CLEVELAND, Ohio — On March 22, Karl Abounader will walk out the door of Karl’s Inn of the Barristers, 1264 West 3rd St., Cleveland, one last time. After 32 years of ownership, he’s being evicted from his month-to-month lease and doesn’t know why. He received the eviction notice on Jan. 3, but negotiated one more St. Patrick’s Day celebration and a goodbye party on March 18. Then, the deli goes dark on March 22.
When the deli leaves, the red brick building across from the Justice Center and next to ABC Bail Bonds, will stand empty. Its future is unknown to Abounader. His restaurant has been a downtown breakfast and lunch fixture for justice system types during the week, and for tourists and sports fans on weekends.
“Back in the day, we’d get everyone, judges, lawyers, mafia, FBI,” he recalls. When the Browns were in town, the dining rooms would overflow with sports fans and sometimes coaches and players. Photos commemorating those meetings and more hang on the wood-paneled walls.
On a late afternoon last week, Abounader, 72, sat with a white ceramic mug of black coffee to wax nostalgic about the years. “My motto is you come in as a customer, you leave as family.”
With the energy of a younger man, he slides out of the booth every few minutes to greet a guest with “How’s the family?” Or to draw a Stella Artois for a customer at the bar. Or to pile corned beef high on rye.
The only worker in the restaurant these days, he waits tables, preps sandwiches, serves beer and washes dishes. The staffing situation is shaky because of pandemic attrition and now, the pending eviction.
As his coffee grows cold, he approaches two guests who settled into a booth. The man asks which is better, the burger or the pulled pork. Abounader answers without humor, “Whatever you like is more delicious.”
He sounds gruff, but he’s simply reflecting the customer’s attitude back to him. Abounader grows warm and animated when talking about his 54 years in the restaurant business. And he’s forthright when admitting it will be hard to see this chapter of his life end so abruptly. “I’m attached to this place. It’s been a good run,” he says.
That doesn’t mean he’s out of the Greater Cleveland hospitality scene. “I’m going to take a deep breath,” he laughs. Then, he may help his four sons run dining spots he owns at Crocker Park — Auntie Anne’s and Mikey’s Pizza.
He has been in the food business since he arrived in the United States from Lebanon in 1969. Then 19 years old, he worked with his aunt and uncle at Shibley’s Cafe in the National City bank Building on Euclid Avenue during the day. At night he worked at Swingos’ Keg & Quarter.
In 1978, he opened Karl’s Place and The Snuggery on Huron and Prospect. After 12 years, with the help of his friend Kenny Lanci of Consolidated Graphics Group, he moved to his current location. The star on this menu, he claims, is the town’s leanest corned beef sandwiches.
“They charged a little extra to cure and trim the corned beef,” he says. “But, I didn’t mind. Then we’d cook and get the salt out of it. Nobody else does that.”
Rifling through memories, Abounader says, “I want to thank the people who supported us over the years, customers, family, employees, vendors. There are so many people I can’t even mention everyone’s names who supported us over the years.”
“I’ll miss the people,” he says. “I’m not going to miss the hustle and bustle, but I’ll miss the customers.”
The restaurant will open at 5 a.m. on March 17. A week later the open sign will be gone.
Paris Wolfe is a life and culture reporter for Cleveland.com. She has a special interest in food and dining. You can reach her with restaurant and food news and story ideas at email@example.com. Here’s a directory of her latest posts. Follow her on Instagram @pariswolfe.