by Misha P. Enriquez
I first met them in the ladies’ room. Gladys was doing her younger sister Grace’s make-up for the photo shoot. She had chucked her elegant blazer so she could work better; her own hair and make-up were already flawless.
Grace, not used to make-up, was joking about having her own private make-up artist. Back and forth, the banter was a constant stream. And I couldn’t help but think that here were two high-profile women, big-time restaurateurs, who, at that moment, were simply enjoying being sisters. Gladys and Grace Abi-Najm are the women behind the popular restaurant Lebanese Taverna. It’s been 33 years since the first restaurant opened and nobody would have guessed that the little hole-in-the-wall would become a top-rated restaurant with 11 locations across Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC.
It all began in 1976: the war in Lebanon was taking a turn for the worst, and the Abi-Najm family—Tanios and Marie with their children Dory, Dany, David, Gladys, and Grace fled to the US with nothing but the clothes on their backs. “We came here with very little money,” Grace explained. “We went on a cargo ship without any belongings. We left so abruptly we didn’t even get to say goodbye to anybody.” The family of five arrived in Arlington, VA, speaking no English. Various aunts and uncles took them in until they could get on their feet; a church nearby even gave them clothes so they could survive the winter. Tanios and Marie took any job they could; the three teenage boys mowed lawns and delivered newspapers. Grace said, “My mom was just telling me the other day that my brothers would work odd jobs, come home, and give her all the money they’d earned. They’d work as bus boys till 2 or 3 a.m., then go to school a few hours later. They did that for years.” In 1979, after three years, they saved enough money to buy a small restaurant called Athenian Taverna. Scrimping on signage costs, Tanios changed only one word from the original name, and so Lebanese Taverna was born. The restaurant was a good fit for the young family: Tanios had always wanted a restaurant and Marie came from a long line of chefs. Not to mention, it saved them a lot on babysitters. “Our father wanted something to keep the family together, at the same time bring a part of Lebanon to where we were,” Grace explained. It was a one-family operation. The chefs, the parents, The staff, the kids, Everyone did everything, and even when they weren’t working, they were at the restaurant playing, doing homework, chatting with diners it was quite literally an extension of their home. At first, Lebanese Taverna served up the usual pizza, steak-andcheese, subs. But eventually, the customers got a whiff of the family’s meals, and the rest was history. “Customers would come to the restaurant and see us eating hummus and shish kebab and ask, what are you eating? They wanted to try it,” Grace recalled. “So we’d have daily specials featuring Lebanese cuisine, and eventually the whole menu became Lebanese.” “No one back then knew what Lebanese food was, or even where Lebanon was,” Gladys added. As we chatted, I confessed to them that even I didn’t know where it was, except generally in the Middle East, and if I hadn’t been eating lunch with them during the interview, I would have no clue what to call half the food on the table. But that’s the potential of food: a simple meal can introduce you not only to new tastes but to new cultures, people, and ways of life. “Our customers were willing to try new food, support a local business, support a family,” Grace said. “It wasn’t just the food that kept them coming back. They wanted to see us grow up. They’d help me with my homework because my parents didn’t speak English.” Lebanese Taverna may have been started by one family, but it was a whole community that built it. “I had many mothers, growing up. It was a new culture, and I had so many questions about womanhood. I couldn’t ask my mom, so I’d ask customers,” Gladys shared. “We all transitioned into adulthood in the restaurant, and all our customers watched us do that.” The Abi-Najm family valued the strong connection to the community. The customers they served became lifelong friends. “We’ve been around 33 years, and some people have been coming to us for that long,” said Grace. “We went to school with their children, grew up together. I met my husband at the restaurant when I was 4 years old,” Grace smiled. Little did anyone know that all the carpool rides and playtimes would blossom into romance many years down the road. Even today, newcomers will get a sense of that closeness: the welcome is warm, and the host will most likely remember a returning customer by name. The restaurants even have pictures of the Abi-Najm grandkids, because you can expect that the regulars will be asking about them. “It was the community that made us who we are,” Grace said. And that’s why they work so hard at keeping the spirit of community alive, and are passionate about giving back. “When we opened the restaurant, we opened our family, our hearts,” Gladys shared. “We give back to the community. We volunteer; we donate to over 900 organizations every year and hold a hundred events where we give away food.” Today, Lebanese Taverna has 11 locations: six restaurants, four quick service cafes, and a market, and they offer full service catering and cooking classes. Tanios and Marie have retired, although Marie has recently returned to the kitchen. She’s helping make sure that her recipes, all handed down and unwritten, are still executed with the same top quality as when she made them. The five siblings now operate Lebanese Taverna, each with a different specialty that allows them to collaborate with a kind harmony (and occasional head-butting) that can only come from being family. Gladys brings an artist’s eye and a can-do spirit to the restaurant. “If you need something done, you ask Gladys,” Grace said fondly. “She’s the person that helps present Lebanese Taverna to the world.” While Gladys is more comfortable in the spotlight, Grace, who operates the restaurants’ daily business, prefers being behind the scenes. “My sister is very determined, driven, and smart,” Gladys proudly described Grace. “She has more of a business mind than I do, and it’s a great addition to the restaurant. She’s a trend-setter.” If you visit any Lebanese Taverna restaurant today, it will probably be nothing at all like the original one. It’ll be about ten times bigger, the furnishings more posh, and the staff more than double in size. Nothing at all like the original one—except that at the heart, it remains the same. Here was a family who, one day, opened their kitchen to the world, and, with their food, offered a hand of friendship… and continues to do so today.
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