The Abi-Najm family opened the Lebanese Taverna nearly 50 years ago after emigrating to the U.S. from Lebanon. They established the first of what would grow into a beloved cluster of full-service restaurants and quick-service cafes dotting the area. They also grew a reputation for philanthropy and support for their local community.
In 2002, Lebanese Taverna opened in the Annapolis Harbour Center complex and Annapolitans quickly grew attached to its expansive Mediterranean menu including luscious grilled kabobs, rotisserie chicken, beef and lamb bursting with flavor and a feast of choices for vegetarians.
Squeezed by skyrocketing rents, it closed in 2017 after 15 years. The Abi-Najm family vowed they would return to Annapolis. The promise has been kept with the opening of the Lebanese Taverna Cafe in the Festival at Riva shopping complex at Riva Road and Forest Drive.
The cafe, open for lunch and dinner, is smaller in size and menu and focuses on quick service. On my trio of visits, there was a line out the door for lunch, and the carryout business was brisk. Beer and wine are available.
Will the Lebanese Taverna Cafe make you forget the Harbour Center version? Not quite.
But when I hunger for healthy, flavorful, affordable Mediterranean food, it’s at the top of my list.
It’s hard to go wrong with the five mezzas, or small plates, and soup to start your meal. Fritters built from falafel (chick peas, fava beans and tahini sauce) come in a basket ($8) are a fine opener, as are kibbeh, the stuffed beef, bulgar and almond fritters ($7).
The cafe offers shawarma (marinated beef or chicken), ouzi (a succulent braised lamb) or falafel (chickpeas, fava beans, mint, radish and scallions deep fried and laced with tahini, a richly seasoned, sesame-based sauce). Their menu beckons you to “pick your protein” and build a sandwich or platter meal from there and accompany them with seven Middle Eastern side dishes.
Among my favorites were the hommus — pureed chickpeas flavored with a variety of vegetables and herbs. It’s everywhere in restaurants and on grocery shelves. But the Taverna version is, I suspect, close to the real thing — silky and subtle and served with that warm, first-class pita bread. A chilled salad of cucumbers, yogurt, mint and garlic, stuffed grape leaves and tabouleh (another salad of tossed parsley, mint, tomatoes, onion, bulgar wheat, olive oil and lemon juice) were great companions as well.
Those of us who fondly remember the Harbour Center Lebanese Taverna can only hope that one day the Abi-Najm family will find the perfect spot to bring it back to Annapolis.
In the meantime, welcome the Lebanese Taverna Cafe — a healthy, tasty blessing to the local dining scene.
Restaurant rumor control: Over the past two weeks, several people asked me if I had heard that Brio, the Italian bistro in the Annapolis Towne Centre, had closed. A call with management confirmed it’s open and going strong. The popular chain shuttered its Baltimore venue at Harborplace last month and that closing was widely reported in the local media.
Lebanese Taverna Cafe
WHERE: Festival at Riva, 2335 Forest Drive, Suite 46A, Annapolis
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
PRICES: $4-$8 for small plates, $8.75-$11.95 for platters and entrees
CREDIT CARDS: All major cards
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted