not only for the impact he made, but the faces he won’t soon forget.

“That’s my riches: People,” Khattar says. “It was never customer and owner. It was, you know, friends.”

About The Author

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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