Contributing Writer Bayan Atari
Acknowledging that Sahara Restaurant and Hookah Bar is gone is like laying a racist older relative to death: you feel bad on principle, because death simply is not a happy thing; but you’re not exactly mourning the loss either.
Comparing Sahara to a racist relative is by no means an exaggeration. I worked at Sahara for a brief period of time during my freshman year, so I know what went on behind the perpetually shattered glass door. Racial slurs regularly spewed from mouths of the manager and the cook, who was essentially an assistant manager. Sexism wasn’t uncommon, either. The manager used misogynistic and vaguely sexual terms to refer to the team of girls that made up the wait staff, and there was an unspoken understanding that we were to wear as little clothing as possible if we wanted tips. It was a hostile environment, to say the least.
The most impressive thing about Sahara was how long it stayed in business. Richmond, especially the area around VCU campus, sees the coming and going of restaurants at a rapid pace. It wasn’t the quality of Sahara’s hookah or its food that kept it going. Being middle eastern and having frequented both cheap and expensive hookah bars back in my country of origin, there’s no doubt in my mind that Sahara’s product is subpar. I worked there for two months before deciding that both the conditions and the hours were unbearable, giving me inside knowledge on just how bad the physical environment was, as well. Cleaning up after closing meant sweeping and mopping away at a layer of grime. It could only be reduced, never truly cleaned. The men’s bathroom was perpetually out of order. I went home every night, or rather morning, at five A.M. with a layer of ash underneath my fingernails. Thanks to Sahara, I know filth as well as I know hookah.
Seriously, what kept Sahara going for as long as it did was its proximity to a captive audience of VCU freshmen that will eat anything that tastes better than Shafer Dining Hall, though I’d argue that Shafer’s pizza is fresher and tastes decent even when you’re sober. The food was the sort of fare that’s mildly enjoyable if you’re intoxicated. The restaurant served dry pizza with a cardboard-reminiscent texture and soggy curly fries to the freshmen that kept the place in business. These Freshmen have never had a properly-prepared hookah. Those freshmen didn’t tip well either, unfortunately.
Speaking of tipping, the service was the only mildly passable thing at Sahara. That opinion may be biased from the fact that I was a waitress there, but there was a sort of kinship between the girls who flipped low-quality coals and served frozen cheesecake at Sahara. Probably because we were all suffering. Staying awake through the overnight hours by consuming copious amounts of Cocaine, an energy drink served at the high-class establishment, not the drug. However, I think I did see an underage-looking patron snort something suspicious at one point.
In the end I’m glad no one will ever have to work at Sahara ever again. It’s comforting to know that freshmen and drunk Richmond natives stumbling out from the nearest club will be forced to find a hookah bar where the hookahs have been cleaned properly and don’t taste like ash. If anything the fact that Sahara survived for as long as it did proved that its former location is great for business. Hopefully whatever establishment takes Sahara’s place won’t serve slimy, grease-covered Philly cheese steaks.