April 27, 2023

With Lamb and Love: Khalil’s Syrian Restaurant Charms Pittsburgh

At Khalil’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh, customers often walk in and tell the owners, sisters Dalel and Leila Khalil, that they had their first date there, before introducing their grandchildren.

The Syrian restaurant quickly became a staple in the community when its first location opened in 1972. Despite some hardships in recent years, it remains so to this day, with longtime patrons returning and passing their affinity for the place down through generations.

After receiving $40,000 from the Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant Program (BHSR) created by the National Trust and American Express as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Khalil sisters reopened the restaurant in February 2023 following a series of crucial repairs to their building.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

Khalil's Restaurant in Pittsburgh reopened in February in parts thanks to repairs funded by a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant.

Mikhail and Agnes: The Foundation Behind Khalil’s Success

Dalel and Leila took over the restaurant from their parents, Mikhail and Agnes Khalil, who ran the kitchen and the dining room, respectively, for decades.

Agnes was born in Pittsburgh to Syrian parents, but she traveled to Syria in 1956 after her mother died suddenly. There she met Mikhail, who lived in a mountain village, worked as a farmer, and spoke no English at the time. The pair had an arranged marriage.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

A wedding photo of Agnes and Mikhail Khalil.

Dalel said that, at first, the marriage was mainly for immigration purposes, so Mikhail could travel to and work in the United States; he would send the money he earned back to his family. Dalel adds that her mother swore she would divorce Mikhail as soon as the paperwork was settled. Only part of that plan came to fruition: Mikhail did indeed support his family from abroad, but he and Agnes remained happily married for 47 years. Their relationship proved to be the bedrock of their business’s success.

Mikhail worked as a cook and butcher at Omar Kayyam’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Pittsburgh, from 1960 to 1972 in the building that eventually became the home of the current Khalil’s restaurant.

“The owner [Eddie Khoury] loved [Mikhail] like a son,” said Dalel.

After 12 years, Khoury suggested that Mikhail strike out on his own. Mikhail followed his old boss’s advice and opened the first Khalil’s in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

As time went on, Khoury sold his building to Mikhail, who in 1977 opened a second location there, bringing his career full circle. He later opened a third location, but eventually consolidated his business into the second restaurant, where Khalil’s remains today.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

The Khalil family would throw impromptu parties in the restaurant when the always-busy kitchen was backed up.

A Pittsburgh Staple: Food, Parties, and Cultural Education at Khalil’s

Khalil’s was a huge hit from the start, Dalel said. There were lines down the block, and the kitchen would get so busy on some nights that her mother would often announce to the crowd that their orders were backed up. To keep the customers satisfied, the Khalil family would throw impromptu parties with music and dancing until the food was ready. It did the trick.

“We were at the forefront of introducing authentic Middle Eastern cuisine and Syrian food to the community,” Dalel said, adding that the restaurant also served as a showcase for Syrian culture.

Her parents’ reputations went beyond the food they made and served, though. Mikhail made good on his promise to provide for his extended family in Syria, and, over time, his siblings came to live in the United States, where the Khalils helped them find jobs and housing.

Family members weren’t the only ones who reaped the benefits of their generosity; the larger community did so, as well. Many Pittsburgh locals came out on June 17, 2022, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Khalil’s opening. The Khalil sisters thought around 50 people would show up, but the number turned out to be closer to 300, and it turned into a two-day party.

Dalel described the event as overwhelming, in a good way. “They came from far and wide because they love Khalil’s,” she said.

‘COVID Wiped Us Out’: Khalil’s Struggles During the Pandemic

While Khalil’s remained a successful venture under the stewardship of Mikhail and Agnes, things got a little trickier in the 2000s, when Agnes died and Mikhail suffered a stroke. His children decided to close shop for a few months in 2015 so they could focus on helping their father with his health.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

Agnes and Mikhail Khalil were happily married for 47 years.

The months turned into years, and the restaurant was still shuttered in 2018, when Dalel—even though she had swore never to enter the restaurant business—and Leila decided to get things rolling again. They reopened that year, and the crowds came back as if nothing had changed. Mikhail got to greet many of his old customers once more before his death about six months later, Dalel said.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

The Khalil sisters with their father at a Syrian Folk Festival.

Then the pandemic struck.

“COVID wiped us out,” said Dalel.

The sisters were struggling to raise money to keep the operation going, and they missed out on several key pandemic-related grants. The two of them continued to shop, cook, and fulfill takeout orders, but it was getting harder.

Turn of the Tide: A BHSR Grant Arrives in the Nick of Time

When the BHSR grant came through in 2022, things took a positive turn. They were able to use that money to make necessary repairs, including repointing brickwork to halt and prevent water leaks; replacing missing original mosaic tiles on the exterior; installing new LED exterior lighting; repaving the parking lot, which was riddled with potholes; and repairing the 1977 signage.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

Khalil's has new lighting and repaired signage.

photo by: Dalel and Leila Khalil

The Khalil sisters added Arabic-style screens on the exterior with the money from their BHSR grant.

They also used the money to add Arabic-style screens on the front exterior wall and palm trees in the courtyard, to enhance the outdoor dining area.

“We want people to feel like they are in Damascus,” Dalel said.

The grant covered the restaurant’s exterior work, which Dalel said helped beautify the structure. It also allowed the owners to divert their attention to other issues on the interior, which they would not have been able to afford to fix otherwise.

Old Friends, New Memories: Khalil’s Tradition Continues

The Khalil sisters are ambitious about the future of the restaurant. They will continue to serve their storied food, including their specialties—lamb shank and lamb kebab—which Laila cooks. “She’s exactly like my dad,” Dalel said. But they want to continue to grow the restaurant’s legacy as a cultural center as well complete with music, art, and education about Middle Eastern cuisine.

Now open four days a week, Khalil’s still sees a lot of familiar faces, like the many grandparents who had their first date there. The revamped building is fostering new traditions and memories, as well.

Just recently, a woman came in with about 10 people to celebrate her birthday, Dalel said. It was the second year in a row she chose Khalil’s for the occasion, only having discovered the restaurant the year prior.

“It’s bringing Syrian hospitality, it’s bringing this beautiful warmth to the community,” Dalel said. “They look at our place and they feel belonging.”

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Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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