When Jay Hajj arrived in the South End of Boston 22 years ago, there were no early-bird brunchers sipping mimosas on sidewalk patios. No one took pictures of their decorative French toasts or brought toy-like dogs along for a stroll. Young mothers didn’t jog along the brick sidewalks of Washington Street at twilight, pushing their toddlers in decked-out strollers.
At that time, inhabitants of the Boston neighborhood were more worried about getting shot.
In 1995, the year Hajj bought Mike’s City Diner, he opened the doors to one of the only restaurants along Washington St. at the time. The high-income area of today, with rows of brownstones sporting ironclad fences, decorative planter boxes, and Range Rovers parked out back, was lined with boarded-up storefronts.
It was also dangerous, so much so that Hajj had metal shutters shielding the front of his diner, which he would wait until 7 or 7:30 a.m. to open.
“Not because I was scared of robbery,” he said. “Just in case there was a flying bullet.”
Because of those conditions, rent was cheap. And 25-year-old Hajj needed cheap, at least until he could find a decent lease in the financial district. He had no idea at the time that he’d struck gold. Today, the South End is second only to Beacon Hill in terms of the average price per square foot.
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“Yeah, yeah, it changed a lot,” Hajj said. “I look like a goddamn genius, because it was all boarded up all around me.”
Hajj started as the only cook at the diner. He eventually bought the building, but back then he had only his tiny, affordable lease. By this point, Hajj had run his own business before, and worked in the restaurant industry years before that. He started as a dishwasher at Vinny Marino’s, an Italian restaurant in Boston. He worked his way up in the industry to salad boy, learning the ins and outs of greens and dressings, to sauté guy, and eventually line chef.
At 19 years old, he bought his first restaurant: a bankrupt ice cream parlor, which he transformed into Temptations, a falafel shop. He introduced numerous Bostonians to a Middle Eastern dip relatively unknown in the early 1990s: hummus.
Hajj didn’t sleep much for the first couple of years—he spent about 100 hours a week at Temptations, trying to get it off the ground. Over time, his efforts paid off, and in his early 20s, Hajj decided to both take another step forward and try something new. He invested in another restaurant in 1995—what is today Mike’s Diner.
While Hajj tried to incorporate different, ethnic tastes into his falafel shop, he has always been passionate about true American food. He wanted to stick with the American diner theme with Mike’s, so he served the classics: pancakes, waffles, eggs, omelettes. But Hajj also tried to add a bit of his own flare. He decided to travel and experiment with flavors, allowing him to bring Mike’s most famous staples to the restaurant.
The diner serves a Thanksgiving dinner every night, which has been heralded time and again by Guy Fieri, the host of several shows on the Food Network, including Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Hajj has appeared on about 11 shows over the years, and since 2009 has joined Fieri on the Best Buddies Challenge, meeting Tom Brady and raising money for Down syndrome.
Breakfasts at Mike’s are just as memorable. Besides the more traditional items—the Belgian waffles, which are light and fluffy with a bit of crunch, or the home fries, which are soft and sweet but with a hint of spice—Hajj has attracted customers with his experiments beyond the average breakfast.
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One example is his Southern-style breakfast options, which bring comfort food to the New England eatery. That’s what got Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Tom Menino in the door one day. If you wait out a long, but steadily moving line and pass up a seat at the traditional diner bar on your left, you may be seated at a table closest to the back corner. On the wall above, there’s a picture of the trio sitting at that same table, just before getting their order of smoked ham and eggs with grits and cornbread.
“I’ve always said, I don’t want to be this brunchy kind of a place—I want to keep it a diner,” Hajj said.
Hajj raves about his assortment of hashes, ranging from turkey and beef to the newly-added duck confit. The turkey hash is deliciously reminiscent of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but coalesces as a flavorful breakfast staple. The mix of moist turkey, soft potatoes, and spices is sure to remind you of home.
Mike’s also prides itself on filling both your plate and your stomach. While not every dish is sure to provide leftovers, the norm will leave you stuffed, and moving right along with your day. The staff at Mike’s doesn’t waste any time, moving its patrons in and out the door. The waitstaff won’t rush you along as you dine, but having an idea of what you want before sitting down will help you fit into the efficient dining environment. It’s also important to remember cash before entering the diner, since Hajj’s joint doesn’t take cards. There’s an ATM in the back, but don’t rely on it being up and running.
Ample staff is on-hand to make the restaurant run smoothly, getting food to its customers in Hajj’s goal of seven to eight minutes. But finding enough passionate workers to meet this mark is one of Hajj’s biggest challenges.
“If it was easy, I’d have 10 Mike’s,” he said.
He doesn’t necessarily want employees with experience—he wants workers that care, that can take the heat behind the kitchen, that are willing to learn. Hajj is happy and able to teach them the rest.
Many of these workers, like Hajj, are immigrants. The owner was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but immigrated as a boy to the United States when a civil war broke out. The family settled in Boston, where Hajj watched and learned from his dad the importance of a strong work ethic to keep a professional job.
Hajj doesn’t have the day-to-day responsibilities of running a restaurant anymore. He has trained his people, many of whom have worked at Mike’s for over a decade, to keep the operation running. Hajj has taken a more hands-off approach, but continues to have a role in setting specials and purchasing certain ingredients.
Like many other restaurants, he relies on a distributer for most of what he needs. But he likes to pick out certain specialty items himself. His pepper paste, which he uses for his more ethnic meals, has to be bought at a Middle Eastern market. His homemade strawberry jelly, which is the perfect mixture of tangy and sweet, is made with frozen strawberries from none other than Costco—not because they’re the best deal, but because they’re the best.
“With me, everything is from scratch, everything is homemade,” Hajj said.
He spends his time these days treating food as more of a lifestyle than a profession. Hajj has designed and brought to life his dream kitchen, a 1,500-square-foot test lab in a circa-1760 farmhouse. He keeps chickens and used to raised his own pigs every year. He has vegetable garden, an herb garden, and a flower garden. This year, he released a cookbook, Beirut to Boston: Comfort Food Inspired By A Rags-To-Restaurants Story, where he incorporates traditional Lebanese dishes with his own take on modern American cuisine.
This pair over the decades, combined with Mike’s location and Hajj’s unwavering dedication, has served as a go-to spot for members of the South End community. He has hosted meetings with city officials and planners at the cozy diner that helped literally pave the way for Washington St.’s revival. It continues to be a hub for all kinds of people, who can plan to meet for a meeting or roll out of bed to eat in jeans and a sweatshirt.
Hajj hasn’t stopped experimenting for the sake of the restaurant, even if much of what he cooks now is for friends and family. But perhaps more than anything else, he cooks for himself, because it’s what he loves doing most. Even while he vacations on the Cape—fishing with a buddy and talking with a college reporter for a story—his mind isn’t on his friend’s latest catch.
“I’m not into it, but I’m there to clean the fish,” Hajj said. “I love to skin the fish. I have a lot of pleasure working with food.”
Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor