If you look closely at the walls of Khalil’s restaurant in Bloomfield, you’ll notice a blue border that encircles the dining room with words written in Arabic. It’s a 100-year-old poem by Kahlil Gibran, titled “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin,” that perfectly describes what the second generation of the Khalil family is trying to do with their parent’s legacy.
“It’s saying ‘When you come to this new country, to America, be good upright citizens, be strong and contribute to this great land and give your best to this country,'” says Dalel Khalil, who co-owns the restaurant with her sister Leila. “So it’s a beautiful, inspiring poem.”
Mikhail Khalil, a Syrian immigrant, and Agnes Khalil, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, owned and operated several restaurants in the Pittsburgh area in the 1970s and ’80s. The location at 4757 Baum Blvd., their second restaurant, is the last one remaining. Mikhail had worked for the previous restaurant at that site, Omar Khayyam, as a cook and butcher. Dalel says her father was so good he could cut lamb while blindfolded.
When Omar Khayyam owner Edmund Coury decided to relocate the restaurant to a larger property in Washington, the Khalils took over the space and renamed it Khalil’s II.
These days, Dalel runs the front of the house at Khalil’s, waiting on tables and greeting patrons, fulfilling what was once her mother’s role. Agnes would work the room, greeting longtime customers and often engaging diners in a party of sorts in the dining room — with drums and dancing — if the kitchen was getting backed up with orders.
“My father made the food so good, but my mother made the experience even better,” Dalel recalls.
But to her parents, Khalil’s was always more than a restaurant, Dalel says; not only did Mikhail and Agnes bring family members over to America, Khalil’s was where immigrants arriving in Pittsburgh knew they could find a job and support.
“We’re not here just to feed people and be a restaurant,” she says. “We’re here for other purposes, which they instilled in us.”
Leila has taken on their father’s role as chef, preparing the signature lamb kebabs, rice pilaf and falafel along with newer menu items like Aleppo pepper chicken, a sweet and spicy dish that Dalel says isn’t found at many Syrian restaurants in the U.S. That’s one way she sees the restaurant evolving into a new phase: by adding new dishes alongside the traditional favorites.
Photos by Kim Lyons.
Dalel says she didn’t intend to follow in her parents’ footsteps; she’s an author and public speaker who had a career in radio.
“I swore all my life, I would never — and I meant it with all my heart — that I would never take on the restaurant,” she says with a chuckle. “Everybody would say ‘Carry on the legacy,’ and I’d say ‘You’re crazy.'”
But when her father’s health began to decline, she gained a new perspective.
Agnes died in 2003, and Mikhail suffered a stroke in 2004. He was beset by several years of declining health after that, but his family nursed him as best they could. By 2015, the Khalils decided to hit the pause button, closing the restaurant for what they thought would be a few months; that stretched into more than three years.
It was Mikhail who urged them to get back to work.
“He would say ‘Come on, why are we sitting on the couch, there are people who need us,’ and we would be like, ‘Baba, come on,'” she says. “But we all kind of decided that yes, we had this legacy that was important, and I, of all people, said, ‘Yes, let’s reopen.'”
Khalil’s reopened in May 2018, and Mikhail once again greeted diners until his death several months later. Dalel says the family rallied to keep things going, but then the Covid pandemic hit.
“We were really struggling, but we pushed through it because we were like, ‘After all we’ve been through, we’re not going to let a pandemic take us out,” she says.
Last year, Khalil’s celebrated 50 years with a two-day party on the anniversary of the restaurant’s opening.
“We celebrated everyone who came. We thanked everyone for coming; we loved this journey,” Dalel says. “But in a sense, we sort of said goodbye to what Khalil’s was: a mom-and-pop ethnic restaurant, a history.”
The next phase started last year, with a grant for $40,000 from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, part of a program to support historic small restaurants.
“It really helped us at a time when we so desperately needed it,” Dalel says.
They were able to fix a broken sign on the side of the building that still read “cocktail lounge” and made improvements to the facade and other upgrades.
Dalel says they have more plans for continuing their parents’ legacy, including hosting another festival this Saturday, June 17. The event serves as a fundraiser to support relief efforts for victims of the February earthquake that left thousands dead in Turkey and Syria.
There is no admission fee for the festival, which runs from 3 to 10 p.m., but proceeds from food sales and donations will benefit International Orthodox Christian Charities. Along with cuisine, the festival will include live Arabic music, a henna artist, and performances by belly dancer Jennifer Jemeena.
The Khalil sisters want to continue evolving the restaurant; some plans are still under wraps, but Dalel says they definitely will reopen the restaurant’s upper floor.
“We want to make this into a place that is really top tier; we don’t need to make it that big, but we want to make it something spectacular,” she says. “We’ll always be a restaurant, but we’re kind of transitioning into a greater experience of Syria.”
They plan to add lectures on the history of Syria and Lebanese and Turkish wine tastings, and they will continue to be a touchstone for immigrants.
Her father took his skill and his gifts and made a successful business, and then turned around and gave back to the community, she adds. “That’s what we want to do. That’s what our purpose is.”