SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Atlanta’s food scene is popping with chefs gaining national recognition for their craft and a renewed interest in Southern cuisine, though the restaurant you should seek out most right now is Aviva by Kameel, which has likely been under your nose for years. There are two types of Atlantans: those that love Aviva by Kameel, and those who haven’t been yet. Thanks to the Mediterranean restaurant’s location in the bustling Peachtree Center, it’s not a destination on most Atlantans’ radars. But it should be.
Aviva is located in Peachtree Center—a microcosm of Atlanta. At 2.3 million square feet with six office buildings, three hotels, and a MARTA station that feeds directly into the complex, to call the Peachtree Center food court busy is an understatement. With options like Checkers and Willy’s, it’s not exactly a foodie haven and the decor is a drab throwback to the ’90s (though they are renovating). The surrounds make Aviva standout all the more with its bright green walls and minimal, clean aesthetic. Your nose will prickle at the aroma of the chicken shawarma grilled with cumin and turmeric, and it’s hard to miss the line of people busting into the hallway as they patiently wait to place their order. It’s not unusual to be greeted by a man clad in a white chef’s uniform as he exclaims, “Hello, gorgeous! Have I told you I love you?” and places a piece of still warm baklava in your hand. That man is the man, and the reason that so many people flock to Aviva: Kameel Srouji.
Srouji’s Mediterranean food isn’t your usual food court fare. It’s made from scratch with American-grown produce, organic (when possible) meats, and minimal ingredients. “One of the things we do at Aviva is cook for the soul. Everything is cooked with extra virgin olive oil. We don’t touch pork, we don’t touch any butter or white sugar. That’s why we moved the Coke machine out, because of the corn syrup,” Srouji explains. It’s easy to buy into his ethos when you bite through the crisp outer layer of his falafel and appreciate the freshness of the chickpea fritter made that morning with soaked garbanzos, parsley, and sesame seeds—the latter, according to Srouji, add a boost of minerals like manganese.
When he arrived at the United States in the ‘80s, it was a rude awakening. He recalls one of his first American dining experiences saying, “When I first came to America, my cousins in New York welcomed me and wanted to treat me to something extremely nice…so they took me to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I took a bite of the mashed potatoes and it was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.” To him, the goopy stuff tasted more like plastic and at that moment he declared, “Guys, I’m going to change the way people eat in America.” And while he hasn’t changed Americans’ lust for grease bombs, at least he knows that at Aviva, people have a respite from typical processed food.
Simply prepared, fresh Mediterranean food was part of his soul since birth. He grew up in Israel watching his mother cook and at age 14 it crystallized for him—he knew wanted to be a chef. “Everyone’s mom is ‘the best’, but with my mom you could tell she put her heart into it. She wouldn’t skimp on anything nutritionally, using the healthiest, freshest ingredients available.” He came to Atlanta on a soccer scholarship for Georgia State University but turned to the restaurant industry when he realized he couldn’t get by on the scholarship alone. The restaurants he worked at are long gone, but within a year of working his way through the kitchens, he was able to save enough to open his own deli in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. He supplied soup to a restaurant in the Colony Square food court and after management heard that the soup sold out every day, they recruited him to open his own restaurant in Colony Square and Peachtree Center. He left Peachtree Center, only to come back in 2012 when he fell in love with the space he has now.
Aviva is a family affair. His wife is the bookkeeper and his son, Nas, is the business manager.
The name itself is eponymous of his sister. He has three other sisters, but he says “Aviva is my girl.”
Aviva by Kameel doesn’t produce avant garde cuisine, and that’s probably part of why it’s so popular. It’s just fresh, delicious food served by the anti-Soup Nazi. Why do people bypass restaurants and stalls with no waits just to get in a long line? “That’s why I call it food from the gods,” says Kameel, “We’ve established a trust with our customers, so they know they’re getting the freshest and healthiest.”