Submitted by Katherine Bennett –
It is a cliché that people want to have a neighbourhood place that they can go to where everybody knows their name. When customers are greeted by Sam, a neighbourhood icon and server at Moe’s World Famous Newport Restaurant, that’s the way they feel. Sam likes people and it shows.
Samir Matta, popularly known as Sam, has the welcoming personality and good memory that combine to ensure that customers feel welcomed and, if they are regulars, served by someone who remembers their faces, their names and their food preferences.
“Which section is Sam working tonight?” is a frequently asked question at the Newport. People want to get their meal but also want to chat with Sam (who does not write down the order but simply remembers it). Not long ago, when Sam was out for a stroll on a summer’s night, he noticed that the staff at the Newport were very busy. He simply went in and took over as busboy for a while to help his colleagues—a clear illustration of Sam’s helping nature.
Sam has been working at the Newport since 1993. Starting at the Newport when it was located at Richmond Road and Churchill, Sam’s section held 40 seats that were booked every night. That is a lot of meals served up by Sam over the years.
Sam has had a long association with the restaurant business in Ottawa. He was co-owner and chef of The Bistro on Wellington Street in the 1980s. At that time in Ottawa, the west end was not known for its good eateries but Sam’s partner Leslie “Les” Lucas did some research and concluded that the Kitchissippi neighbourhood was ready for a new concept in dining. The Bistro’s location did not deter customers, including many of Ottawa’s movers and shakers (some of whom arrived with RCMP security). The bistro concept of good, freshly made food, inventive recipes and nice people in a casual ambiance caught on in a city more used to low-key diners and formal dining rooms. (On a personal note, in the 1980s my husband and I enjoyed many meals at The Bistro, prepared and served by Sam, while Les took care of drinks and the front of the house. The Coquilles St. Jacques was a favourite, remembered to this day.)
The Bistro was written up in Where to Eat in Canada every year. It also appeared in many popular magazines of the day including Gourmet and Bon Appétit. One article in Gourmet captures the way that Sam thinks about his work. When a disappointed customer at The Bistro could not get the cold soup that she had ordered because it was a very hot day and The Bistro had run out of the soup, Sam called her the next day and said he would like to drop something off at her house. Thinking she had left some article behind, she agreed, only to have Sam turn up at her door with a container of the soup for her dinner.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Sam came to Canada in 1976 for a visit. Lebanon was then in the midst of a civil war and he liked Canada so he renewed his visa and decided to make Canada his home. Sam had trained as an accountant in Lebanon and spoke Arabic and French. Because he had to learn English and earn a paycheque at the same time, he got into the restaurant business. He met Les, they opened The Bistro together, and the rest is part of Ottawa’s history. Since selling The Bistro and closing its successor, Bistro Bis, Sam opted for a change of pace when the owner of Newport, Moe Attalah, offered him his current job. Sam made Westboro his home, and over the years has brought 17 members of his family to Canada.
Sam contributes a lot to the special neighbourhood feel of Westboro. When he goes for groceries, he checks if his neighbour needs something. When he cooks, he shares his creations with his neighbour. He is the volunteer chef when the Newport kitchen prepares Meals on Wheels at Christmas. He likes people, he is kind, and it shows. It is not surprising that Sam is such a highly regarded figure in Kitchissippi.