For hundreds of federal bureaucrats in Crystal City's glass and steel towers, Linda's deli has supplied North Carolina ribs, collard greens and pigs feet, along with a neighborly atmosphere, for 20 years.
Yesterday, about 150 patrons spent their lunch hours chanting, clapping and shouting at a rally to show their support for the soul food restaurant's Palestinian owners, who have been informed by the Charles E. Smith Cos. that their lease will not be renewed.
Bill and Nahida Barbari welcomed the rainbow coalition of blacks and whites, bureaucrats, brass and secretaries from the Navy and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with free food and commiseration.
The Smith Cos., which owns the Crystal Plaza complex and is renovating the basement area where Linda's is located, apparently is refusing to renew Linda's lease because they don't think it fits in with the new mall's glitzy image. The Barbaris must clear out by the end of the month.
"I don't think it's fair forcing them out," said Curtie Warren, an employe of the Naval Material Command who has been eating at Linda's for 11 years. "Crystal City is all business. Nobody knows anybody and everything's impersonal . . . . But this is a family place. It's a warm atmosphere. We're all on a first-name basis here."
Eunice Blount [her name is on a sign near the cash register with the other employes' names] has been the cook since 1965, and she knows the lunch favorites of most of her patrons. Sometimes she telephones them in their offices to tell them about a salmon cake special.
"I cook mostly North Carolina cooking the way my mother taught me," Blount said. "I never used a recipe book. North Carolina barbecue spareribs, chitterlings, pigs feet, collard greens, fried chicken, grits . . . . People are coming in crying, saying it's sad about us leaving . . . . [Bill Barbari] has been like a brother to me. I want to stick by him."
For Bill Barbari, 31, Linda's was a life's work. His parents and brothers and sisters emigrated from Ramallah on the Israeli-occupied West Bank to Chicago in 1968 with only $300.
He taught himself English. He held jobs through high school and Northern Virginia Community College, and bought Linda's eight years ago from the previous owner.
"I was a poor man," Barbari said. "I've worked my way up. Self-trained I guess is what you'd call me. I'm not sure what we'll do, but I feel bad, especially for our loyal employes."
Crystal Plaza's bottom floor -- actually part of a maze of tunnels beneath Crystal City office buildings -- has had a small number of stores for years, including a dry cleaner, a shoe repair shop and a jeweler. The dingy green-tiled corridor had the feel of a bus station waiting room. But last August, the Smith Cos. started renovating the shopping area.
Now, with its skylight, art deco design, neon, blond wood, chrome and ferns, and boutiques moving in, it's an upscale shopping mall. All the other merchants were asked to stay on, the business owners said.
Barbari said that a Smith Cos. representative told him Linda's "just doesn't fit our plans." Barbari added that he repeatedly offered to move to another location in Crystal City, where Smith owns numerous office buildings, but that the company refused.
Barbari said that he thinks he is being forced out to make room for a fast food restaurant under construction in the mall near his business.
A petition drawn up by Linda's deli supporters, with 1,500 signatures, complains about Linda's removal and about the "large restaurant chains which are saturating the mall."
The Smith Cos. declined to comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, the Barbaris' friends say they will miss the man with the Middle Eastern accent who extended them credit when they couldn't pay.
"You feel like they're part of the family," said one Navy secretary who, like some other protesters, declined to be identified. "I've been coming down here five years, two times a day. I've gained 25 pounds in five years, so that ought to say something about their home cooking."