By David Gignilliat | Photos by Amanda Causey Baity
If you’ve had a chance to visit Layla’s Lebanese at Tackett’s Mill in Lake Ridge, you’ve probably met just about every member of the Chebat family.
They all work there.
Owner Michael Chebat runs the floor as a manager, welcoming people to the restaurant and visiting with each table. His wife, Mathil, runs the kitchen, and recreates classic Lebanese dishes with a modern twist. Daughters Christiane, Gabby, Layla, Mary and Radah Chebat are all servers, spread out between their early 20s and 30s. Michael’s younger daughters, Danielle and Samantha Chebat, are hostesses at Layla’s, named after one of his seven daughters. His only son, Jean-Michael, is just 12 years old (“He’s not old enough to work, so he hangs out with me a lot”).
“We run the business like a family. We care about this business. It’s not like the waitress is not going to care about the customer because she doesn’t own the business,” said Chebat. “My family, they own the restaurant, and they own their behavior. They always do their best to keep the customers coming back again and again.”
Since opening in early March, the restaurant has already established a foothold in Lake Ridge, home to several chain restaurants, but only a handful of family-owned eateries.
“The response has been amazing from our customers that we’ve gotten to know the last several months,” said Chebat. “They’ve thanked us for bringing this type of restaurant to Woodbridge, because Woodbridge needs something like this, especially in Lake Ridge. Our food is excellent, our service is amazing, and the place is very nice.”
Chebat originally moved from Lebanon to the United States in 1975 with his father, who owned grocery businesses and real estate interests. Eventually, he found his way to Northern Virginia in 1997, and 10 years later, he opened the original Layla’s Lebanese at 907 King Street in Old Town Alexandria. Chebat sold the Layla’s Lebanese It’s a Family Affair successful restaurant business in 2014, wishing to work closer to home to spend more time with his family. After nine months of construction and lease negotiation, he opened Layla’s Lebanese in Lake Ridge in March of this year.
The decor is far from what you would expect from a typical suburban mall or town center. The tables are elegantly appointed, but not overdone, with modern-looking design and clean lines. Along the left wall of the restaurant is a column of booths, with long flowing curtains elegantly bundled in the center. For a romantic evening or a private meal, the curtains can be loosened for privacy. On the center and right sides are several small square tables used for smaller parties. The restaurant is uniquely lit, with visually stunning drop lights. Walking in to Layla’s, you’re transported away to somewhere else, somewhere exotic, somewhere new. It is bright, but not too bright.
“At first, we were thinking of doing a to-go restaurant, but we decided to make it eat-in, so people could enjoy the atmosphere. My brother has a friend who is an interior designer. I explained to her what we wanted, and she knew exactly what we were looking for,” he said. “The lighting and ambiance is amazing. Everyone comments about how unique it is, and how we decided to do it.”
Michael is the public face of the operation. He personally makes a visit to every table in the restaurant to check on the food, and maybe even make a new friend. He has a winning personality, a wry smile that seems to lights up the room, and a mix of old-world wisdom and new-world panache that makes him a perfect fit for a new restaurant based on one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world.
“I welcome people, and I get to know my customers, because I would like my customers to be my friends, and make it a big family at Layla’s,” he said.
The restaurant offers a mix of classic Lebanese dishes (shawarmas, souvlakis, and kabobs, served with beef, chicken or lamb) and appetizers. All of the grill items are served with rice or french fries, and a house salad. Layla’s also offers three unique stews—Batenjan Mehshi, an eggplant, beef and tomato stew; Kafta B’atata, a lamb, potato and tomato stew; and Moussaka, a vegetable, onion and tomato stew.
There are three types of hummus—a classic version, a hummus with sauteed beef and pine nuts, and a unique black bean hummus with tahini, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil. Among the appetizers, the baba ghannouj (a puree of smoked eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil), tabouleh, grape leaves (stuffed with rice, parsley and lemon juice), and falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties seasoned with cumini and coriander and served with tahini) are the more popular offerings. Layla’s also offers its own Lebanese version of steak tartare, “kibbeh niyye,” with raw lamb, crushed bulgur (a cracked wheat grain known for its light nutty flavor), onion and fresh mint.
“I work very hard to make sure that everyone who comes into our restaurant experiences real Lebanese food the way it was intended to be enjoyed,” said Mathil Chebat, the head chef, Michael’s wife, and co-owner. “It’s a source of pride for me, my family and my country.”
For those looking to eat light, they can try a side of Lebanese homemade yogurt. Or pop in for an indulgent slice of the homemade baklava (phyllo dough, crushed walnuts, rose water syrup and pistachios) or rice pudding, and sit by the window and enjoy a Lebanese coffee, which is similar to an espresso or a Turkish coffee. It is boiled for a few minutes in a rakweh, a long-handled conical pot (often copper or some other conductive metal), and then allowed to settle for a few minutes to let the grounds settle to the bottom.
“Any time we are open for business, everything on the menu is available,” he said. “You can come in and have a Lebanese coffee and a slice of baklava and relax.”
Layla’s offers beer and wine, including several Lebanese wines (“they are amazingly good,” he adds) from the Bekaa Valley, home to 90 percent of the wine produced in Lebanon. Specifically, Layla’s offers several vintages of Chateau Ksara wines, the oldest winery in Lebanon dating back to 1857, many of which showcase French grapes (cabernet, merlot, syrah, grenache, among others), and include some indigenous Lebanese grapes (Musar White, for example).
At lunch, the restaurant offers many of the same items and a diverse selection of sandwiches, including falafel, and shawarmas, as well as warm spinach and meat pies.
In short order the restaurant has expanded its reach beyond Lake Ridge to retail distribution in the local community, including farmer’s markets in Annandale (Thursdays), Lorton (Sundays) and Tackett’s Mill (Tuesdays). Chebat said there are also plans to place some of their unique Lebanese creations (like Layla’s Garlic Whip and Layla’s Special Dressing, both of which are already trademarked) in local grocers like Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s and Whole Foods.
“It’s an amazing way of marketing the [restaurant], introducing ourselves to the people and introducing them to our products and our restaurant,” said Michael, who mans the booth at each farmer’s market. “It’s unbelievable —we have customers who have come from Lorton and Annandale because they enjoy the food and they like what they’ve bought from us, and they want to enjoy all of our menu in the restaurant itself.”
There is a lot of love that goes into the experience of dining at Layla’s Lebanese, which makes sense, as it truly is a uniquely family affair.
“Most of my customers say, ‘Hey Mike, how can you [and your family] work together without fighting? I tell them ‘Everyone has [their] job, and they must do it right. And when you do it right, nobody should yell or fight or anything of that sort,’” said Chebat. “It’s really nice. It’s a joy. It’s keeping the family together. And in the end, we do our best for our customers. And our business.”
David Gignilliat ([email protected]) grew up in Woodbridge. A graduate of the University of Virginia, he currently freelances for several publications. He authors his own blog, Quixotica, waxing semantic about the nuances of modern-day language and slang.