The four-decade-old, Arlington-born Lebanese Taverna is launching a new membership service, providing customers with a “Chef’s Tasting” menu or a curated selection of Lebanese wines at home every month.
“This is a way to share our culture, like the things we do at home, the snacks that we eat, and the things that my parents used to make,” co-owner Grace Abi-Najm Shea tells ARLnow. “This is kind of deconstructing the food and the culture from the restaurant and bringing it to your home.”
The rotating offerings will highlight “some of the more authentic and under-explored parts of our menu,” the website notes. This could include stuffed rolled cabbage, shanklesh (Lebanese cheese balls), or okra and lamb stew.
“This is for the person who’s willing to be adventurous,” Shea says.
The wine membership (called “A Lebanese Wine Tour”) includes options for two, four, or six bottles a month and will have wines from “old, historic vineyards to new up-and-coming wineries.”
The first food and wine membership boxes will be available for pick-up or delivery starting later this month, Dec. 16.
Lebanese Taverna’s first location opened in 1979 in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood and remains a staple of the community’s commercial strip. The restaurant was founded by immigrants Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm, who had come to the U.S. to flee the civil war in their home country of Lebanon.
Since then the restaurant has expanded to more than a dozen locations in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., including different concepts like the fast-casual Lebtav, which has a location in Ballston. The original Westover restaurant at 5900 Washington Blvd remains at the heart of the company, which is now run by the five Abi-Najm siblings, including Grace.
She says the last 20 months, which saw dining rooms shuttered and a rise in takeout and delivery, have been a “roller coaster” and have made it clear that the family needs to adapt to a new reality for restaurants, Shea said.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the word pivot a thousand times, but restaurants have to find different ways to get their products to their customers and find new customers,” Shea says.
The membership idea was born out of the success the family has seen with the Lebanese Taverna Market at 4400 Old Dominion Road near Waverly Hills, where customers are able to take home dishes, snacks, and wines.
Throughout the pandemic Arlington has remained a stronghold for Lebanese Taverna, Shea said, noting that quick service and takeout business have remained particularly strong here. Locations outside of the county saw bigger drops in business.
“In Arlington, they have watched us grow up. They have a special place in our heart and I think we have a special place in their heart,” said Shea. While talking, she got a little choked up.
“Arlington has been our biggest cheerleader since day one,” Shea said.
Overall, Lebanese Taverna is at about 80% to 90% of pre-pandemic sales, she notes.
Despite tough times, the restaurant and the family has continued to help charitable causes they believe in. Last summer, Lebanese Taverna spearheaded a fundraising drive to support relief efforts in Lebanon after an explosion in Beirut killed hundreds and injured thousands. Over $150,000 was raised through those efforts, Shea says.
This past August, the family also helped raise money for Lebanese citizens to assist with their fuel and electricity needs. Around the same time, the restaurant worked with the World Central Kitchen to provide meals for Afghan refugees.
Shea is encouraged by the continued return to normalcy with sales returning closer to pre-pandemic levels and cooking classes at the Lebanese Taverna Market coming back in January. But she remains concerned about the future due to the newly-announced variant and the already-here cold weather limiting outdoor dining.
“As good as I feel about where we are today is as scared as I am about tomorrow,” she says.
Meanwhile, Shea and her family will keep serving Arlingtonians flavors of their home country, whether it’s inside a restaurant or at home, as they have been for more than 40 years.
“My whole family is so passionate about our culture, our food, our cuisine,” she says. “We are looking forward to giving customers something a bit different than the restaurant experience.”
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