Evanston’s burgeoning restaurant scene recently added a new player. Yahala Inn, billing itself as a “Mediterranean Kitchen,” officially opened for business on Aug. 26 at 825 Church St. Yahala means “Welcome” in Arabic, and it is fitting nomenclature.
The space, formerly occupied by Dixie Kitchen, has been refurbished and redecorated to showcase a multitude of photos from owner Ron Khalaf’s ancestral homelands of Jordan and Lebanon. He installed new floors, added new tables and chairs, and applied a fresh coat of paint to brighten and open up the space. Energetic Middle Eastern melodies float out of the stereo speakers, the perfect beat to entice a graceful belly dancer – or in this case, hungry patrons to dine on authentic, homemade Middle Eastern food.
The chef de cuisine is Fadi Ahmad, a longtime friend of Mr. Khalaf’s who was relocating back to the Midwest at the same time Mr. Khalaf’s plans for the new restaurant began to take shape. Serendipity aligned with need, and the two teamed up to develop a menu that reminded the men of the best flavors and tastes of home.
Mr. Khalaf also oversaw the installation of new, updated kitchen equipment to create an efficient workspace for his friend and colleague. Except for the pita breads served with every meal and the New York cheesecake offered for dessert, everything on the menu is made from scratch in the Evanston kitchen.
Mr. Khalaf is aware of the other Middle Eastern restaurants in the neighborhood, a few within blocks of Yahala Inn. He is confident that discerning diners will be able to taste the difference between homemade and canned (or “made from a mix”) basics such as hummus (soaked and pureed chickpeas mixed with sesame paste), baba ghanouj (baked eggplant dip mixed with garlic, lemon, and sesame paste), and falafel (fried ground chickpeas with parsley and spices), among others. He believes savvy diners will soon flock to the authentic – “tastes like home” – quality Yahala Inn offers.
In addition to using the best products and freshest ingredients, the menu is diverse and was designed to be vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Local delivery is available through GrubHub, and catering is planned for the future. Mr. Khalaf is also receptive to renting out the restaurant for special events and office parties that want to feature Middle Eastern food. The restaurant is in the process of getting a liquor license to serve beer and wine.
Mr. Khalaf grew up in the United States and attended DePaul University; he has been in the food and beverage industry since 1987. In addition to restaurants and bars he has managed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Mr. Khalaf owns Grape & Grain Co., a craft beer retail store and bar in Homewood.
The few weeks prior to Yahala Inn’s official opening, Mr. Khalaf had a “soft” opening so passersby could wander in and order, the staff could get familiar with the menu and procedures, and the kitchen could fine-tune all the details required to serve the full menu between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. To pique interest and entice foodies, he has been offering free samples a few days a week at a small table on Church Street.
So far Mr. Khalaf is pleased with the response and optimistic about the restaurant’s future. He smiled as he offered, “Opening a restaurant is challenging, but the real challenge is maintaining a consistent level of quality for your customers. That’s what we aim to do.”