Katy Azar floated around the aged dining room as her family, employees and spouses ribbed each other for various transgressions.
The family gathered Tuesday as another iconic Spokane business begins the process of ending its 42-year run of serving Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Azars Restaurant will close on Oct. 22.
“When do you know it’s time to retire? When you can afford to,” Azar said in reply to an unspoken question.
The eatery, at 2501 N. Monroe St., survived a road reconstruction and even found a way to thrive during the forced shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While spinoffs and family members will continue to have Azars-related booths at area fairs and events like Pig Out in the Park, the extended dream of her late father, Pastor Najeeb Azar, will transition into a sandwich shop run by a different business.
“I started in this when I was 17,” Katy Azar said. “It’s been a blessing. I love the people. I love to cook.
“It’s really enjoyable and fulfilling for me when people eat and enjoy the food. That gives me a lot of happiness.”
Her son, David Azar, said he’s been telling his mother to retire for a decade.
“I’m 40,” he said. “I can literally say that I grew up in a playpen in the back.”
He worked at the restaurant into his 20s.
“A lot of people think you can own a restaurant. But it’s the reverse,” he said. “The restaurant owns you.”
Lilac City haven
Katy Azar and her siblings were born into a world of persecution and war.
Her father served as a Christian pastor in several postings throughout the Middle East.
Originally from Lebanon, Azar and his wife, the late Najla Azar, were living in Baghdad in the early 1960s during a time of three revolutions.
They were relocated to Jordan, where the family survived four wars before immigrating to Spokane in 1973.
“Because of religious persecution, my parents came to America to live a free life,” Katy Azar said. “Spokanites have been so good to us. The welcome we got as sponsored immigrants in 1973 was great, and it continued all of our lives.”
Najeeb Azar, who died in 2013, got the family business started in 1973 when he bought a 7-Eleven franchise, at the corner of Nevada Street and Empire Avenue.
Then in 1980, he purchased a café across the street that had closed, which began the family restaurant business.
They then moved the eatery to the location on North Monroe Street in 1990.
While the father had the business dreams, its success came from the hands of Najla Azar, who died in 2002, Katy Azar said.
“Mom was the best cook ever,” Katy Azar said. “Mom taught us how to cook. These are all her recipes and my grandmother’s recipes.”
Through kids and divorces and economic booms and busts, the family business trucked forward until it faced a threat that Katy Azar was sure would kill it: The closure and reconstruction of Monroe Street.
In 2017, the city announced that it would narrow Monroe Street from five lanes to three.
“We had seen how projects went downtown and everywhere else, where it took a long time and businesses struggled,” Katy Azar said. “We prepared to close. We spoke against it the whole time.”
But the crews finished the work in about five months.
“We were shocked,” she said. Local media “kept letting people know which streets were open and how to get to businesses. We ended up having a really good summer.
“Spokane likes the smaller businesses. If they see something going on, they support you. They are great.”
The restaurant had a similar experience during the pandemic.
Instead of killing the business, the family focused on takeout orders and generated about the same amount of business in four hours as it had being open for a full day, she said.
Both events inadvertently pushed the restaurant to its closure.
As a result of the Monroe Street project, Katy Azar obtained her real estate license in Washington and Idaho.
The shutdown also let Azar know that she could succeed working fewer hours.
“It taught me that I don’t have to be here all the time, that I can have a life outside of it,” she said.
Azar’s retirement will mean spending more time selling real estate and another business that she started along the way.
During her time running the restaurant, she also spent more than 17 years working as an interpreter.
“The restaurant is physically demanding. The restaurant demands your time,” she said. “The decision is heartbreaking for me. It’s taken me a long time, years, for me to say, ‘I’m going to leave.’
“But, it’s just going to be a different chapter. I’m going to miss the customers, the conversations, the things that go on in their lives. But there is a time where you have to back off.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.