Charms of the Middle East

Times Staff Writer

IT’S a digital world, that’s for sure. At Phoenicia, a new Lebanese restaurant in Glendale, the twentysomethings at the big table in front of me were not just taking a few snapshots. They were producing an entire movie of themselves eating, flirting, laughing, mugging for the hand-held video camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if relatives and friends in the Middle East were watching the footage by the next day.

The restaurant is another Lebanese extravaganza from Ara Kalfayan, whose Glendale restaurant Mandaloun set the standard until he left in 2005. Now he’s opened this new place, where his first restaurant, also called Phoenicia and later Kix, used to be. It’s some kind of poetic justice that 30 years later the elegant Kalfayan is greeting guests at the same Central Avenue address. He’s a consummate host, always ready to explain unfamiliar dishes, to custom pick a selection of meze for someone interested in more than the usual, however delicious, lineup.

Though the setting is more modest than Mandaloun’s, dining at Phoenicia still feels like a night on the town, especially if you go on a Friday or Saturday evening, when there’s live music and belly dancing. Before 9 p.m., you can order from a couple of different set menus, or a la carte. But after that hour, the kitchen serves only one prix-fixe dinner, the entertainment menu, which includes a $10-per-person entertainment surcharge. The menu is hardly restrictive, though, including plate after plate of hot and cold meze, more than you can eat probably, followed by beef kefta grilled on skewers and dessert.

We got there early enough to order the more extravagant Phoenicia menu, which started, of course, with cold meze -- wonderful thickened yogurt with a drizzle of olive oil, beautiful hummus with a smooth, silky texture, subtly smoky baba ghanouj, or eggplant puree. There was tabbouleh made the correct way with much more chopped, emerald green parsley than bulgur wheat. There was kibbeh nayeh, raw beef pounded to a paste with bulgur wheat, perhaps an acquired taste for some, but I love it. We had olives and stuffed grape leaves, the muhammara (a spicy dip of walnuts, red pepper paste and pomegranate juice) and basturma (cured beef).

Just as our hot meze began to arrive, a musician took his place next to the drums, picked up an instrument and began to sing, backing himself with his electronic one-man band. As we nibbled on fluffy falafel, he began to croon some old chestnuts recognizable to Western ears. A few more, and then by the time we were sharing a plate of little Lebanese sausages with lemon juice glaze, he’d ratcheted up the sound level and the intensity, playing tunes popular in Beirut and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.


I remember the last time I ate at Mandaloun. Kalfayan mentioned that he was just back from Beirut and told us how the city was blooming. How much has changed in the last months. Now, the beleaguered city is picking itself up and starting over again.

A special song is requested for a couple celebrating their anniversary. They get up and solemnly, touchingly do a turn around the small dance floor. A few young girls, with kohl-darkened eyes, dance with each other, their friend dipping in with the camera.

Another member of the party leaps up and starts wailing on a hand drum as we polish off some foul (fava beans cooked in garlic and lemon) and the beef and bulgur dumplings called kibbeh makli.

The waiter in black tie has just brought us a heaping platter of mixed kebab -- lamb, chicken, sausage with grilled onions and pita bread -- when there’s a shout and a couple of athletic belly dancers burst onto the floor. An unearthly deep voice on their soundtrack calls out “Move!” and move they do.

We’re still eating: It’s been quite a feast. And the only way we’re moving is very slowly, to the car.



Where: 343 N. Central Ave., Glendale

When: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, till 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Live music, belly dancing Fridays and Saturdays. Street and lot parking.

Price: Dinner hot and cold meze or starter dishes, $4 to $9.95; specialties, $6.95; grilled items, $12 to $17.50; multi-course dinners, $18.95 to $28.95 per person; Friday and Saturday entertainment menu, $38 (Friday) and $43 (Saturday) per person; lunchtime grilled items served with vegetables, pita, salad and more, $9.95 to $13.50.

Info: (818) 956-7800,