The Bitar restaurant was a strictly no-frills storefront with some tables and a grocery case in the back. The idea didn't click at first, and other people took over. Still no go. In 1986, members of the Bitar family took back the business, set up lunch and dinner, changed the menu several times and began drawing people off the main food trail of South Street.
Today, though still pretty much a straightforward sort of place, Bitar's has dressed itself up a bit and is doing quite well. A wall of mirrored minarets reflects an Arabian mood, as does the Middle Eastern music. Garlic and other spices are the aromatic attractions.
The inexpensive menu is good, authentic and extremely brief, thus eliminating confusion in choosing your fare. Eight appetizers, four salads, six platters, five sandwiches, some side orders, pastries and beverages. That's it.
What is available is a cross-section of Middle Eastern food - Lebanese in particular. There are grape leaves ($1.65 for six, 12 for $3.20) stuffed with rice, onions and parsley. And, of course, there's hummus ($1.50 and $2.25) - a blend of chickpeas pureed with garlic, sesame paste, lemon and seasonings.
The eggplant dip ($1.75 and $2.75) - a culinary brother to hummus called baba ghanouj - is well-made at Bitar's, especially if you like yours heavy with sesame paste. It's served with small triangles of warm pita.
An appetizer of foul moudamas ($3) is great for lovers of garlic and parsley. Though the menu said it was made with fava beans, which are generally white and resemble lima beans in texture and shape, these were more like the red beans used in chili. Nonetheless, the dish was delicious, blended with good amounts of lemon juice and olive oil.
The Lebanese use lots of parsley, which is not only good in taste, but also good for you. Bitar's tabouli ($2.50 and $4.50) is a classic of this Lebanese- original salad. It's made with chopped parsley, onions and tomatoes, tossed with cracked wheat and spices in olive oil and lemon.
Lentil soup ($1.50) was not the hearty variety but a rather pleasant and light broth mixed with lentils and wheat.
The kefta-kebab platter ($5.75) was a zesty grilling of six linklike shapes of ground lamb with onions, seasonings and - you guessed it - parsley. It was served with sesame sauce and Lebanese salad, which sported greens, tomatoes, green pepper, cucumbers and tomatoes in a garlic-infused dressing of olive oil and lemon.
Bitar's also has a falafel platter ($3.50) of three highly seasoned balls of ground chickpeas that are deep-fried. This dish is served with sesame sauce and a garnish of lettuce and tomatoes, along with what the menu calls pickles (actually very salty strips of pickled turnip).
Other platters include grilled lamb shish kebab ($5.50) with Lebanese salad and sesame sauce; a broiled, lemony chicken kebab ($5.75), and a combo platter of lamb shish kebab, kefta, tabouli, tahini sauce and a choice of hummus or baba ghanouj ($6.50).
A popular item at Bitar's, I understand, is the vegetarian platter ($5.75), which puts together falafel, grape leaves, hummus and baba ghanouj. It's served with pita and garnished with parsley, of course.
For side orders, there are meat pies ($1.25), spinach pies ($1) and cheese pies ($1). And for those of you who can't live without them, there are french fries ($1.25).
Bitar's has Turkish coffee and such beverages as mango juice, mint tea, a yogurt drink and a specialty of mango juice with yogurt. No alcohol is served.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY. Wayne Marks, the maitre d' at Bogart's in the Latham Hotel, 17th and Walnut Streets, is featuring tableside preparation of steaks, veal dishes, Caesar salad, fettuccine Alfredo and desserts.
BITAR'S MIDDLE EASTERN FOOD
616 S. Second St., 925-4950
Open: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Price range: Platters, $3.50 to $6.50
Credit cards: No.
Nonsmoking section: No.
Facilities for handicapped: No.
Atmosphere: Plain but homey.