Updated July 8, 2020 - 6:55 pm
Pretty much everything was quite different in 1987 than it is now, 33 years later, but in the cases of Las Vegas and Paymon Raouf, the contrasts are particularly striking.
There were about 642,000 residents in the metro area then, which means about 2 million more people have made Southern Nevada their home in the ensuing years. And Raouf was a 26-year-old refugee from the tumult in his home country of Iran, less than a decade after the overthrow of the shah and the beginning of the American hostage crisis. Now, he’s a successful restaurateur.
Like Las Vegas, Raouf has learned to reinvent himself along the way, starting with a Middle Eastern restaurant that morphed into a Mediterranean one and eventually three, now two. And the two are being rebranded as Paymon’s Fresh Kitchen and Lounge, to reflect a more diversified menu.
When he arrived from Iran, Raouf held two full-time jobs, as a busser at the Tropicana and a dishwasher at Imperial Palace. While not working 16 hours a day, he spent the occasional day or half-day off attending community college and classes for those for whom English was not their first language.
In less than a year and a half, the back-breaking schedule and diligent savings enabled Raouf and his brother, Payam, to open the Middle Eastern Bazaar, a restaurant and market at 4147 S. Maryland Parkway. He said his was the only Middle Eastern restaurant in town, although there was one other market. After about a year, Payam Raouf left to go into teaching. And a few years later Paymon Raouf changed the name to Paymon’s Mediterranean Cafe, in the same Maryland Parkway location, which remained a landmark until closing about two years ago.
Raouf said the name change reflected a more diverse menu.
“With Middle Eastern, it was very narrow,” he said. “Mediterranean was much broader and would cover more countries, like Italy, Greece, France.” The house-favorite Athens fries, for example, invoke Greece.
Jeff Ecker joined Raouf as general manager in 2000, when they opened what Ecker said was the first hookah lounge in the country. (Ecker in 2016 created Restaurant Consultants, which is contracted to operate the restaurants.)
But the success of the restaurant brought the copycats; soon it seemed like every third restaurant in town was identifying as Mediterranean. The confusion led Raouf to trademark the name in 2001.
And now he’s changing it again, to Paymon’s Fresh Kitchen and Lounge. The sign is scheduled to change Thursday on the location at 8380 W. Sahara Ave. and Friday at 9855 S. Eastern Ave.
“The main reason is the same — to broaden it from Mediterranean,” Raouf said. “It opens up our hands to bring in trendier produce as we move forward. We have tacos and chicken tandoori, and we have some Persian dishes that are not really Mediterranean. People these days want a lot more.”
And how; the original 12 items on the menu have expanded to four pages. But some of the foundation dishes have endured.
“The falafel, the gyros, the salads, the kebabs — all of those were original items that we still have,” he said. “A lot of these items are my mother’s recipes. Those are always the best kind.”
Besides his restaurants, which normally employ about 65 people, Raouf has been active in the community, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Nevada and as past chairman of the Nevada Restaurant Association.
That long-ago immigration to the United States was sponsored by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, and neither has forgotten the connection.
“We’re happy that we perhaps had some small involvement in Paymon’s success as he turned a small neighborhood restaurant into one of the best Mediterranean restaurants in Vegas,” said Thomas A. Roberts, president and CEO, in an email. “He is a great example of the wonderful gifts and treasures that refugees bring to our community.”