"My father taught me two things in business. One, never say no to anything. And two—this one's a little weird—let people underestimate you," chef and owner Andrea Ryan says as we sit squeezed across her desk at Damoori Kitchen.
Damoori is an unassuming little joint, tucked away in a strip mall corner of Magnolia; a hop, skip, and a jump to nearby Discovery Park. The mini-market café slings Lebanese comfort dishes straight from the recipe books of Andrea's teta, or grandmother. In a city overrun by grab-and-go shawarmas or modern-American twists on tabbouleh, the aromatic foods of Ryan's childhood feel like a fresh take on familiar fare. Ryan began her journey with Damoori in 2017, but only opened the brick-and-mortar location on West Jameson Street in July 2020.
Ryan is a petite figure, with lively blue eyes and a halo of brown curls around her face. When talking about her heritage, her voice pierces with excitement. Growing up in Seattle, her teta would always be stewing tabkha (a general term for "simmered dish") such as loubieh bi zeit (green beans braised in oil) over the kitchen stove. Holidays were celebrated by sharing feasts with her parents' boisterous circle of Lebanese or Middle Eastern friends. Ryan also spent many summers with extended family back in the old country, where food was an unspoken language of love and reunion.
Ryan's own parents, Atef and Aida Matni, immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s, right before the civil war. They met and married in Seattle, giving birth to two daughters. Andrea, the eldest, considers her parents her "biggest role models." She tells me about Atef and Aida's hard-earned entrepreneurship. "My parents had always planned to open their own business together," Ryan recounts. "So one day, they sat down and started writing out a list of potential business ideas." The Matni's brainstormed the idea of a print shop and, for the next 38 years, ran a successful mom-and-pop operation downtown, a few blocks away from the Space Needle.
Many of Ryan's childhood memories are colored by the warm bustle and fresh-ink scent of the Matni print shop. After graduating from Western University, Ryan also spent a decade working with her parents. The shop stories she remembers reflect the devotion her parents had for their work. "My father wore a button-down and slacks to work every day. Every. Single. Day," she tells me. "And no job was below him. I remember once we had a rat problem, and he said, 'Well, I'm not gonna ask anyone to clean up the rat poop,' so I remember him going down there and cleaning it all up."
The Matni's eventually sold their shop and retired in 2017, which influenced Ryan's decision to make the leap toward starting a business herself. Following her parents' footsteps, Ryan sat down one day with her husband Conor (the co-owner of Damoori) to write out a list of potential ideas. At first, the pair landed on the idea of making bulk kibbeh, "a kind of Levantine meat croquette," but started catering on the side to pay the bills. "Pretty soon, we were doing 600-person lunches," Ryan recalls. As Damoori grew, so did its reputation. Now in its third year, Damoori Kitchen has become a beacon for Seattle's small but tight-knit Lebanese community while also serving as an educational space where locals can explore the diversity of food culture from the Levant, the diasporic region east of the Mediterranean Sea.
For Ryan, Damoori is a way to feel closer to her roots. It is also, perhaps, her form of rebellion against the pressures of assimilation faced by her parents' generation. She tells me how one year when the print shop was preparing customer gifts for the holidays, she suggested gifts of baklava.
Her father had disagreed, saying, "Customers won't want baklava. Let's stick to what they know and like." Ryan countered that "baklava would set us apart from every other Lindt chocolate on the table," she remembers telling her father. "Every year, he fought me on it. Every year we did it. And every year, they loved it." She pauses. "And now it's kind of ironic because I've opened up a Middle Eastern place. So he softened up in the end."
Authenticity is key to Ryan's Damoori, where the menu boasts different iterations of taabkha, gently simmered in olive oil. Andrea's teta approves, especially of the loubieh bi zeit. Ryan's signature is her ruz w djaj—spiced chicken plated on a bed of pilaf, sprinkled with pine nuts and peppered with fragrant ground beef. Tubs of house-made hummus and muhammara are tucked away in the grab-and-go fridge, tantalizing add-ons to an already indulgent meal. And, of course, Ryan keeps containers of baklava in that same fridge. It's the Lebanese version that her mother makes—a cream-filled kind with crispy phyllo, which often sells out in less time than it takes to say the word "dessert."
The market side of Damoori Kitchen features staples such as tahini, za'atar, and sumac, teetering on wire racks along the shop's small interior. Ryan has sourced most of these ingredients herself, with help from a handful of specialists in quality Mediterranean goods. The goal is to eventually bring in more small-scale products direct from Lebanese farmers and entrepreneurs.
"There are tons of amazing young brands in Lebanon that are not making it over," Ryan tells me. She and her husband are always on the hunt for unique imports from the old country and its surrounding regions. And as their selection increases, so too, they hope, will local awareness around authentic Levantine culture in Seattle.