A new Main Street restaurant is the first in Laurel's Historic District to take advantage of the state law change that allows liquor licenses within 500 feet of a church.
Olive on Main, which opened April 21 in the former site of Salute Italian Restaurant, is in the 500 block of Main Street and a block away from both First United Methodist Church and St. Philip's Episcopal Church.
In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law amending a state law that denied establishments to serve alcohol within 500 feet of a church. The new law was specifically for Laurel, and allowed the Laurel City Council to pass an ordinance waiving the zoning restrictions as part of its efforts to revitalize Main Street.
When it was on Main Street, Salute's patrons were allowed to bring in their own spirits and were charged a cork fee, but Olive on Main has a full-service bar.
"The site wouldn't have been as enticing without the liquor license," said Nidal Hishmeh, who owns the restaurant with his brother Chris Hishmeh. "The bar seats 12 plus we have two cocktail tables in that area, too."
The restaurant itself seats 50 and Hishmeh said they plan to renovate and open up the outdoor patio soon for dining as well. As for the menu, Olive features some Middle Mediterranean dishes, in addition to salmon, crab cakes, tilapia, grilled lamb, braised pork tenderloin, wings and stuffed burgers.
The Hishmehs also own Olive Lounge in Takoma Park and Nidal Hishmeh, who lives in West Laurel, said they spent the past year looking at various sites in the city to open a restaurant. He said the newer locations in the area did not fit their preference, which was to find a site in an older community similar to their restaurant and lounge in Takoma Park.
"I always had my eye on Main Street and felt more should have been going on there. I'd talked to city officials about their plans for Main Street and wanted to be a part of its growth," Hishmeh said. "When this place became available, it felt like the intimate environment we were looking for. My wife Amanda's family ate at Salute a lot and I knew the location had a lot of potential."
So much so that the Hishmehs have invested more than $600,000 in renovating the site. The brothers and Nadol's wife designed Olive's interior. The bar area has a custom-designed bar with a counter made of African Bubinga wood.
"My brother and I built the floating shelves behind the bar and we did the stonework on the wall in that area," Hishmeh said. "The double windows on the left that you see when you enter the restaurant are ones I reclaimed from a house in Cumberland and had them refitted for that area."
The flooring is concrete blasted, coated and stained and grass cloth wallpaper is on the walls outside of the bar area. There are ceiling fans in some areas and retro Edison lighting gives the restaurant a cozy feel.
"We did all of the upgrades because we want people to know that we're serious about the restaurant and want it to succeed," Hishmeh said.
Gone are the numerous pictures of Sophia Loren that adorned the walls of Salute. Hishmeh said he plans to exhibit the works of local artists on a rotating schedule on the walls.
Hishmeh said they get a brisk dinner crowd and that although the lunch crowd is a bit slow right now, it is picking up. Bartender Robin Daugherty said they're also starting to get regulars for happy hour on week days.
"Happy hour is going well and we're getting many single women who say they are glad to have a place they can come solo and feel comfortable," Daugherty said. "We're also getting people walking home from the train station. I think people like that this isn't a 20-something bar but a good restaurant that happens to have a bar."
Hishmeh says the restaurant side is definitely his priority and that he has no intentions of turning it into a karaoke or other type of live entertainment spot. He also plans to be involved in the community, helping with his son's school, Bond Mill Elementary, in fundraising efforts and PTA nights.
"We do lots of nonprofit fundraising events [in Takoma Park] and we plan to be supportive of the community here," he said. "I go around to the tables and introduce myself because I want people to know who I am and that I'm vested in the community."
And although Olive has 15 employees, customers will often see Hishmeh working in the kitchen or behind the bar.
" [My brother and I] can cover all positions and we have burns and cuts from working in our kitchens," he said with a laugh. "We can stand the heat and are not afraid of busting tables or mixing a drink. We do what we need to do."
Hishmeh said he and his brother created the menu for Olive on Main. "We were trained by our dad," Hishmeh said. "We didn't hire anyone with less than five years' kitchen experience. We trained them on our mom's and dad's recipes. On the rack of lamb and the chicken kabob, we have our own homemade marinade and taziki sauce that stand out."
According to Hishmeh, the burgers are cooked to order and can be stuffed with items such as various cheeses, mushrooms, green peppers, olives, jalapenos and onions. In addition to beef burgers, the menu includes turkey, veggie and bison burgers.
"I get a lot of my meats, including the bison, from the Laurel Meat Market," Hishmeh said. "Our meats are fresh and we cook everything to order, so we have a very small freezer here but a large walk-in refrigerator."
The menu also includes soups and salads and appetizers such as bacon-wrapped dates, served with a chipotle mango sauce; nachos; calamari; and a falafel plate that comes with fresh hummus and pita bread.
"The falafel is a vegan, gluten-free dish and we fry it in corn oil. We know some people have allergies, so we keep the oils separate that we use for the falafel, chicken or fries," he said.
Although the restaurant has a large bar area with two flat-screen televisions for sports fans, Hishmeh describes Olive as a family-friendly restaurant that provides high chairs for babies and offers a children's menu. In addition to the usual children's fare such as grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries, the menu for the younger ones includes kabobs, a homemade marinara pasta, mini burgers and cheese pizza.
"We want to cover all bases without spreading ourselves thin," Hishmeh said. "The children have their menu, adults can have a salmon entree with a glass of wine or come in and have wings and beer at the bar and watch a game."
Sean Patrick, whose pet spa is a few doors down from Olive, said he dines at the new restaurant often and gives it a good review.
"I think it is great with good food, a nice atmosphere and the service is very good," Patrick said. "I haven't had a bad meal there yet and I can be real picky. I think they're a great addition to Main Street."