When Deana Mikdad gently broke the news to the old man, he wept. For fifteen years, maybe twenty, he'd eaten lunch with his son at Cherokee Dining on 12th Avenue -- the "Cherokee" to most of us -- three days a week. It is to him, as it is to so many other longtime regulars, his home away from home, a tried-and-true neighborhood pillar of camaraderie, where everyone from schmoozing politicians to social barflies co-exist under the same convivial roof.
But the elderly gentleman was just one of many who cried today when Mikdad and her staff broke the news that after a 28-year run, their cherished Cherokee is closing on October 14.
"It's very difficult for the whole family," says Mikdad, who, along with her sister, Rhonda Vogts, owns the restaurant, which opened in 1984 in the Golden Triangle. "All of us have worked here -- my mom, my dad, all six kids, nieces, our sons and daughters -- but it was a unanimous family decision by all of us to close," she adds. "The last year, in particular, has been a struggle, and we just feel like it's a good time to end it."
But the dismay, she admits, is palpable. "The majority of the customers we've told have cried. It's like going through a death," she confesses. "We told the staff, and it's especially hard on the people who have been with us a long time, but they knew we were having struggles along the way...still, there's no denying that this a difficult thing for everyone to process."
And the grieving stage is only just beginning. The holidays are right around the corner, and the Cherokee has long epitomized the Christmas spirit, beautifying the cozy, soft-lit quarters with thousands of twinkling lights and decorations worthy of the front cover of a glossy magazine.
Reservations, in fact, are often made a year in advance, but this year, those strands of lights, along with the evergreen wreathes festooned with cherry red bows, garlands and Christmas trees, will be faded memories. "The biggest heartbreaker of all is Christmas, and knowing that people will show up looking for us...and we won't be here," laments Mikdad, who estimates that she spends forty to fifty hours each year decking the space with boughs of holly and 10,000 lights, excluding those that illuminate the exterior. "I have no idea what we're going to do with all of the decorations. That's one of the many things that we still need to figure out," she says, sighing.
The memories, she says -- of Christmas, of customers and of the staff -- are "epic." Her brother, for example, was married at the Cherokee. "We turned this place into a little wedding chapel," recollects Mikdad. And one of her stalwart servers met his girlfriend -- now wife -- at the restaurant. "A lot of people I know had first dates at this restaurant and then wound up getting married. That's pretty cool."
And several of those happy couples, she hopes, will take time for one last hurrah, when the Cherokee hosts a party, open to the public, on the evening of October 14, following the final brunch service, which goes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. "Brunch is really popular here, so we'll do that one last time, close for a few hours and then reopen at 5 for a party," she says, noting that several former employees, along with the entire family, including her mother, who officially retired ten years ago, will be in attendance. "We just want people to get together, have a good time, share stories of what this place meant to them and make a great lasting memory of 28 amazing years."
Twenty-eight years. That's a long time in the restaurant business, and while Mikdad says she has no idea what she'll do after the Cherokee closes, she'll remember, fondly, the last three decades of running the restaurant, where she's also the kitchen manager. "This place has been my life. I raised my three kids in this building. I can't look back with any regrets," she insists. "We've undoubtedly made 100 mistakes along the way, but we've also had just as many accomplishments."
And, yes, the space has been sold -- and we'll share that part of the story soon -- but right now, this is the Cherokee's day to shine in the sun.
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