Seasoned With a Touch Of HomeFriendly Ways Charm Persian Cafe Patrons
By Dana Hedgpeth
On a dead-end road in northeast Leesburg, nestled between a racquetball club and an overgrown field, sits a two-room brick rambler that from the outside looks like a typical, suburban house with a few visitors' cars parked out front and some plastic porch furniture outside.
But inside, smells of marinated chicken and beef waft from the kitchen of the Friendly Cafe as the restaurant's owners, Iraj and Goli Jafair, shout out orders for charbroiled kabobs, hamburgers and subs.
When they bought the house on Fort Evans Road -- once the site of a home-based computer consulting business -- and turned it into a restaurant five years ago, the Jafairs were worried about the lack of through traffic. But they have established quite a following despite their location, as patrons have come in seeking a quiet, homelike atmosphere for a bite to eat.
"We know we are on a back road and it's hard to find, but somehow people find it," said Goli Jafair, who is in her fifties, as she poured marinade over chicken. "We've directed customers who are trying to get here from their cell phones."
They rarely advertise, save for a small, white sign with "Persian Food Here" spray-painted in black standing in a grassy area near the restaurant's driveway. Instead, the Iranian couple depend on word of mouth.
"You just hear about it from people," said John Humphreys, 27, as he ate one of his favorite Persian dishes, a seasoned mix of green peppers, onions and chicken. Humphreys and a group of co-workers from Rehau Inc., a German plastics company on nearby Edwards Ferry Road, eat at the cafe five days a week. The design engineer joked that the cafe could be nicknamed "The Rehau Annex" because so many Rehau employees come there.
"It's the way they do the meat that makes it so good," said Al Creech, 45, who usually eats with Humphreys. "Everybody just starts talking about it."
The kabobs are the most popular by far. The Jafairs say they make at least 100 kabobs a day for their lunch and dinner rush. For some customers, it is their first Persian dish. Others, who are from the Middle East, say it reminds them of the food in their native country.
"I'd never tried Persian food before, much less heard of it," said Arthur N. Spinks, 59, a Leesburg painting contractor who sometimes eats three meals a day there. "I started eating their cooking, and I was hooked."
But beyond the food, many patrons say there is a certain charm about the restaurant. "The name says it. It's the Friendly Cafe, and that's the atmosphere in here," said Spinks's nephew, Bruce Spinks, 40, as he ate a hamburger. "You don't have to shout over the clanging of dishes. It's a cozy place that feels like you're at someone's dining room table."
A painting of waterlilies and a framed letter of appreciation from the Leesburg Police Department hangs on the walls. A few plants sit in the windowsills. And some local newspapers are scattered on the counter. Goli makes her rounds to each table, asking regulars how their families are and asking everyone how they like the food.
As the door opens, jingling the bells hanging from it, Goli Jafair greets her customers from behind the grill.
"It's like going to Cheers," said H. Roger Zurn Jr., Loudoun County's treasurer, who has eaten there two to three times a week for the last two years. "They know my name, and they know what I like."
Joli shouts: "Tuna or chicken salad sub. That's all he ever eats."
Zurn laughs at her response and chides her for not having his usual lunch choices ready one recent afternoon. She blushes and apologizes. Tomorrow, she promises him, she will get in earlier and cut up the chicken. Today, she says, she was just too tired to come in at her usual 7:30 a.m.
Six days a week, the Jafairs come from their Sterling Park home and open the restaurant. Their only other help is a young Iranian man who cooks part time. Most everything else -- from chopping vegetables for salads to cooking and ringing up customers -- falls to them. Some evenings, their 23-year-old son, Nyson, who is getting his master's degree in physiology at Georgetown University, helps to clean up. On some weekends, their 25-year-old daughter, Neda, who recently graduated from a master's program in taxonomy and pharmacology at the University of Richmond, visits and helps. Next week, Neda will take over while they take their first vacation -- in Israel -- in 25 years.
"It is very, very hard work," said Goli Jafair, as she quickly wipes a table while balancing a tray of kabobs. "Giving the public service gives me satisfaction. It doesn't matter what nationality they are, I love it."
The Jafairs, who practice the Bahai faith, fled their native Iran during the late 1970s because many followers of their religion were being persecuted for promoting their belief that "humanity is one single race with a common destiny." The Bahai faith has its origins in mid-19th-century Persia and now claims 5 million adherents in 205 countries, including 133,000 families in the United States.
Iraj arrived first, staying with a cousin in Fairfax. When Goli joined him the next year, they settled in Sterling Park. As fourth-generation Bahais, they were among the first people of their faith to come to Loudoun. Besides religious freedom, they said they were seeking a better education and quality of life for their children.
"At that time, you could tell there wasn't very much diversity around here just by going to PTA meetings," Goli Jafair said. "I would look around at the children's faces and mine were some of the only ones of color."
Although Iraj Jafair had extensive business management and accounting training in Iran, he found his lack of English skills a barrier to getting a job in corporate America. After a few jobs as a painter, he became a partner in various restaurants in Alexandria, Herndon and Fairfax before opening the Leesburg place.
When her husband developed heart problems three years ago, Goli gave up her career as a nurse at Georgetown Hospital to help in the restaurant full time. Over the years, their restaurant became a casual meeting place for Bahais who lived in Northern Virginia and Washington.
"We believe in the unity of mankind," said Iraj Jafair. "You have to be here -- in the community -- to know them, to really know their hearts."
At times, conversations in Farsi blend with the sounds of English as diners eat. To hear the mixture makes the Jafairs smile -- they say it is what inspires them to keep working.
"Loudoun County is the place where they are building for the future," said Iraj, as he prepared a take-out order of kabobs one recent afternoon. "In the next six years, they will be building 26 schools. We are seeing the beginnings now of more people coming."
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