Olive Tree Café in South Charleston makes traditional Mediterranean food with no apologies.

When traditional foods go mainstream, compromise usually follows. Pho gets a little less spicy. Meatballs balloon in size. Sometimes, intimidating dishes disappear altogether—you’d be hard-pressed to find shark fin soup at your local Chinese buffet.

More chefs are refusing to conform to the status quo, however, and have found a dining public eager to take some gustatory risks. That’s the story of Olive Tree Café in South Charleston. “We don’t westernize our Mediterranean food. There’s a lot of garlic. There’s a lot of spice,” says co-owner Michael Jarrouj. “We don’t apologize just because the general public might not like it.”

That commitment to authenticity quickly won the restaurant a dedicated clientele. When one lunch-goer claimed he couldn’t stand hummus—and his experience was limited to grocery store varieties—Jarrouj challenged him. “I said, ‘You haven’t tried ours.’” The man received a complimentary serving of Olive Tree’s house-made hummus prepared with chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and spices. “He ate the whole plate,” co-owner Richard Rizk says.

When Olive Tree opened in October 2015, it was the newest addition to South Charleston’s growing cache of international restaurants. But Jarrouj, who is Syrian, and Rizk, who is Syrian and Egyptian, recognized a niche that remained unfilled for the area’s thriving Syrian and Lebanese communities. Olive Tree is now the place to find traditional stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, homemade baklava—dishes based on recipes handed down from Rizk’s and Jarrouj’s grandmothers.

Customers also go crazy for Olive Tree’s sandwiches. The most popular items on the menu are the shawarma and The Real Philly. The former features slow-roasted, thinly sliced sirloin with pickles, onions, tomato, and tahini on pita bread that’s trucked in fresh every few days from a bakery in Dearborn, Michigan.

The latter is stacked with roasted rib eye, grilled onions, provolone cheese, Cheez Whiz, and made-from-scratch marinara sauce in a soft roll shipped in from Philadelphia.

Jarrouj says he and Rizk have tried a few times to pare down their menu, but customers immediately notice every time they remove a dish and demand it be brought back. Rizk says there’s only one thing that explains that kind of devotion. “There’s a lot of work that goes into all the food.”

333 2nd Avenue Southwest, South Charleston; 681.265.9158

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