Even as one stands in the parking lot out front of Carnival, a medium-sized Lebanese American restaurant located just on the outskirts of Hollywood’s buzz, it’s possible to feel the community bustling around the restaurant. Early morning exercisers entering Pilates class weave around food service workers on their cigarette breaks, combining into a morning bustle that takes on a community of its own in this sunny parking lot.
Enter Nabeel Halaby, owner of Carnival. As we sit in his office talking about the restaurant, hardly five minutes pass without the head of a friend or worker popping into view through the door frame to inquire about this or that. “How’s the family?” is met with an affirming nod and shrug of the shoulders, more enthusiasm than the follow-up question about whether the bus boy has made it in yet. Only the inquiry of “Who took your usual parking spot?” elicits a strong reaction, at which time I learn all about the perpetual frustration of parking spot thievery on the lot, which is shared amongst the clientele of no less than seven separate businesses.
“This is a Hands-On Business.”
But at last the conversation turns to the subject of interest: Nabeel himself. Pensively smoking a cigarette, Nabeel recounts the story of leaving Lebanon as a teenager for the far-away soils of Los Angeles. After spending childhood in his family home in the Lebanese capital Beirut, Nabeel left the country in 1977 during the early stages of the Lebanese Civil War to join his sister, cousins, and other extended family in Los Angeles. Nabeel speaks in casual terms about this stark transition. “It was a good experience,” he reminisces. “I expected a lot of dramatic change, and did very well because of this. I had to adapt to the circumstances, and do whatever needed to be done. And when you’re sixteen, you adjust fast.”
Nabeel arrived in the US armed with years of English lessons—but was woefully unprepared for the American speaking pace. “Some people talked so fast, blahblahblahblah,” he chuckles. “I had to put up my hand and say ‘talk to me slow, I’m rusty’. But after a while, I understood everyone.” Picking up with schooling in the United States was no easy process: although Nabeel had already completed high school in Lebanon, he had brought no diploma with him on his journey. “No diploma, no nothing. My mom and dad basically told me ‘get the heck out of here, get away from this war’. I had to take a year of ESL to get any certification.” With this degree under his belt, Nabeel completed a year and a half of college before transitioning to full-time employment to support his family.
The first job Nabeel held in Los Angeles was as a municipal maintenance worker, beautifying the railroad tracks in the North San Fernando Valley. “We cleaned up the whole area, putting plants and flowers along the tracks. It was ugly, and so we planted from Sylmar all the way down the pass towards Sunland. The track was long, and it took the entire crew three months of non-stop gardening, digging, and planting all summer long. Gardening is my passion, by the way,” he adds, smiling ironically. “You know… with all the spare time I have.” Here he chuckles and takes a long sip of coffee. “My garden at home is one of my greatest pleasures during my time off.” But to hear Nabeel tell it, the life of a restaurant owner is not one of leisure.
As he got older, Nabeel got into the business of construction. It was far from an easy job—as the long hours and physical demands took their toll, he began to struggle with back and shoulder pains. When his crew and partner moved out of the San Fernando Valley, Nabeel took it as a cue to change industries. “After all, it’s tough to go back to square one when you have a family to support”, he says. “Meanwhile, my brother Fouad and my two cousins had started a business, Carnival Restaurant, and when Fouad decided to retire he passed the business to me. It was always important that the restaurant stayed within the family, and so I stepped in to take on ownership responsibility.”
Nabeel makes no pretenses about his profession. “I’ve been on duty for five weeks straight,” he states flatly. “That means no breaks—ten o’clock in the morning until midnight each day.” From his home in Granada Hills, Nabeel makes the 15-mile trek each morning, an hour-long journey in weekday LA traffic, to the restaurant on which he has staked his livelihood. “Have you heard of house arrest?”, he asks, with a twinkle in his eye. “Well, I’m on restaurant arrest.” (Later on, while sampling arguably the most smoky and delicate baba ghanoush in Los Angeles, I’m left openly questioning the prison metaphor). As Carnival’s owner, whatever job needs doing becomes Nabeel’s responsibility, whether it be cleaning dishes, investigating parking lot drama, or keeping the books of an establishment that serves between two and four hundred daily patrons from brunch until late-night dinner.
“Once you have family, you always have family.”
As tempting as it may be to imagine that this thirty-four-year-old establishment is secure from the perils of bankruptcy, Nabeel’s guard never falters. He is keenly aware of the challenges of running a restaurant, and keeps counsel with a host of restaurant-owners around the San Fernando Valley to inform his management perspective. Asked about the possibility of the restaurant’s expansion, the response is a signature shrug of the shoulders. “Yes, lots of people want me to open new restaurants here and there, everywhere. But… it’s a sensitive business.” When asked to elaborate, he indulges: “restaurant owners on Ventura Boulevard [the bustling commercial strip nearby], they’re suffering. We get together and ask each other, how was your month? I always reply ‘I’m ok, I’m steady’. And in return, I hear we’re down, we’re down, we’re down across the board. Then owners have to let people go…”. He takes another drag of his cigarette and sighs. “I see this struggle a lot. You can go pfft”—he lets his right hand free fall through the air like a stone— “very fast.”
