Middle Eastern cuisine shares a common culinary pool; a heritage influenced by tradition, migration, and natural resources. Some countries are rich in fertile farmland, while others are surrounded by desert, while others harvest ingredients from the sea. It’s easy to lump Middle Eastern restaurants into one category, but there are subtle nuances based on the countries of origin. Look a little closer, and you’ll see how cooking in Lebanon differs greatly from Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s in the preparation, how food is served, or in the spices they use, these six local restaurants serve distinctive dishes inspired by their homeland.
Thanks to a diverse population of expats living in Northern Virginia, there continues to be a strong demand for a taste of home, and our global restaurateurs are meeting that demand, while at the same time, introducing combinations we haven’t seen before. These restaurants showcase family recipes and their servers graciously counsel diners unfamiliar with their menus. To find Middle Eastern ingredients to prepare in your own home, visit Al Nakheel Lebanese Café & Market; the market sells freshly prepared salads and baked goods, along with pantry staples.
Fine Afghan fare in Great Falls
Farmers in Afghanistan grow a wide variety of produce, so Afghans frequently feature vegetables as an entrée. Two particularly memorable vegetarian dishes at Zamarod are borani banjan, eggplant and tomato casserole, and aushack, scallion-filled dumplings layered with tomato sauce. Both are brightened with tart yogurt, a swirl of sesame oil, and crowned with sprigs of fresh mint. The lamb chops and salmon are also divine. Diners tend to linger here, enjoying steaming cups of cardamom tea and homemade rose water ice cream.
10123 Colvin Run, Great Falls
Middle Eastern Goes Mainstream
What started as a small sub shop in Arlington has blossomed into a popular chain. Lebanese Taverna continues to be a hometown favorite, where many locals have tried their first Middle Eastern dishes. The restaurants and markets continue to serve established favorites alongside new dishes like roasted beet and watermelon feta salads. The bottomless hummus at happy hour is a great deal, and everyone loves the shawarma flatbread sandwiches. For something special, try the slow cooked lamb stew with artichokes. Lebanese Taverna even offers cooking classes.
1840 International Drive, McLean
Lebanese Made with Love
Phoenicia’s cuisine stands out for its light healthful preparation and tart flavors. The lunch buffet for $12.95 gives diners a chance to sample several first-course items including salads, fresh baked bread, hummus, lentil soup, meat pastries called sambousek, and stuffed grape leaves. Vegetarians will love the lemony pumpkin kibbeh stuffed with pine nuts and Swiss chard, kibbet batata with mashed potatoes and crispy onion, and aranbet, a combination of cauliflower, pine nuts, and chickpeas with a tangy pomegranate molasses sauce. Phoenicia also features a fusion meat tartar bar.
2236 Gallows Road, Vienna
Authentic Persian cooking
Some claim Iranian food is the “Mother cuisine.” It provided a foundation of flavors and cooking techniques that influenced developing cultures along the Silk Road. Beginning with Cyrus the Great in 6th Century B.C., Persian perfumed stews, roasted meat, and fruit-infused rice spread to the Far East and North Africa. Although Persian cuisine has evolved over time, basmati rice continues to hold a place of honor on virtually every plate. Shamshiry’s rice dishes are superlative, but their perfectly char-grilled kebabs are not to be missed.
8607 Westwood Center, Vienna
Levant is Arabic for ‘the East’
Levant was opened by millennials who wanted an upscale place for dining, elegant coffee bar, and a lounge area where guests can enjoy hookah. Levant features a savory dish called sajiyah. To make sajiyah, thinly rolled-out dough is placed on top of an upside down wok. It’s baked on one side, then flipped to cook the other side, creating a satin-like flatbread. Next, meat and vegetables are placed on top of the flatbread, and the meat is covered with more flatbread like a blanket to keep it warm. The exotic dish is served in a silver saj. Choose from filet mignon, chicken, shrimp or lamb sausages, all with caramelized onions, pine nuts and a generous portion of saffron rice. Groups should share the aromatic, flavorful mezza platter.
8411 Old Courthouse Road, Vienna
A Saudi Arabian feast in Vienna
The first Saudi Arabian restaurant in the Mid-Atlantic highlights standard Bedouin cuisine; food prized by migrant shepherds living in the hot Saudi desert. Saudi staple jireesh is made from cracked wheat infused with buttermilk and yogurt, then garnished with caramelized onions. In both appearance and texture, jireesh resembles American grits. Qursan, another essential in the Bedouin diet, consists of whole wheat bread simmered in a savory broth topped with carrots, tomatoes and squash. These dishes were designed to transport easily. Aldeerah offers service in their culture’s customary ways—on the floor, without utensils, from a communal platter.
262 Cedar Lane SE, Vienna
Since 2007, this family-owned cafe has served authentic Lebanese homestyle cooking in a casual setting. Locals say that it’s some of the best Arabic food in the entire region. Whether you eat-in or take-out one of their generous platters, Raouche is an affordable, convenient way to sample a variety of Lebanese favorites like their hearty kousa, stuffed zucchini with ground beef. Every day, Raouche rotates their “Mom’s Special,” like Malfouf, cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice, seasoned with mint and garlic; or their fasolia, tender white beans and ground beef in tomato sauce seasoned with cilantro and coriander with fluffy white rice. The restaurant also imports traditional Lebanese treats and pastries for holidays.
Neyla Mediterranean Bistro
Neyla recently moved from its longtime home in Georgetown to Reston Town Center where it stands out among the many chain restaurants for its local ownership and fusion cuisine. The new Neyla’s has a sleek, elegant design and takes a contemporary approach to traditional Eastern Mediterranean food. With an emphasis on modernizing Middle Eastern dishes and custom cocktails, Neyla is an ideal place for date night or a gathering of friends. Mezza Hour is a ideal time to taste a variety of dishes; as their mini-flat breads and small plates are only $4 and cocktails are $6. Don’t miss the Kebab Lettuce Cups or the Lamb Shoulder Sliders with Harissa. Other standouts include the pureed beets, a seasonal treat, and lamb chops.
Mona’s Lebanese Cafe
You’ll be surprised when you arrive at Mona’s Lebanese Cafe; it’s located inside a historic 1860‘s home in Sterling. This family-operated antique store now contains a small restaurant with patio seating in good weather. Here, Mona prepares her traditional Lebanese dishes including a variety of kabobs and dips for the cafe and her busy catering business. The Cafe operates with limited hours, no service Monday and Tuesday, and mostly functions as a unique lunch destination. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, and enjoy the combination of shopping for treasures while enjoying home-cooked Middle Eastern, Mona’s should be on your list.
Me Jana Restaurant
Me Jana strives to live up to its name: “Welcome.” The owners of Arlington’s fine-dining restaurant recognized some guests were seeking a memorable dining experience, so they created a tasting menu called the Lebanese Journey. It offers groups of four diners or more the opportunity to sample appetizers, entrees and desserts. Me Jana focuses its menu on both traditional Middle Eastern cuisine along with menu items you rarely see; they serve a variety of seafood dishes such as smelt, anchovies, calamari and scallops, all prepared with Middle Eastern spices. They also have several gluten free and sausage dishes, Makanak and Sujoc, some arriving in sizzling cast iron skillets to their preserve warmth and flavor. Diners appreciate the sophisticated decor and outdoor seating.