Paul Wilson: La Luna Express – Middle East comes to Barton East

In a building that's been a bank for more than a century, the La Luna restaurant chain bets a million dollars that Barton Street – and the Hamilton General – is ready for some exotic fare from afar.
Mohammed Harb saw this old bank at Barton and Victoria and loved it. Soon it will be the city's fourth La Luna Express. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

For 104 years, the handsome building at the corner of Barton and Victoria has been a bank. Nothing wrong with that. We all need a place to stash our savings or beg a loan. But a bank is kind of boring.

Now, however, there are exotic days ahead at this address – shish tawook, tabbouli, fattoush, rotisserie-chicken shawarma, hummus supreme.

La Luna Express, born-in-Hamilton purveyor of foods from the Middle East, arrives on Barton East. 

New enterprise comes hard to this faded street. But La Luna believes there’s a future here. Between purchase of the building and the work required to turn a bank into a restaurant, there’s an investment of nearly $1 million.

La Luna founder Ghazi Harb in the early days on King Street. (Courtesy the Harb family)

The story begins about 30 years ago when young Ghazi Harb arrives in Montreal from Lebanon. Turns out he doesn’t like the new life at all, plans to go back home.

But there’s a package he promised to deliver to cousin Hussein in Hamilton. The cousin has a restaurant on James North, and convinces Ghazi to help him with the business.

Hamilton gets its first taste

That leads to the opening of another restaurant called Sarah’s Place at King and Victoria. And there, Ghazi starts slipping some of that delicious food from home onto the menu.

Later, The Shiek Dining Lounge on King between Caroline and Hess. La Luna opens on Concession in 1998. And two years later, a new La Luna at King and Queen. Along the way, Ghazi brings five brothers from Lebanon, all working in the family business.

Ghazi’s oldest child, Mohammed, opened a restaurant in Burlington seven years ago. The father let his son make his own mistakes.

When La Luna was young, Hamilton needed educating about food from Lebanon. (La Luna Express)
 

“You have to be 100 per cent focused, but I was young,” says Mohammed, now 29. The location didn’t work, they shut it down. Mohammed put his apron back on, went back into the kitchen at King and Queen. 

But somehow, he decided, he was going to redeem himself.

“I saw the pita movement,” he said. “People were going in, getting fresh pita and getting out.” He figured that could work for his family too. 

Same food, fast service

He sold his father on the concept and three years ago La Luna Express was born. Lots of take out, some seating, but no waitress coming to your table for the order.

Now there are three locations. The downtown branch, at the Hamilton City Centre (formerly the Eaton Centre), opened in the summer of 2010, and is mostly a lunch place. A few months later, another La Luna Express opened on Upper James, just north of the Linc. The doors there don’t close until midnight.

“That one really exceeded our expectations,” Mohammed says. “We thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to work.’” Last year they opened another location on Centennial Parkway.

The Bank of Montreal is gone, but the new owners plan to honour the building's history. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Meanwhile, at the other end of town, the Bank of Montreal was making some changes. That stone-front structure at 281Barton East went up in 1909. It was the oldest branch in the city, even older than BMO’s columned cathedral at James and Main, which opened in 1928.

But BMO had decided they didn’t need that branch on Barton anymore. They expanded their presence on James North and shut down the Barton branch last spring. 

Mohammed drove by, saw the For Sale sign. “You can’t deny the beauty of that building,” he says.

A hungry hospital

Beauty is good. But even better is a huge complex right next door that’s full of hungry prospects.  According to the Hamilton General, there are 1,940 staff members, 500 physicians and 1,000 visitors and patients a day.

There are a couple of places to eat at the General, but Mohammed believes his menu can coax some business across the street. 

“We take no shortcuts. Everything you eat here is made here... Look in my fridge at home and all you see is drinks. The food we make is what I eat.”  He hasn’t turned to fat – he’s six-foot-four, 185 pounds.

The Bank of Montreal building on Barton is two decades older than the flagship at James and Main. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

La Luna on Concession, across the street from the Juravinski Hospital, has 120 seats and fills right up each lunch hour. This new restaurant will have only 40 seats, so Mohammed knows he’ll have to get creative. “I’m going to have runners, so we can get food to people right at their desks.”

His father is in Lebanon right now, and it is up to Mohammed to get Barton and Victoria built. Right now, they’re working on turning the big safe into a walk-in cooler. 

Out with the bank, in with the baklava and baba ghanoughe. All going well, the doors open in six weeks.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca  |  @PaulWilsonCBC

  

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