TONY Kitous is a man on a mission, and nothing is going to stop him.

“I want Lebanese food to be as popular as Italian,” he says with passion. “It breaks my heart that people don’t know much about it. But it is close to Italian food and I want people to eat it in the same way. That is my dream!”

Tony is taking a few minutes to sit down on what, he admits, has been an exhausting but exciting day.

He has just opened the 21st branch of his restaurant Comptoir Libanais on the ground floor of the new Westgate. Facing out onto Bonn Square, it’s a great spot – the first thing you see as you dodge the crowds, and buses, in Queen Street. It appears like an Aladdin’s cave of wonders – part cafe, part souk – stuffed full of colourful exotic tins of unfamiliar sweets, oils, sauces, bowls of pomegranates and shiny Moroccan drums, teapots and fezzes. The walls are covered in geometric tiles and there are stained glass windows and funky pictures based on tinted vintage portraits – including one of Tony’s mother.

Oxford city centre hasn’t seen anything quite like it and, it seems, we can’t get enough – the place is constantly packed. While we chat, curious shoppers wander in for a look, smiling and pointing. Many others queued for tables – some waiting patiently outside before the doors had officially opened.

For Tony, an Algerian, it has come as a relief. Even though it has been 24 years since he opened his first casual Comptoir Libanais (French for Lebanese Counter) in London’s West End, he admits to nerves before each opening. As we chat, he is planning to fly off to the next launch, far away in Abu Dhabi. That should, I joke, be a tough place to crack.

“What you see is what you get, with Lebanese food,” he says. “It’s the same everywhere. But we try to do new things in terms of food and design, and every time we open one it feels like the first. I feel like an Arabic mother with all her babies!” he laughs.

Tony, now 47, had nothing when he arrived in London in 1988, relying on friends to put him up, but has gone on to build an empire.

“I came to London with £72 in my pocket and wanted to stay,” he says. “I worked hard and went through hell and high water. But I am like an Arabic grandmother: I never let go! And you have to work as a team.”

And his inspiration? “My mother, Zohra,” he says. “She is humble and shy but gives me inspiration.

“My mother always tells me to settle down and have a family,” he smiles. “She says: ‘All your brothers and sisters have children, but you give me restaurants!’

“But it is also my dad. I lost him 17 years ago but I do it for him. He sees it all.”

The food, it goes without saying, is quite wonderful – bursting with fresh flavours. It’s a subtle Mediterranean cuisine which relies on liberal use of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and herbs. There are also such exotic ingredients as pomegranate molasses, rose water and orange blossom. Chickpeas, grains and vegetables feature prominently, and while there is excellent grilled lamb, chicken and fish, it is common to find yourself enjoying a vegan feast without even realising, particularly in the small sharing ‘mezze’ dishes.

He admits Oxford had been in his sights for a while, but he was waiting for the right location. “A friend told me to come to Oxford, so I did. It only took one visit. I walked around and it felt different to anywhere else in England.

“I knew one day I’d be here, but I didn’t want to be in a little side street. So when I saw this location, I said ‘eyes closed... let’s go for it!’”

And, while it was a rush to open on time, he is happy.

“Everything here has meaning,” he says, grabbing a tin of hot chilli pepper paste from the bar.

“Even this tin of harissa is special.

“This is the brand I used to eat when I was a kid in Algeria. If we had no money I would eat this with bread and be happy. It’s enough.”

And informality is key. There is no stuffiness or ceremony, just a busy cafe atmosphere, such as one might encounter in Tangier, Cairo or any city in the Maghreb, Egypt or the Levant.

“Lebanon is the land of hospitality and it’s all about food, but it has to be affordable, and that’s what we have tried to create here.

“I like to think it’s a place for everyone,” he says. “I want everyone to eat together, and it’s already happening.”

To prove it he points to the families and couples filling the restaurant – a typically cosmopolitan Oxford crowd.

“I have sacrificed a lot, but it is worth it,” he grins. “After all, we are not just making a brand, but memories.”