DRESSED in harem pants and a gold sequined top barely containing her ample bosom, Saida steps onto the small stage of the Calvert Restaurant. A violinist, drummer and aud (a stringed instrument resembling a mandolin) player wail their hearts out as she provocatively swivels and shakes her hips, stomach and shoulders. She certainly is no Jane Fonda but, then, belly dancers are supposed to have lush curves.
Saida is earthy, if a bit camp, much like the Calvert Restaurant itself. Known to the regulars as "Mama Ayesha's," it's a quiet, friendly, family-run place that manages to bridge two cultures. The decor is a bizarre combination of the exotic Middle East and'50s Americana. Brass lanterns from Syria hang over maroon vinyl booths with juke boxes on each table. A few rugs and photographs of places not too far from the Mount of Olives, where Mama Ayesha is from, adorn the buckling paneled walls. The musicians are from Morocco and Jerusalem, the belly dancers -- Saida, Nazira and Sheherazade, a.k.a Jackie, Pam and Pat -- are American.
During the early part of the evening, the crowd is largely American, here to sample the generous portions of hoummos with piping hotpita bread, tangy shish kebab, chicken, couscous and baklava. After 10, when the musicians start to play, Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis and Moroccans filter in to have a bite, hear some familiar songs and talk. Many seem to know each other well. The musicians gladly take requests and don't seem to mind when audience members join in the singing. Sometimes even the waiters hum along while serving up some baba ganoush.
And then there is Mama Ayesha, the woman behind it all. Well into her nineties, though she'd never admit it, she sits in the back of the main dining room with her eye on everyone and everything. Sporting an embroidered top and blue ribbons in her hair, she chats with the regulars or with her sister, Sophia, and son, Samir, who do most of the cooking.
The whole scene feels a lot like going to dinner at grandma's -- assuming grandma serves up belly dancing with dessert.
THE CALVERT RESTAURANT -- 1967 Calvert Street N.W. Kitchen open Sunday to Tuesday, noon to 11 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 1 a.m. Entertainment Wednesday through Saturday starts at 10 p.m. Entrees $5.25 to $8.50.