Lebanese Taverna, which began as a single storefront in Arlington operated by an immigrant couple and their five children, is celebrating its 35th anniversary with events and specials over the next two months.
On July 28 and 29 at the Westover location (5900 Washington Blvd) and Aug. 6 and 7 at Pentagon Row (1101 S. Joyce Street), Lebanese Taverna will serve dishes from its 1979 menu with the original prices to commemorate the year the restaurant opened.
The restaurant is also currently taking submissions for a social media contest, in which longtime customers can email the restaurant their favorite Lebanese Taverna memory and then vote on their favorites by liking them on the restaurant’s Facebook page. A limousine will chauffeur the winners to different Lebanese Taverna locations for a five-to-six course meal, Shea said.
“We’re celebrating our uniqueness,” said Lebanese Taverna Vice President Grace Shea, the youngest child of founders Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm. “Thirty-five years is a long time for a restaurant to be open.”
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) will present a congressional proclamation of congratulations to the Abi-Najm family at a private event Friday evening, Shea said. The Westover restaurant will be open Friday at 6:30 p.m. for a kickoff event with the 1979 prices for invited guests from local civic associations and members of the public who happen to stop by.
“I’m proud of my family and what they’ve accomplished over the years,” Shea said. “When my parents came here they had five kids, $500 and spoke no English.”
The Abi-Najm family came to Arlington in 1976 to escape the civil war in Lebanon. Marie Abi-Najm worked as a teaching assistant and Tanios Abi-Najm did odd jobs and painted until they saved enough money to open their own restaurant in 1979, in the same storefront they still occupy just down the street from their house, Shea said.
“My dad always loved food and it was a way for him to bring a piece of Lebanon here to us,” Shea said. Her mother came from Dfoun, Lebanon, a village famous for producing chefs.
At first, Lebanese Taverna served pizza and subs and operated under “Athenian Taverna,” the name used by the previous tenants. Shea’s parents and her four siblings in high school were the only employees during the first year, causing business to suffer, she said.
In 1979, the restaurant only offered shish kabob and hummus as menu specials because they were novelties for most Arlington residents. However, their traditional food starting piquing customers’ interests after their first year in business, inspiring the Abi-Najm’s to change the restaurant’s name and put Lebanese fare on half their menu, according to Shea.
“We’d sit down for our family dinners at the restaurant and customers would say, ‘Wow, what is that? We want some of that,'” Shea said. The restaurant kept its half-Italian menu until 1983.
Once the restaurant was officially Lebanese Taverna, a second location opened in 1990 on Connecticut Avenue in D.C. It later expanded to include the Lebanese Taverna Market in D.C., catering division, six restaurants and four cafés it has today.
In the original Westover location on Thursday, longtime customers reminisced with family friend and former manager Joseph Daclouche about the restaurant’s early days and about the Abi-Najm family.
“She has two babies now,” said 30-year customer Joan Yocum of Shea. “This is a wonderful family.”
Donna Vilsack, another longtime customer, said: “It lends a nice stability to the neighborhood. It’s predictable, it’s delicious, it’s family.”
For Shea, her happiest memory of her family’s restaurant was when she catered the wedding of a woman whose baptism was also catered by the restaurant.
“It was a pretty special moment,” Shea said. “It helped solidify that we’ve been around this long and we still have the customers.”
Today, the restaurant is still family-run with, with Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm in charge of quality control and their five children maintaing the business. In 2015, the National Museum of American History plans to feature an exhibit about the Abi-Najm family, according to Shea.
“My whole life is in that restaurant,” Shea said. “Westover was like my village. Arlington made us who we are.”
In September, Lebanese Taverna plans to feature $35 prix fixe dinner menu specials at all of its locations, and will hold trivia contests. The 35th anniversary celebration will end with a block party at the Westover location Sept. 21, which will feature food, belly-dancing and henna tattooing, Shea said.
Lebanese Taverna will also announce winners of the memories contest in September. Submissions should be sent to [email protected]