Noe Valley Voice July-August 2000

King of Jordan Savors 24th Street Cafe

By Steve Steinberg

It wasn't your ordinary brunch at Savor, the popular 24th Street eatery last month. After all, it's not every day that the king of Jordan, or any king for that matter, comes to Noe Valley for a crèpe and jalapeño jelly. But that's exactly what happened on Sunday, June 4, when King Abdullah bin Al Hussein, the new ruler of Jordan, and his wife, Queen Rania, stopped by Savor for some food and relaxation.

The royal couple arrived on 24th Street around midmorning in a motorcade of 10 to 12 cars. According to Maher Fakhouri, Savor's owner, the motorcade double-parked while the king and queen and their attendants got out of their limos and went into the restaurant, located at 24th and Sanchez streets. Fakhouri said the limos then went around the corner to look for parking (good luck). Other sources said at least part of the motorcade remained double-parked in front of Savor the entire time the royals were inside dining. (Where was Officer Lois Perillo?)

This was not the first time King Abdullah had visited Savor. Two years ago, when he was a prince, the eldest son of the late King Hussein bin Al Talal came to Savor to receive a formal invitation to a banquet in his honor by the Bay Area Jordanian-American Association, of which Fakhouri was then president.

Abdullah apparently retained a favorable impression of the restaurant because when he returned to San Francisco last month on an official visit to the United States, he specifically asked to go to Savor. "He likes the way we prepare our food," said Fakhouri, who describes his menu as a combination of California and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Educated in the West, the son of an English mother, King Abdullah is known for his casual, informal manner. Both he and Queen Raina arrived at Savor dressed in jeans.

Fakhouri had offered to close Savor to the public so the king and queen could have privacy, but Abdullah insisted that the restaurant remain open. "He prefers to dine with everyone else," said Fakhouri. The restaurant's outdoor patio, where the king and queen ate, was off limits to other customers, however, for security reasons.

Despite the king's egalitarian preferences and the presence of regular customers, overall security in the restaurant was very tight. Janel Susko, Savor's floor manager and one of two staff members to wait on the king, said at least 12 U.S. Secret Service and other agents hovered inside and outside the bistro. Prior to the king's arrival, agents had used dogs in a bomb sweep of the restaurant and surrounding areas.

Concerned for the well-being of those guarding him, Abdullah made sure the agents received snacks during the visit.

The royal party at Savor consisted of 10 people, including Fakhouri and Fakhouri's two brothers Mazen and Majed. The three own the restaurant jointly. Fakhouri, 43, who was born in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and emigrated to the United States 28 years ago, is very enthusiastic about King Abdullah and his plans for Jordan.

"He's so down-to-earth.... People who work with him love him," said Fakhouri of the king. "He makes sure everyone feels important and comfortable."

Although the king's visit to Savor was officially a social occasion, with a lot of talk -- in Arabic with a little English thrown in -- about sports and good food, the conversation did turn to politics and the situation in the Middle East. Fakhouri said the king was very forthcoming. "We asked him very tough questions, and he was blunt and honest in answering them."

According to Fakhouri, the king was quite optimistic about peace with Israel and "has tremendous respect for the Israeli leadership." Fakhouri said the king also spoke about the need to control the Hezbollah guerrillas, who have been fighting Israel on the Lebanese border.

As for Jordan, Fakhouri reported that Abdullah wants very much to make the kingdom more self-sufficient, with a larger industrial and technological base. One of the reasons for the king's June visit to the U.S. was to seek investments and jobs for his country, Fakhouri said.

Abdullah was not originally groomed to be king of Jordan. King Hussein changed the succession in favor of Abdullah a few weeks before his death in February 1999. Prior to that, Abdullah had been a career soldier in the Jordanian Army. The king and his wife have two children. The queen, who is of Palestinian origin, is expecting their third child in a few months.

So what did the king have to eat at Savor? "He had our Masatlan crèpe...the same as he had two years ago," said Fakhouri. The crèpe is filled with avocado, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, sour cream, salsa, and peppers.

The king also has a weakness for jala-peño jelly with corn bread, so Fakhouri indulged him by making up a batch of six jars of the jelly for him to take home. Queen Raina shared an order of pancakes with her aides, Savor staff reported.

Besides the crèpe and jelly, Savor went all out to make sure the king's visit was an enjoyable one. "We had lovely linens and utensils, silver trays, and a special menu," said manager Susko. "It was real-ly beautiful -- there was so much food."

Still, she was nervous beforehand. "I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly." Susko called the experience of serving the king and queen "wonderful and surreal," adding that she felt honored to have had the opportunity.

Before the royal couple arrived, Susko and the other server, Juliette Delventhal, had been given a quick lesson in royal protocol by Fakhouri. "We were told to refer to them as his and her majesty," Susko said.

Despite the apparent formality, Susko said that the king and queen treated them in a very friendly way. The queen, Susko noted, seemed somewhat reserved at the beginning of the brunch, but became more relaxed as time went on.

Delventhal also found the experience of serving royalty to be a pleasant one. She had trouble, however, with one aspect of the job. "I couldn't bring myself to call them 'your majesty,'" she said. "In this country, kings and queens are in storybooks; they're not people you serve at table. Besides, I treat all my customers like kings and queens."

King Abdullah liked Savor's food so much that he asked Fakhouri if he could send his palace chef from Amman to the restaurant for some tips. Fakhouri not only agreed but offered to come to the palace himself to teach a few culinary classes. The king evidently was serious about the request because Fakhouri says he subsequently received a call from palace officials reminding him to follow through on those pointers for the royal chef.

The king and queen left Savor after about two and a half hours, the king apologizing for the early departure, Fakhouri said.

The king may be gone, but folks in Noe Valley are still agog about the neighborhood's first royal visit. Said Susko: "People were so excited about it -- they just want to know where the king sat!"