Actor Ramy Youssef Has Invested in This New York Egyptian Restaurant (2024)

Zooba opened in Nolita back in 2019 — the first U.S. location of the Cairo-based fast-casual restaurant with spins on Egyptian street food. This month, the Kenmare Street business has flipped to become full-service and overhauled its menu — with the help of a new investor, celebrity comedian Ramy Youssef, known for his Hulu series Ramy, and more recently, his role in Poor Things.

“Is Zooba’s koshary better than the one my mom makes? I cannot publicly comment at this time for fear of what my mother would do to me,” Youssef said through a spokesperson.

It is Youssef’s first foray into restaurant investments. The Egyptian American actor became a fan of Zooba through being a customer, having even visited during trips to Egypt. Later, he used the New York Zooba as a set location for his show. (Youssef will not be involved in the day-to-day of the business.)

When Zooba first landed in lower Manhattan, it was the first U.S. location for founder Chris Khalifa’s Cairo-based Egyptian street food chain. At the time, Eater reported the founder had raised $4 million, with plans to expand Zooba across America.

“When the street food craze kicked off, people were doing such interesting things with their respective food culture,” Khalifa told Eater at the time. “But no one was doing that with Egyptian food. There was a very clear gap.”

In fact, Zooba had all the trappings of what it takes to be the next big thing in fast-casual spots in New York: Dishes were affordable, quick-service (served on trays and to-go in newspaper-style wrapping), and, most importantly, tasty.

The space’s interior design was unlike any fast-casual the city had seen, with colorful wallpaper collages and LED light displays that made it look almost like a futuristic club — distinct from Egyptian restaurants that dot neighborhoods like Astoria or Jersey City that house Egyptian enclaves.

Actor Ramy Youssef Has Invested in This New York Egyptian Restaurant (1) Zooba

Eater’s then-critic Ryan Sutton called the business “NYC’s next must-try fast-casual,” calling out snacks like hawawshi, a minced meat sandwich. Just months into its opening, it made Bon Appetit’s NYC100 rankings.

Yet, the restaurant, on a prime corner, just down the street from a Sweetgreen, never grew to multiple locations in New York — stagnating from opening just before the pandemic.

Now, 100 Kenmare Street is making a daring move: transitioning Zooba to a full-service restaurant, with reservations already bookable on Resy (the takeout counter will remain at the front).

“For us, it was never really being a fast-casual restaurant — it was about advocating for Egypt’s recognition, and when we came to New York we thought that was the right vehicle,” says Khalifa. “Dining habits and office habits changed, things were going well,” but it made them rethink things.

Moustafa Elrefaey oversees the kitchen, a chef and co-founder who has been with Zooba since 2012. Ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel), alongside other staples, will remain, but a newly unveiled, extensive menu places emphasis on “home-cooked dishes that have, over time, become a cornerstone of Egypt’s culinary heritage”: like a chopped mallow leaf and chicken stew; braised lamb shank with beets, onions, peppers, and mint leaves; branzino; and orange rosemary duck. The baladi bread, which is used for dishes like the hawawshi burger ($17), are made in-house. Mains on the new menu are priced between $18 to $40. Additionally, this is the only location with a list of wines and beer (highlighting Middle Eastern brewers like Back Home Beer based here in New York). There are also zero-proof options like a hibiscus rose soda. Overall, it’s an ambitious undertaking.

Actor Ramy Youssef Has Invested in This New York Egyptian Restaurant (2) Zooba

The crew spent the better part of a year updating the dining area so it’s more inviting: adding arabesque wood carvings, reworking the layout, and other design details.

It’s a similar line of thinking other fast-casual operators have grappled with. Dig, aka Dig Inn, had its well-reviewed 232 Bleecker restaurant (but it has since shuttered), and Inday added a sit-down offshoot in Williamsburg (it’s making other changes to position itself beyond lunch bowls, with a pastry program at its new Soho outpost).

Abroad, Zooba continues to grow: There are 14 Zooba locations, nine in Cairo, including inside what’s considered to be the world’s largest museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum; four in Saudi Arabia, plus openings in Kuwait and Bahrain this year.

Zooba’s mission remains, first and foremost, to create an Egyptian menu “without wanting to water it down,” says Khalifa.

Actor Ramy Youssef Has Invested in This New York Egyptian Restaurant (2024)
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