If, like me, you have a short culinary attention span — that is, you experience the extremely first-world problem of losing interest in even the most delicious dish after only seven or eight bites — food from east of the Mediterranean is made for you. Like tapas or dim sum, mezze, the specialty of Arlington’s Lebanese Taverna, provides a varied experience for even the most attention-deficient of palates.
Lebanese Taverna, a long-running business with 10 locations throughout the DMV area, offers an extensivemezze menu, traditional entrees, sandwiches and even a make-your-own-hummus bar. Though Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean cuisines share a lot of common ground, the same dishes are made with a different twist in every region. Lebanon, with its French colonial influence, has long been credited as the home of the most refined food of the Middle East, thus giving the institution high standards to uphold.
For me and my dinner companions, Lebanese Taverna was a chance to enjoy all the familiar foods we’ve missed since returning to America from our semester in Jordan; for others, it will be a culinary adventure. Either way, it’s a tasty experience. We visited the restaurant’s location in Arlington, a county with one of the highest Arab-American populations in the country. Since the restaurant was packed when we visited, they must be doing something right.
In a big group, it’s easiest to order a few waves of mezze — each diner will spend the same $15-$20 that she typically would on a single entree, but everyone will get to try more dishes. As a group of Arabic students, my party and I knew what we wanted, but the explanations are detailed and clear, so visitors new to Lebanese cuisine can figure out just what they want. We started with a wide selection and kept a menu for a second round, trying not to eat too much bread and oil before our meal arrived.
Bread is crucial for a Middle Eastern meal, and Lebanese Taverna does not disappoint. Their smallflatbreads come warm out of the oven and are just slightly sweet; best of all, the basket is bottomless. I was most excited for ful, a fava bean spread that’s much harder to find in the States than its chickpea cousin hummus. The Taverna’s ful was thinner than I prefer and a bit bland; I’d suggest ordering it with extra spice. The baba ghannouj, mashed eggplant, was creamy and savory but a bit too cold for my taste.
Where Lebanese Taverna really shines is in its fried food. First, the fries. The American-style tubers were authentically doused in tangy sumac spice, which somehow makes french fries more addictive (yes, that’s possible). The fatayer bi jibne, small pies filled with feta and mozzarella, were the perfect combination of sweet, flaky pastry and salty cheese, while the kibbeh, fried stuffed meatballs, boasted a delicious blend of beef, bulgur, nuts and spices. The lubieh bil zeit, though not fried, was also a hit — an addictive stew-like blend of beans and tomato that’s perfect with bread.
If you decide you’re not interested in any method of cooking, try the kibbeh nayeh, a raw meat dish that’s the equivalent of beef tartare. Only about half our table was adventurous enough to enjoy the plate, but it’s a signature dish of Lebanese cuisine and worth a try at the Taverna if you’re a culinary risk taker.
We headed out to Arlington for our Middle Eastern foodie fix, but Lebanese Taverna has a more accessible location in the District, right near the Woodley Park Metro. Both boast comfortable seating areas indoors and out. Whether you’re trying something new or familiar with the taste of the Levant, Lebanese Taverna is a good choice for a nice dinner out, especially for groups.