Wellington-based Syrian restaurant Damascus has had multiple incarnations since 2017, when it started as a gazebo, an electric pizza oven and a couple of tables at Wellington’s food markets. It was founded by Syrian-born chef Hasan Alwarhani and his partner Flora Quintana, and they then set up shop as a pop-up three nights a week at Brooklyn’s Vogelmorn Hall in 2019. Their venture became so popular that the duo decided to find a new, bigger location in the central city.

This week, they opened Damascus permanently on Tory Street, a stone’s throw from fresh produce haven Moore Wilson’s. Inside, the light-toned fit-out pays homage to Syria with a curved alcove displaying the kitchen, and mirrors and shelves are also shaped like archways – a common feature in Middle Eastern buildings. There are golden, Middle Eastern filigree light shades hanging from the ceiling and geometric Syrian designs on the light blue walls.

“We wanted to find a location that had the community feel of Vogelhorn, but could be busy, warm, and could fit up to 60 people,” Alwarhani tells Broadsheet.

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In 2008 he left Syria for Dubai, where he met Quintana (a pastry chef from Argentina). The pair then decided to set up in New Zealand in 2013 for a better quality of life, and to bring his love of his family’s cooking to Wellington.

They had little to no money, but it was their dream to open a restaurant one day – particularly as Alwarhani thought Wellington was devoid of “authentic” Middle Eastern cuisine at the time.

With the ongoing war in Syria, the couple also felt it was important to celebrate Syrian cuisine. They named their restaurant after the country’s capital city, in honour of the place where Alwarhani first discovered his love of cooking – spending hours in the kitchen with his mother and sister.

At Damascus’s new Tory Street home, the couple chose narrow tables on both sides of the restaurant so that patrons could be close and intimate with one another. This sense of community is reflected in the sharing menu.

Alwarhani’s family recipes dominate the selection, and it wouldn’t be a Syrian menu without the freshest of homemade flatbreads, falafel, or traditional Syrian wines, he says.

Cold meze includes hummus topped with turnip pickles, radish, pine nuts and Aleppo peppers; muhammarah (roasted capsicum, chilli and walnut dip); and the Syrian staple of baba ganoush.

For the meat-inclined there’s shish tawook – chicken, yoghurt, aromatic Damascus spices (cardamom, Aleppo peppers, dried ginger) and garlic sauce; or lamb sajak – minced lamb, spices and Damascus dressing, which is a spicy, lemony garlic sauce. Several salads add a fresh component, such as fattouche and shamander with green peas, tahini, onion, lemon juice and coriander.

“That’s the thing with Middle Eastern food – it’s always fresh and healthy. We get comments on the freshness a lot. You might eat heaps of the food, but you won’t feel tired or heavy.”

Having just opened the new location, finding a balance between work and family life is challenging, Alwarhani says, but the couple is hard-working and every challenge has a solution.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to be a head chef at my own restaurant and now that feels like a reality. It’s hard work but I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped us get to where we are.”

4/100 Tory Street, Te Aro, Wellington

Weds to Sat 11am-2pm and 5pm-9pm