Restaurants come and go. These days, few can boast of a deep customer loyalty and staying power as the Desert Inn can.
The restaurant, at 204 12th Street NE in Canton, has been owned and operated by the same family since John S. Shaheen Sr. opened its doors 48 years ago.
Prior to that, Shaheen owned and operated John’s Friendly Bar at 409 Cherry Avenue NE.
In 1970, he opened the Desert Inn, a full-service restaurant, in a converted house.
The restaurant is less than two miles from St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, where numerous Shaheens still attend services.
Mark and Tina Shaheen have owned and operated the Desert Inn since 1977. The couple’s sons Joseph, 38, and Markos, 36, are the third generation.
The sons manage the bar and kitchen, respectively.
The family opened the current building in April 2006, where they doubled the restaurant’s seating capacity to 200 chairs.
“You could fit 100 in the old restaurant if you wedged them in,” Tina Shaheen said with a laugh.
She said she believes the Desert Inn has endured because of its unique, Middle Eastern cuisine and the quality of the service.
“It’s not just your regular sports bar,” she said, noting that many of the restaurant’s 22 employees are longtime staff members.
The Desert Inn’s décor carries you into another world, one of ancient lands, where the cuisine is a gateway to a culture when the past is not forgotten but honored.
The exterior features a large, artificial palm tree that has become an iconic marker.
Desert Inn’s signature is its “Family Style” entrée. It’s served on a platter containing rice pilaf, Grecian salad, garlic toast and often paired with lamb, chicken or beef kabobs.
“Our filet kabobs are really popular too,” Tina Shaheen said.
Markos Shaheen, who manages the kitchen, said other favorites include their hummus, raw and cooked kibbee and Middle Eastern egg rolls, a creation of John Shaheen, whose parents emigrated from the village of Arna, Syria, to the United States before he was born.
Tina Shaheen said the Desert Inn also uses family recipes by her mother-in-law, Sally, who is Lebanese.
Maintaining a family-run restaurant demands long hours, hard work and a deep commitment.
“The most challenging thing is staying relevant,” she said. “The ups and downs of the business is hard; you can’t look ahead. One weekend you might be busy, the next, you’re not. But you try to keep the consistency.”
Shaheen said she’d like to see the city do more to improve the neighborhoods that are adjacent to the business. Years ago, it was a hub of Canton’s Syrian community.
“There’s a challenge in being a downtown location, honestly,” she said. “This is a destination place.”
Shaheen added that she’d love to see more downtown retail, “a reason for people to come down, other than restaurants and bars.”
1. The Sultan’s Salad
2. Middle Eastern Egg Roll (created by John Shaheen)
3. Taste of the Middle East