Story by Ginelle Gross
Photos by Art Pekum
Take just one step inside Al Hamraa and you’re no longer in Charlottesville.
Oriental rugs mask the concrete floors and traditional lights with goat-skin lampshades hang from ceiling lined with exposed pipes. Aside from these modern details, Al Hamraa is a replica of a Moroccan dining room and hails back to its Moorish inheritance. The intimate ambiance offers diners a unique cultural experience. Tucked away in a small strip of other restaurants and shops, Al Hamraa is a hidden gem of Moroccan culture. The name derives from Alhambra, a Moorish palace built in the 14th century. Alhambra translates to “the red one,” and it’s no mystery why the name was chosen.
Hues of reds and maroons permeate the room. The crimson colors are incorporated into the decor, the mats lining the floor and even the cushions on the wooden benches. The walls are painted dark gold and red to highlight the multiple relics brought from Morocco. “It’s easy to replicate … the culture, because I know it,” says Karim Sellam. Standing over 6-feet tall, the reserved owner was born and raised in Beni Mellal, Morocco, before he moved to the United States in 2001.
Before Charlottesville, Sellam lived for 10 years in Venice, Italy. His other restaurant next door, Italian Ristorante Al Dente, pays homage to his love for Italian culture. Sellam makes an effort to keep both restaurants as culturally authentic as possible, so his diners can appreciate a different cultural experience. “If you know about the cultures, it attracts customers,” says Sellam. Not only does Sellam run two restaurants, but he also is the head chef for both.
Both Al Hamraa and Ristorante Al Dente share a large kitchen in the back of the building. Sellam is in charge of preparing two separate menus. “Karim is married to the restaurant,” says close friend Joy Rayman. “Or rather, both restaurants.” He attended culinary classes for a few months during his time in Italy, but the food enthusiast discovered that they weren’t for him. Instead, Sellam developed most of his cooking skills through experience. “The two cultures share a long history — the Mediterranean history — and diet,” he says. This makes it easier in the kitchen because the restaurants share ingredients and styles of food. Sellam opened Ristorante Al Dente in 2003 and Al Hamraa in 2009.
At Al Hamraa, diners are seated in long benches that cling to the walls. They place their dishes on the low wooden tables in front of them or on their laps. The atmosphere is open and casual, almost as if everyone is sharing their meals together. There are leather stools arranged haphazardly across from the tables and benches, creating a “sit as you please” arrangement. Soft Moroccan music plays as customers chat and take in the decor through the low lighting. But more important is the menu. “Customers come for the food,” Sellam says. “If you don’t have good food, ultimately they won’t come.” The server leaves behind a pencil so customers can check off choices on the paper menus, a helpful gesture for those who don’t speak Arabic.
The genuine Moroccan menu includes meals such as kefta briwat (seasoned ground beef pastry), balah elbahr (a mussels and clam dish), and meakouda (potato and cilantro cakes). Other menu highlights include traditional couscous and the highly recommended harira, the national soup of Morocco. Each dish is based off of traditional Moroccan food. Sellam personally taught the other chefs how to cook and prepare the dishes.
The food is served to share. Families and groups sit clustered together, often sharing plates with their neighbors, determined to try everything.
“The food was wonderful,” says Ian Cville, who brought his mother for dinner. “We tried a bit of everything.” Not only is the food authentic, it is also reasonably priced. The dishes on the menu are listed according to cost, which ranges from $2.90 to $15.90. A small bar is situated at the front of the restaurant, providing visitors a range of cocktails, martinis and beers. Al Hamraa offers a variety of Moroccan wines served with dinner, that can be ordered by the bottle.
On Friday evenings, around 7p.m., Middle Eastern chimes replace the light dinner music. People look up from their meals to see a small woman gracefully step onto the open floor, swaying her hips to the song. For her performances, each lasting about 10 minutes, Joy Rayman belly dances for diners at Al Hamraa. She moves around the restaurant, giving everyone a clear view of the performance. “The belly dancing is great,” Cville says, “She was amazing, really, very good.” Rayman moves confidently around the room, her small black slippers tapping across the floor. A longtime friend of Sellam, Rayman has performed at Al Hamraa since it opened. The two have been friends for more than 12 years. “He’s like a brother,” Rayman says. In 2003, Sellam invited her to stay with him and his family in Morocco.
Al Hamraa offers belly dancing performances almost every Friday night, starting at 7 p.m. “We have more people performing here now than any time before,” says Rayman. While Rayman is the resident belly dancer at Al Hamraa on Fridays, she invites other guest belly dancers to perform with her. The diners clap when the performance ends, returning to their meals and conversations. Sellam comes out from the kitchen to talk with a few of the customers, shaking their hands. At one point he bounces a toddler on his lap while he chats with her parents. “Moroccan people are naturally very social,” Rayman says. “Karim likes to talk to everyone. Everyone knows him.”
Sellam’s open nature is reflected in his restaurant, which offers customers a relaxed, open dining experience. Al Hamraa gives the Valley a Moroccan oasis in Charlottesville.