At Home in the World
Before I’ve finished introducing myself to Nasir Latif, the owner of Lavash Café in Clintonville, he has offered me coffee, tea, water or soda, my first glimpse at the incredible hospitality to which every person who enters Lavash is treated. Nasir views everyone who comes to Lavash as a guest in his own home. “What do you do for your guest?” he asks, then answers, “Everything.”
“I care for them,” Nasir says of his customers, which means, of course, providing excellent service and preparing incredible Mediterranean food. Yet Nasir doesn’t stop there. He truly gets to know his customers as if they were friends. From giving each little kid he sees a treat to maintaining a prayer room where individuals of all faiths can retreat for a quiet moment, Nasir is the perfect host.
And his customers notice. In fact, Nasir says one family drives to Lavash from Tennessee every month; others frequently drive several hours to enjoy a meal there. Then, there are the regulars who eat at Lavash on a nearly daily basis. Nasir knows them all by name and stops to talk with each of them.
His son and co-owner of Lavash, Jamal Latif, explains, “You’ll often see my dad talking to customers, not only to see how they liked their food, but to learn more about them and their life stories.” He adds, “Early on I realized a restaurant isn’t just a place for the sale of food, it’s also for the exchange of ideas and culture.”
Treating everyone who enters Lavash as an honored guest is not limited to customers. Nasir also treats his employees in this way. One employee, Walla Karageh, says Nasir “…makes us feel like we are all family here.
“He’s so kind. He’s so perfect. I’ve never worked with anyone like him,” she adds, and notes he is always willing to help his employees in any way he can.
Nasir was born in Jerusalem in Palestine, but came to the United States when he was 17 to “pursue an education and to pursue life,” he says. Before opening Lavash, Nasir owned Firdous Deli & Café on The Ohio State University (OSU) campus and, after the university bought the building, Firdous Express in the North Market. He then sold Firdous Express and went to Dubai, where he lived for three years. In 2008, after coming back from Dubai, he opened Lavash in partnership with Jamal. His reason for coming back: “After living in the United States, you don’t want to live anywhere else.”
The menu at Lavash includes the “same recipes, same dishes” that Nasir “learned to cook in Mom’s kitchen.” He even serves his mother’s favorite dish, Lemon Cauliflower Stew, every Tuesday. Every dish Nasir offers is a reflection of both what he learned growing up and of what he has studied over his many years as a chef. Nasir believes in the power of food to connect people, to act as a "universal language."
Nasir loves his work at Lavash. “What’s a better life than this?” he says, “This is a joy.” He adds, “whatever you do with your life, make sure you love it. 80% of our life is work. If you’re not enjoying your work, you’re not enjoying life.”
Nasir wants his children to enjoy their work as well, even if that means leaving the restaurant behind. Jamal is currently studying dentistry at OSU. Nasir’s daughter, Laila, just completed a finance degree at OSU.
“They are my life; that’s what I work for,” says Nasir. “I want them to pursue their dream, too.”
For Jamal, his dream isn’t so different from his father’s. He plans to remain active at Lavash even after graduating from dental school.
“I literally grew up in the restaurant business. I spent every day in my baby carrier in the kitchen of my dad’s first restaurant, Firdous Deli & Café, back in 1989,” he says. Since then, Jamal has learned a great deal about running a restaurant. It’s “almost as if I signed up for a PhD in the service industry,” he says.
Jamal’s favorite dish is the chicken kabob entrée. “The perfect bite is a piece of the chicken kabob, dipped in our delicious whipped garlic sauce, topped with red onion and plunging all of that into the bed of rice,” he says.
As Nasir shows me around the café, his love is evident. He’s proud of the fresh pita bread that is made from scratch and the shawarma that smells so delicious as it spins on its spit, but his pride doesn’t stop there. He’s every bit as happy to show me his dish tank, where he points out how orderly and clean it is.
“Everything is spotless,” he says with a smile.
As he leads me back through the dining room, he surveys the crowd at his restaurant, smiles again and says, “we all come from somewhere. Together, we look beautiful.”
Lavash Café, 2985 N. High St., Columbus, Ohio 43202, 614-263-7777, lavashcafe.com