A wooden swinging gate is perched open at the entrance to Babylon. Exotic aromas and romantic decor draw diners through the gate and into a palatial courtyard, where a long pool reflects images of lush vines climbing brick walls.
Through the door, hand-laid Moorish tiles cling to the ceiling, and lush velvet couches beckon to be lounged upon. Twelve-foot hanging drapes in rich red hues pull back to reveal a secret party room with sparkling chandeliers, and behind another hidden door is a private wine library for exclusive tastings of the finest reds and whites from around the world.
Lovers climb a back staircase to find a celebration space fit for the most elegant of brides and grooms (or brides and brides or grooms and grooms).
This is the opulent world of Babylon.
The structure that’s now home to Babylon’s restaurant and event space was first built in 1900. From the building’s beginnings until it closed in 1930, it was home to the Melrose Textile Mill, which manufactured underbritches and bathing suits.
The business thrived with the coming of Raleigh’s first public swimming pool, but like so many mills, factories, and business across the country, it was hit hard by the stock market crash and closed its doors for good just a year after Black Tuesday.
Between 1930 and 2009, the building sat vacant, sad and lonely, save for a short stint when it housed a roofing company in the 1960s. Nobody knew it yet, but hosting that roofing company would bring the mill its savior.
In 1969, Abdul Zalal, a recent Afghani immigrant, began working at the roofing company and, in 1979, he bought the mill.
Though Abdul was the first to truly see the potential in this historic building, he didn’t quite have the means or the foresight to undertake a restoration. Instead, he installed a new roof, boarded up the windows, and left it vacant for several more years until Samad came along with a passion for history, food, and Morocco.
Like many people who are hipstorians at heart, Samad Hachby passed by the Melrose Knitting Mill for years, each time becoming more and more curious about its past and more and more excited about its future. A crumbling structure that many surely passed by each day without a second thought– to Samad, it was a diamond in the rough.
The knitting mill finally got its day in the sun when, in 2009, Samad befriended the building’s owner, Abdul, and talked him out of turning it into a gym. Instead, the dilapidated mill was restored and reimagined with the creative, hipstorical passion of one Samad Hachby from Casablanca, Morocco.
Babylon restaurant honors Samad’s Moroccan roots and is designed to make you feel like you’re in a Moroccan home. The menu is inspired by traditional Moroccan and Mediterranean dishes and was first created by Samad himself as he experimented in the kitchen, recreating meals from his home country: bronzed chickpeas, harrira soup, braised lamb tagine, and couscous tfaya, to name a few.
Samad was passionate about creating a truly authentic North African experience, so much so that he traveled home to Casablanca multiple times to bring back decor like the handmade marble tiles that cover the restaurant’s ceiling.
The restoration took two years and, in 2011, Samad opened Babylon’s doors with a warm Moroccan welcome.
And that’s just what we received at Babylon. With my cousin and friends in tow, we enjoyed an incredible meal of lamb and chicken tagine, couscous, calamari, sausage and bruschetta. Babylon was our North African oasis, a welcome escape from the North Carolina heat, where wine flowed as freely as mirthful conversation.
If it were not for an Afghani and a Moroccan, the Melrose Knitting Mill may have been lost forever. It may have crumbled.
Babylon is a beautiful reminder of the hard work of immigrants that American cities are built upon. This place represents so many American businesses. It represents America. Our country’s history would not be if it were not for the hard work of immigrants– immigrants who saw the potential in a place and built it up into something beautiful.
Any hipstorian knows how important it is to honor our history and heritage, and ours is one of immigrants. Let us work together to build up what has begun to crumble and to restore it– to reimagine it as something even more beautiful.
The former Babylon Restaurant is has been reimagined to incorporate Italian cuisine under the same owner and the same roof. Learn more about Mulino: www.mulinoraleigh.com.
Suggestions for more hipstorical places in Louisville? Email me and help me build my archives!