For More than 25 Years, Tanoreen Has Served Up Palestinian Food and Community in Brooklyn

In 1998, Rawia Bishara opened Tanoreen to share part of herself, her culture, and her mother’s culinary influence. Today, the restaurant’s impact stretches far beyond its acclaimed Brooklyn kitchen.

A busy, full dining room at Brooklyn Palestinian restaurant, Tanoreen.

Rawia’s cooking at Tanoreen draws travelers as well as locals.

Photo by Brad Ogbonna

One afternoon some 25 years ago, Rawia Bishara gathered her dearest girlfriends at her home in Brooklyn for a meal that would shift the course of her life. It was like any other Friday: She filled her table with stacks of red snapper she’d fried in vegetable oil, a salad of chopped tomatoes that she’d freckled with jalapeño, fries she’d cut by hand. These dishes appeared often in her Palestinian Arab family’s rotation in her hometown of Nazareth, where they would treat “Fish Fridays,” as she called them, with ritualistic devotion. She continued to observe this practice once a month in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood on the southwestern tip of Brooklyn, where she’d moved as a young bride more than two decades earlier.

During that meal, one friend voiced an idea that had been lingering in the back of Rawia’s mind: Why don’t you open a restaurant, a place that puts your Palestinian cooking on a wider stage? Rawia sat with it.

She had known a woman with similar dreams—her late mother, Monira, who had died some 15 years before, when she was 59 and Rawia was 30. Before darting off to her work as a schoolteacher in Nazareth, Monira, a devoted cook, would set the table for Rawia and her four siblings with sunny jams made from apricots grown on trees in their backyard and silken labneh strained from goat’s milk. Cooking wasn’t drudgery; it was creative expression. Monira took such pleasure in the art that she wanted to open a restaurant of her own. But people around her actively dissuaded her from doing so. Rawia would later, in adulthood, recall a common refrain her mother heard: Women don’t open restaurants.

The opportunity to make something of her talents, and to correct the injustice her mother faced, energized Rawia. But even after that meal, whenever she vocalized this ambition of hers to others in her orbit, they were skeptical, if not downright discouraging. Barring those supportive girlfriends and her husband Wafa, most family members and other friends told her that her style of cooking wasn’t commercial, that her food wouldn’t sell, that running a restaurant was too difficult. It’ll never work, she remembers them saying. Then she counters matter of factly: “But it did.”

Left: a portrait of Rawia Bishara; the desert knafeh, which is topped with pistachios

From left: Rawia, at Tanoreen, has influenced other Palestinian chefs in New York; The dessert knafeh dates to the 10th century.

Photo by Brad Ogbonna

Rawia, now 68, is a self-possessed woman who speaks in a smoky baritone. She recalls the modest beginnings of her restaurant career to me as she sits in Tanoreen, the 80-seat establishment she has operated continuously since 1998 in Bay Ridge. Smears of indigo kohl bracket her eyes; she accents her monochromatic brown attire with shocks of honeycomb-gold jewelry: a heavy necklace, rings, bracelets.

Most days, Rawia can be found supervising her staff of 20 at Tanoreen. Though she has a dedicated team of cooks, she will occasionally lend a hand to the creation of dishes such as molokhia, a mainstay of the menu. On the day of my visit, I watch as she stews verdant jute mallow leaves— commonly used across Middle Eastern cooking—with coriander, lemon juice, and garlic until the mixture turns the lush teal of lake water. Then she rests two roasted chicken thighs atop it and serves the dish with a riot of rice, vermicelli, and almonds. She radiates such casual confidence before the stove that it’s hard to believe that she’s ever been unsure of her talents.

