This past Saturday marked the opening of “… one of the most-anticipated restaurant openings in the area,” in the words of Cathy Finley of Finely, a Knitting Party: Aria Mediterranean Cuisine, owned by Azim Naderpoor, opened for business.
It was not planned. It happened that the Farmers’ Market, a weekly event held across the street in the town hall parking lot, was canceled due to rain and left the residents of Swarthmore hungering. But Naderpoor, who has been selling his prepared foods at the market for the last four years, didn’t want his hard work to go to waste. He simply moved his food inside his restaurant, and opened his door. As proof of Finley’s statement, “The line stretched far outside the door! It was packed!” Naderpoor said. Aria was officially inaugurated into Swarthmore.
The restaurant offers two rooms for formal dining, along with made-to-order and prepared meals for takeout. The dining rooms are decorated with Afghani posters and artwork, and Naderpoor plans to install a television in the rear dining room.
While Aria styles itself as a Mediterranean restaurant, it dishes cuisines from a variety of culinary traditions. “We have Mexican food, Greek food, Indian food—there’s something for everyone,” Naderpoor said. But 75% of his food is vegetarian, which Naderpoor hopes will attract Swatties.
From Kabul to Swarthmore
Naderpoor’s roots lie in Kabul, Afghanistan, but he found his way to Pennsylvania fifteen years ago, joining an Iranian restaurant called the Caspian Grille. Like Aria, the Grille’s menu hailed from a variety of culinary traditions. This first experience in the States taught Naderpoor the art of cooking and managing a business in the food services industry. His skills were requested to service Swarthmore, four years ago, after several residents were inspired by his food at a restaurant in Springfield.
His dishes first appeared at the Co-Op and became instantly popular, so the Co-Op general manager recommended that Naderpoor additionally claim a stall at the local Farmers Market. Now, Naderpoor’s stand has become a homely fixture for frequent Saturday visitors. Finley said, “A lot of us still get our Saturday lunches from Azim, and I can tell you that every Saturday afternoon there are several items on my knitting table that have come from his stand.”
With the commercial success of his Swarthmore debut, Naderpoor began to wonder if he could turn this into a full-time opportunity. An empty space on Dartmouth Avenue, across from the Market opened up and Swarthmore seemed like the perfect town in which to open up a new business. Approximately a year ago, he began renting the space and getting it ready for his restaurant.
Delays for the Opening Day
But the journey of the restaurant dream from inception to reality was halting due to financial concerns and a struggle to meet building regulations.
Aria is not backed by financial investors. The financial support to open has come from Naderpoor’s personal savings and the savings of his father-in-law, who works sixteen hours every day at two jobs to make ends meet.
“He said to me, ‘Maybe if this works out, I can finally quit one of my jobs,’ and I hope I can give him at least that much,” said Naderpoor of his father-in-law. He could not afford to rent his first choice space, the current location of Hobbs Coffee, which is a premium location due its proximity to the college and train platform.
The expected opening day was repeatedly delayed as Naderpoor’s tried to meet the expectations of the building and fire codes in changing the interior design to meet his aesthetic vision of the restaurant. “Everything had to be exactly the way it was on the blueprint—my bathroom mirror was less than half an inch off, and the inspector said I had to move it before he came back some other week for another inspection.”
According to outgoing Mayor Eck Gerner, the tightened regulations are a recent development. There was a push, several years ago, for towns to adopt state and federal fire safety and building codes, and Swarthmore chose to do so. This move began to involve a state inspection agency, and newly licensed inspectors, who wanted to ensure the buildings complied strictly with every code, said current restaurant owner Scott Richardson, owner of Occasionally Yours. Since the authority of the inspectors lay out of the jurisdiction of the borough administration, it was not possible for the local government to expedite the process. Naderpoor said that he was mainly assisted by Marty Spiegel, the Swarthmore Town Center Coordinator, who served as a liaison between Naderpoor, the contractors, and the inspectors.
Yet Aria has opened and it has kept Naderpoor busy-–so busy that he has little time or energy to spend with his wife and two boys, one of whom was born only three weeks ago. “I hope that he is my good luck charm,” he said.
Several residents of the Ville have expressed excitement about what Aria brings to the town center. Among them, Michael Matotek, who came into Aria with his son, said, “The town was really lacking in options until Azim opened up.” Matotek and his neighbor, Joe Coyle, were previously acquainted with Naderpoor through his stand at the Farmers’ Market. “It’s not like we didn’t eat this kind of food elsewhere—it’s just nice to be able to support a local business, where you know that your money is going to someone who you know personally, and who knows your name as you walk in his door,” Coyle said. “It’s great that he knows us because he gets my son to try food he wouldn’t try otherwise, and he remembers what we like and don’t like,” Matotek added. Coyle also said that Aria’s presence expanded opportunities for having “everything from business meetings to casual encounters take place in the Ville.”
The “Coming Soon Sign,” excited many Swat students who have often criticized the Ville for the limited dining options. “I’m really excited to be able to get this kind of cuisine somewhere closer to home than Philly,” said Cathy Ng ’10.
Aria is now open 11AM – 9PM, seven days a week, though these hours are subject to change in the future, depending on traffic.