Leyla will not open this weekend, as previously announced, but the downtown Lebanese restaurant is aiming to have its doors open by Wednesday.
“I was hoping,” says owner Dolly Awkar, a first-time restaurateur who switched from selling rugs to hawking hummus because her accent prompted so many customers to ask where they could find food from her native country. “I did my best.”
The Labor Day holiday delayed the issuance of a certificate of occupancy; Leyla is scheduled for city inspection on Tuesday.
Awkar and her husband, Joseph, have spent much of the last month training servers, many of whom have no previous experience with Middle Eastern cookery, and tasting dishes created by chef Vatche Meguerdichian. Meguerdichian previously helmed Los Angeles’ Alcazar, named one of the city’s 99 essential restaurants in 2011 by critic Jonathan Gold.
“There is no place quite like Alcazar, with its salad made with the wild thyme called za’taar; a half-dozen kinds of hummus; pungent shanklish cheese chopped into a salad; and a definitive version of sautéed chicken livers with fresh pomegranate seeds,” Gold wrote in the L.A. Weekly. “Alcazar is one of the finest Middle Eastern kitchens in Los Angeles.”
Gold described Meguerdichian – who understandably goes by “Vatche” professionally – as “a well-known Armenian crooner.” He may have understated the case.
“If you’ve ever attended an Armenian gathering, no matter if you were in Los Angeles, Beirut, Cyprus or Tehran, chances are you know Vatche, the Armenian singer who switches from hits in Greek, Italian, Arabic, Persian, Spanish and English,” reported Ianyan, an English-language Armenian newspaper, in 2009.
According to vatche.com, Meguerdichian recorded his first album in 1983, and later played the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and multiple venues in Atlantic City. The website calls him “a pop icon of international stature”; Awkar calls him a friend “from a long, long time.”
There’s no word on whether Meguerdichian will perform at Leyla, as he sometimes did at Alcazar. But the Awkars have allowed him to reserve a corner of the menu for “adventurous territory.” Although the lamb testicles and beef brains which were big sellers in L.A. may not soon show up on King Street, Awkar promises frog legs, chicken livers, quail, beef tongue and kibbe, the classic raw beef dish.
But the Awkars are also striving to accommodate more conservative palates, putting salmon on the entrée menu and offering crème brulee alongside baklawa and awamat.
“We want to have something for everybody,” Awkar says. “Whoever comes, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, meat lover.”
Additionally, the menu will feature shawarma, kebabs, meat pies, spinach pie, kofta, falafel and nearly every other dish you may have previously encountered in a Middle Eastern restaurant. “It’s a big menu,” Awkar says. Leyla will also offer a daily special that mirrors what Lebanese families might make for a casual dinner.
“People in business and students always go for a sandwich at lunch, so we wanted something homecooked,” Awkar says. “For instance, stuffed eggplant or kofta and rice or pureed lentils.”
Although the restaurant’s location and regionally-unique cuisine should help draw plenty of customers, Awkar says the downside of the being the city’s only Lebanese restaurant is patrons won’t have a point of comparison.
“There is no benchmark,” Awkar says. “But I know it’s going to be very good.”
Leyla will be open at 298 King St. every day from 10 a.m.-10 p.m.