Regulars of central Santa Rosa’s beloved, 65-year-old Mac’s Deli & Café might debate the merits of the menu’s No. 2 hot sandwich versus the No. 14, but they agree that nothing beat being greeted at the counter with a hug and kiss from Iraj Soltani.
“They don’t make ’em like that any more,” said his son and successor at the landmark where-locals-eat diner on Fourth Street, Toraj Soltani. “He was the ultimate host. He loved people.”
The elder Soltani, an immigrant from Iran, bought Mac’s in 1970 and until just last summer was happiest welcoming guests, perhaps sitting for a spell at the booth or table to visit and making sure everybody was well-tended.
He died Monday morning at a Santa Rosa care residence. He was 87.
Soltani had traveled the world extensively when, in 1960, at the age of 30, he left his hometown of Tehran and launched a new life in the East Bay. He studied at Oakland’s Merritt College and was training at a beauty school when he met and married the former Lynn Hay-Chapman.
Testing the restaurant business, Soltani hired on at a steakhouse in Berkeley, Kirby’s.
He worked his way up from busboy to waiter to bartender to manager, and seized a chance to become a partner in a second restaurant.
Along the way, Soltani impressed and befriended a regular Kirby’s patron with money to invest.
With that man’s backing, he opened a place of his own, The Lunch Box, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
He might have stayed in the East Bay indefinitely but it was the late 1960s and the Vietnam War was raging and there was violence in the streets. He and Lynn had started a family.
“She wanted to get out of the city,” son Toraj Soltani said.
“She knew that was all going to blow up. She had a friend who told her about Healdsburg.”
Lynn Soltani looked around Sonoma County and found a house she liked on Eastside Road. It was 1970 when the Soltanis went looking for a restaurant to purchase in Sonoma County.
They met Al and Lorraine Croup, who’d operated Mac’s since buying it from founder Mac Nesmon in 1955.
The Croups were ready to sell the place, long renowned for its down-home hospitality and New York-style sandwiches. Said Toraj Soltani, “they felt like my mom and dad would continue the business as it was.”
Iraj and Lynn Soltani ran Mac’s together even for a time after they divorced in 1980. Toraj and his sister, Tami, helped out after school and on weekends.
Part of the familiarity and charm of the place emanated from its longtime employees, chief among them now-retired server Doris Johnson and two of Iraj Soltani’s sisters, Eshi and Azi.
Though Soltani came in most every day, even after he yielded the running of the place to Toraj and his wife, Lisa, his health and stamina had not been the same since he was paralyzed for a time in 2006 by Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Even when not feeling well, he didn’t want to miss a day of welcoming friends, patrons and newcomers to Mac’s.