.Albany’s Zaytoon Showcases Palestinian Culture

Co-owner Izat Eliyan and chef Haithem Salman celebrate their roots

In 2016, Zaytoon Restaurant opened to expand people’s conception of what Middle Eastern dining can be. In the decades since, the tastefully decorated Albany mainstay has achieved much more than just delicious plates. It is a display of Palestinian-American excellence.

Always looking to expand minds, the restaurant recently launched a brunch service. Similar to the decision to serve craft cocktails in a Mediterranean restaurant, adding brunch is a step in the long journey to proving that food from the Levant, along the east Mediterranean, and the Middle East could be as successful as other cuisines more familiar to East Bay eaters. 

Both co-owner Izat Eliyan and chef Haithem Salman were born in Jerusalem.  

Eliyan came to the States in 1987 at the age of 18. “[In those years in Jerusalem,] I spent a lot of time with my family in the olive orchard where we shared laughter, stories and meals that were seasoned with the love and warmth of our Palestinian heritage. It’s these cherished memories that inspired me to bring a taste of my childhood to the East Bay,” he said.

The name “Zaytoon” means “olive” in Arabic, a symbol of peace and home.

Zaytoon is “a celebration of my roots and a homage to the rich flavors that define Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine,” said Eliyan. “Through our dishes, we hope to offer a glimpse into the soul of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Greece, as well as the myriad of countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Our menu celebrates the bustling streets of Jerusalem and lively conversations around the family table.

“We are honored to have been welcomed into the East Bay for the last eight years. The community has been very welcoming and supportive, and they’ve embraced our culture and cuisine,” added Eliyan when asked about the local acceptance of his vision. “I am proud of my heritage and enjoy sharing our delicious food with the community.”

Food of the Middle East

Let me just say that, as a Greek who has had his fair share, the tabbouleh was the best I have ever tasted. Sitting in the lovely space sipping on a late lunch cocktail, my wife and I knew we were in for a treat the moment we tasted the quality of the olive oil drizzled over the hummus. Very fragrant without being bitter, with a taste that developed on the tongue as we held our breath. A Greek knows.

“It’s almost the same thing, but different names and a little bit touches and spices,” said Salman, agreeing that Greek dishes are mixed in with all these other national cuisines. It is in the historical roots of the region, a global crossroads from Mesopotamia to Crete, the Ottoman Empire to the Suez Canal.

In the parts of the world covered by these various terms, the indigenous qualities of ingredients are essential, especially in how they mix and amplify each other. The olive oil, for example, was made in Italy from olives grown in Tunisia. 

“Even you can smell [the quality] when you open the bottle,” said Salman.

Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, Moroccan, Turkish and Greek plates influence menu items at Zaytoon—and there is a lot of overlap.

“Like moussaka,” said Salman, “we have it back home, the same but different.” It is a national dish in Greece that was later adapted across the region. 

With any national dish or comfort food, there’s never only one way to make it. Each family, each household has its own twist, its own secret ingredient. Zaytoon takes that approach to the next logical step, incorporating the palate of local patrons by representing the broad mix of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean ethnic groups found right in the East Bay. Before all else, Eliyan and Salman want Americans with Middle Eastern backgrounds to come enjoy comfort food of the highest standard.

“We’ve made it as we learned from our mom,” said Salman.

Struggle for Peace

Family, community, culture, these commonplace things have not always been readily available to Americans whose families have come from that often tumultuous part of the world. While many nationalities come to America, people from these cultures have not always been accepted in white-dominated spaces in this country.

“Coming out of the period of 9/11, you know, was harder for people from that part of the world,” said Eliyan, whose children were picked on in school at the time. “That wasn’t an easy time on us, but you know, [then] people started getting interested in the Middle East… What’s their culture? What do they eat?” 

And now again, “being a Palestinian, with what’s happening in the Middle East and especially in Gaza, I feel that it is very, very, very, very difficult. And it’s in our psyche, you know?” added Eliyan, “It’s kind of, like, it’s in your mind all the time.

“As a Palestinian, I grew up in Jerusalem. I lived my youth over there, and I feel that a lot is lost right now in terms of human rights,” said Eliyan. “What about the human rights of 2.2 million starving people in Gaza? It’s not about one side or another, just about humans. So it is difficult for us right now.”

That is part of the mission of Zaytoon, to repaint the picture of the Palestinian people as sophisticated citizens of the world and to show how their culture has mixed with other peoples of the Mediterranean over the millennia.

Contrary to the image of war and death associated with Middle Eastern cultures and especially the Palestinians, said Eliyan, “we do want to be successful. We want to create things. We want to send our kids to schools. We want them to become lawyers and doctors and writers, and live a normal life.”

This team of Palestinian investors, owners and chef came together to create an experience of the American dream through the greatest medium of all, food.

Speaking of the food—and those twice hinted-at cocktails—we delighted in the quality of both. The recommended cocktail “Arabian Nights” was complex and not too sweet and perfectly accompanied moist, umani-seared grills—we had chicken and lamb-beef shawarma, which were excellent. I was surprised that the kefta, which I generally avoid, was maybe my favorite dish at lunch. And the pungent falafel, which we eat a lot of, had a perfectly balanced crunch-of-crust over bounce-of-sponge. Tastes of home.

Zaytoon is located at 1133 Solano Ave., Albany. The restaurant is open every day, except for Monday, from 11:30am to 9pm. Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 2:30pm. zaytoon510.com/.

Michael Giotis
Michael Giotis is a Bay Area-based poet and author with a professional background in ecological entrepreneurship.


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