When ‘Merica the restaurant was announced, people wondered about its sincerity. A hub of patriotism in the East Village? A place for “celebrating and making fun of all things MERICA”?
Those contradictions are what co-owner Radouane Eljaouhari loves about his new restaurant. “I get my latte from a place where the owner, an old guy, always wears a Make America Great Again hat,” says Eljaouhari, a Muslim immigrant from Morocco. “It’s his views, and I still go to his place because I like the people who work there.
"This is what I love most about New York, and if the world could copy it, we would have peace: People can live with each other despite their completely different views.”
Eljaouhari got an early start of living in the melting pot. He came to the U.S. in 1994 in his early 20s for a work-study program at Walt Disney World. There, he shared an apartment with every nationality around Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon. He went on to work at the Plaza Hotel before "fulfilling the American dream" of opening his own business, the Moroccan restaurant Zerza, 13 years ago.
He met his partner in ‘Merica, Zach Neil, after Neil opened the Tim Burton-themed Beetle House down the street from Zerza, which Eljaouhari closed to make way for ‘Merica (320 E. Sixth St.) They would spend nights at the bar discussing the news and “all this craziness. He’s a very thoughtful guy and he likes to talk about current issues. And at the same time, he’s always laughing, that’s what I like about him — everything turns into fun.”
That combination of Eljaouhari's appreciation of harmonious diversity and Neil's sense of humor is what gave rise to a restaurant that both idolizes and criticizes all things America. On the walls are a caricature of two “Duck Dynasty” stars captioned “Hunt’n, Fish’n, Hate’n” and assault rifles that sprout flowers. Among the burgers and grilled cheeses, the menu has The WalMart, a daily special “made with stuff, more stuff you need and topped with extra stuff,” and the house signature Pottamac, a heart-busting quartet of Americanized lasagnas. Straightforward food that you can’t order with a straight face.
“You feel like there’s so much effort into making a fancy menu,” he says of many restaurants in the city. “New York is a very sophisticated place, but this is also part of the American culture, having a very down-to-earth place that serves simple food.”
Eljaouhari and Neil’s debates will live on as weekly Thursday night events, with ‘Merica diners deciding the winner. “We’re gonna do two teams, and whoever loses — or wins, we’re still trying to decide — has to eat the spiciest sauce on the menu.” The bar doesn't serve hard liquor, so victory rounds will have to be beer or wine.
And because America loves its cultural heroes, there will be themed weeks honoring everyone from Barack Obama to Chuck Norris. The restaurant is also offering a free beer and 25 percent off the bill for active and veteran members of the military.
Though the current election inspired the 'Merica, expect it to stick around as long as there are people who love America. “There’s always something in the news, he says. “If it’s not Donald Trump, who knows who’s going to run for mayor? There is always something to laugh about.”