Artist Mohamad Hafez gained critical acclaim for his best-known work, UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage, a multimedia installation featuring sculptural recreations of Middle Eastern and African refugees’ disrupted lives within suitcases. At his new Pistachio Cafe in New Haven, he’s created another representation of his Syrian homeland.
The cafe on Whalley Avenue in the city’s Westville neighborhood, which opened in late summer, takes the place of the former Cafe X below Lotta Studio. In early 2020, Hafez, who had already taken a step back from his demanding career as an architect, found his exhibits on hold due to the pandemic. With free time suddenly on his hands, he approached his friends at the photography-focused Lotta Studio, Luke and Mistina Hanscom, about launching a cafe. The trio worked together to create what would become Pistachio Cafe, a gathering space paying homage to Hafez’s home country and surrounding nations in the Middle East. “It’s somewhere where people can feel they’ve been transported outside of Connecticut, to something ethereal that belongs to Lebanon, Syria, the Mediterranean,” he says. The cafe features French Baroque-style design and furniture, a nod to the French colonial influence in his native Damascus.
Though work began on the space in mid-March, as the pandemic shuttered restaurants and food establishments throughout the state, Hafez says he wasn’t particularly worried about committing to the project in uncertain times. “I knew things were difficult, but I also come from a corporate background, where they teach us: Build it and they shall come,” he says. “I believe in the power of design, and the power of aesthetics and beauty.”
He was onto something. A recent TikTok video showing the decor of the space garnered well over 100,000 views and more than 15,000 likes on the app, as of late January.
You’ll find traditional hot and iced espresso-based drinks, drip and pour-over coffees, chai and matcha, along with Pistachio’s specialty coffees: Syrian coffee with freshly ground cardamom, Turkish coffee and “white coffee,” made from lightly roasted beans, which Hafez says is popular in the Gulf countries. The specialties are served with pieces of baklava or dates.
A fine tea selection features an array of green, black and fruit-flavored varieties, and intricate specialty lattes, in flavors like rose, cardamom and lavender, are garnished with spice and dried petals.
Pistachio’s pastry display case is filled with treats like puddings, individual cheesecakes, assorted cookies and a large selection of baklava, featuring favorites from the Middle East along with other Mediterranean sweets. “I have a bad sweet tooth problem,” Hafez says, laughing. He’s also proud of Pistachio’s signature ice cream, a rare find stateside that traditionally involves lots of manual labor. The ingredients are beaten with a wooden stick in a cold container to achieve the desired consistency, with rosewater and plenty of ground pistachios.
Hafez initially offered daily lunch specials, which he described as “mom’s home cooking,” but as the pandemic worsened, he found that people needed a fixed menu. They were looking for familiar things they could order and pick up quickly. They’ve partnered with Whole G bakery in New Haven for daily fresh bread, muffins and croissants, and hope to retool their menu by the end of February to offer items like sandwiches, panini and soups. Hafez would like to feature the meal specials on weekends, but the permanent menu will launch first.
With COVID-19 restrictions still affecting indoor seating, Hafez is looking forward to a time when his guests can linger: where friends can hang out and talk, students can complete homework and the venue can once again welcome guests for gatherings. “The whole space is designed around social events,” he says. “This is more of a safe space, a cultural hub for so many people.”
Hafez is eager to showcase “the hospitality in our DNA that we’re known for,” he says. With political rhetoric painting negative images of Muslims, Syrians and refugees, especially in recent years, he wants people to discover the Arabic experience through traditional food, drink and conviviality.
A wall featuring mounted vintage radios has helped foster commonality, he says, as guests of Italian and Greek descent, for example, will stop in and recognize a radio that a grandparent may have owned. They’ll feel that common thread when they hear Hafez’s family also owned the same appliance. “It doesn’t upset me that somebody walks in here and thinks that we all grew up in tents with no socialization whatsoever,” he says. “It doesn’t make me mad; it makes me want to work harder to change that perception.
“You’ve got to be subtle about it, you’ve got to approach it with grace and hospitality and friendliness and let them do the change,” he says. “I do not want to lecture anybody about where I come from. That’s in a nutshell pretty much the crux of everything I do, whether it’s architecture, art or Pistachio Cafe.”
911 Whalley Ave., New Haven
Hours: Mon.–Wed. 8 a.m.–7 p.m., Thu.–Sun. 8 a.m.–9:30 p.m.