But Nabeel’s business philosophy has earned him and his partners solid success through the years. To hear him tell it: “In general, potential customers look at the price first. And if they can afford the menu, then it’s all about the quality. And if they would like to have both… well, they come to Carnival.” He smiles, and one senses the pride behind these words. It is a sentiment echoed by the kitchen and wait staff, each of whom gushes without hesitation about the community atmosphere that exists between staff and clientele. “We have our regulars, everybody knows each other… it’s a family,” concludes Najwa, a waitress who has worked at Carnival for 28 years and counting. “When it comes to work, I could never do four walls and a computer. It’s only here that I feel free.”
From start to finish, Carnival Restaurant centers on family. Between describing the activities of his five sons and showing me pictures of his newest granddaughter, Nabeel articulates the mission of the restaurant: “this restaurant is a family thing, and we want to keep it that way. We can’t have it losing its form, going into dysfunction…. Once you have family, you always have family.” These values are evident when one peruses the menu, which boasts Mama’s Traditional Ashtalia Pudding (a traditional Arabic recipe made with milk, sugar, and orange blossom water and topped with pistachios) and Mama’s Homemade Baklava (a syrup-doused dessert pastry made up of layers of filo and filled with chopped nuts) among its many temptations.
“Say Hi to Your Falafel.”
Proceeding into the restaurant, one is immediately greeted by the sounds of family. Moms spoon hummus into the eager mouths of infants. Seniors tuck into the spreads set before them without concern for anything beyond their lentil soup (and since the menu points it out as the house specialty, one can hardly blame them). Forks clatter, men tell jokes and laugh loudly, and Arabic coffee flows as the wait staff hurriedly attend the wants of the hungry masses. Sunday is always a big day at Carnival, Nabeel observes, thanks to the restaurant’s loyal church-goer following. All told, it’s a day of feast for young and old, Lebanese and American and all in between.
Before sitting down to dine, we make a run through the frantic kitchen—passing the slow-rotating shawarma grills with marinated racks of lamb and beef, on through the rush of cooks roasting eggplants to prepare the palate-tempting baba ghanoush, with a stop by the falafel fryer, currently preparing three falafels for my consumption. “How often do you get to say hello to your own falafel as it fries?” laughs Nabeel, pausing to allow a hasty photo before ushering me onwards to the serving area. Every corner of the kitchen cries out for the camera’s attention, with colors and smells practically incapacitating all but the most seasoned cook (which, in this kitchen, is everyone). Passing through the back of the house this way also allows me to appreciate each dish’s journey from whole ingredients to final product—I spot heads of lettuce, boxes of potatoes, soaking chickpeas, and a barrel of house-pickled pepperocinis, each waiting its turn to become the next day’s meal. Finally, though, the time comes to sit down and indulge an ever-more impatient appetite.
“You’ve Gotta Try the Fūl.”
One by one, each dish impresses in its own right, and together the meal becomes what can only be described as a sumptuous feast. Steam curls into the air off the fūl mudammas (spelled “fool” on the menu for easy pronunciation), which acts as the eye-catching centerpiece of this vegetarian’s table. Nabeel explains the intricacy of this dish, which is a staple food in many Arab, Middle Eastern, and African cultures. It is made from fava beans cooked with cumin, garlic, onion, lemon juice, and other herbs, and dressed with olive oil and a sprig of mint just before being served. Alongside the fūl comes a tray of smoothly textured hummus paired with smoky baba ghanoush, a spread made from fire-grilled eggplants pureed with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. The two dishes share plate space with a generous helping of tabbouleh, a finely chopped salad made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, onions, and bulgur wheat, flavored with olive oil and lemon.
Nabeel instructs on the proper method of eating, tearing off a piece of piping hot pita bread to scoop a bite of fūl into his mouth. “Make a little scooper, and… scoop!” he says enthusiastically, demonstrating polished tactic. Although my scooping seems uncoordinated after this expert performance, somehow or other all the food arrives at its intended destination.
Meanwhile, the restaurant floor has reached a throbbing hum as guests arrive and are seated in the ornately decorated dining room. Nabeel walks among it all, greeting regulars, playing peek-a-boo with babies, and clapping old friends on the back as he arrives at their tables. When asked if he’d like to take a picture in front of the restaurant, Nabeel voices his incredulity. “Why would I want to take a picture outside?” he asks. “Come on, let’s take one with Barbara,” at which point he gestures across the restaurant at an elderly couple who sits quietly eating their shawarma plates, apparently well-accustomed to the melee. Barbara looks up and introduces herself with a warm handshake, telling me she and her husband have been coming here since their daughter was born thirty-one years ago. “Nabeel, he’s like my other husband,” she says, smiling wide. “It’s a family here, and the food is the best part.”
Having appeased my appetite and then some, the arrival of an Arabic coffee cuts a refreshing break in the parade of mouthwatering richness. Slowly sipping the coffee also provides an opportunity to take in the holistic Carnival experience, where high energy and community thrall conjure an atmosphere reminiscent of the restaurant’s namesake. Through the highs and lows of the chaos, Nabeel maintains a composure one seldom sees amongst those daring enough to make their living in an industry rife with unpredictable clientele, modest profit margins, and long hours. All told, Carnival Restaurant’s food, staff, and community make for a unique experience that leaves a feeling of nourished satisfaction reaching beyond the stomach, up all the way to the heart.
4536 Woodman Avenue
Sherman Oaks, CA 94123
Suzanne Caflisch is an avid writer, eater, activist, and art enthusiast. She attained a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and now works in the public health research field in her native city of Los Angeles.