Yet when Rawia was a young girl in Nazareth, her mother discouraged her from cooking. Just study, Rawia remembers Monira ordering her. No matter her mother’s rules, Rawia couldn’t help but watch women around her preparing food “from scratch, from zero,” she says. Family members from faraway villages would come to stay at their home during the holidays, giving Rawia’s house the feel of a hotel. Monira made her own olive oil, fermented her own sweet wine, distilled her own vinegar. Grapes and raspberries grew in the backyard, and Monira boiled the fruits with sugar and pectin, turning them into smooth spreads.

Rawia missed those tastes after she graduated from high school and left home. She was 18 when she began teaching fifth graders in the city of Haifa some 20 miles away. Rawia, who had already gained admission to university, had aims of eventually becoming a lawyer. But she soon met Wafa, while he was visiting from America, and found herself smitten. Wafa had been living in the States for about 10 years then, and they moved to New York together in 1974, soon after their marriage.

There was something else driving her toward the United States. Despite the idylls of her childhood, she often felt like an outsider due to her ethnic and religious identity. She was Palestinian and a Christian, thus marginalized twice over in Israel. “We lived in hard circumstances,” she says of her birth country. “I am a Palestinian living in an occupied land that became Israel, and we carry Israeli citizenship, but we’re not treated like citizens. I always felt like this is not the way I want to live, this is not the way I want my family to live. And I really wanted out.”

A streetview of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Bay Ridge sits north of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which connects the New York City boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Photo by Brad Ogbonna

Bay Ridge was flush with immigrants—Greeks, Italians, Irish, plus second-generation Lebanese and Syrian residents—but Rawia doesn’t remember too many Palestinians around her, cultural companions who could soothe the sting of homesickness. (This was before the neighborhood earned the colloquial label of “Little Palestine” in the aughts.) The comforts of home were missing. “[There was] nothing I grew up with [here],” she says. “It was difficult.”

Rawia found comfort, and eventually even self-assurance, in her home kitchen. She marveled at the potential she saw when she browsed American supermarkets. The squash back in Nazareth seemed “small, gray” to her eye, but the varieties she could find in New York were bigger, yellower, greener. She couldn’t comprehend the size of okra, either.

As Rawia’s palate expanded, though, her mind kept returning to Palestine. She tried cooking everything the way Monira had: rolling grape leaves, stuffing squash and artichoke hearts. Once a month, she asked her mother for recipes. “I wanted to eat that food, so I started calling her,” she says. With practice, she found her footing.

Various jobs nudged Rawia out of the house—she worked in Manhattan at the bridal institution Kleinfeld and at a supermarket that Wafa owned—but she kept a connection to her birthplace. Their daughter Jumana was born in 1975, their son Tarek in 1978, and Rawia would take them to Palestine every summer.

As her children grew older, Rawia volunteered with the Union of Palestinian Women’s Associations, an organization committed to helping female Palestinian refugees acclimate to life in the States. But cooking maintained its luster. Family members frequently visited from abroad, tasking her with playing hostess. They came so often that Tarek dubbed the home “Hotel Bishara,” with guests staying up to two months or even longer. Rawia was in the kitchen all the time, and she liked it that way.

Left: a historic home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Right: Felip Garzon, Tanoreen’s kitchen manager.

From left: Bay Ridge—which was so named in 1853—is known for its diversity and historic homes; Felip Garzon is Tanoreen’s kitchen manager.

Photos by Brad Ogbonna

Still, she was reminded in these moments of the prejudices her mother had faced in an analogous position, taking care of so many people beyond her immediate family. By the time of that “Fish Friday” conversation, Rawia’s children were in college, and she had no desire to mill about at home. Putting two kids through university wasn’t cheap, either: She needed the money. “I wanted a place, a business of my own. I loved cooking,” she says. “It’s the one thing I do with passion.”

So Rawia brushed aside doubts from people who assumed she’d fail, and secured loans from friends who believed in her undertaking. She decided she would call the place Tanoreen, after a Lebanese village whose name was said to be derived from the Arabic word tannour, an oven made of clay, which Rawia found fitting. But the choice was also pragmatic: She wanted a name that would be easy for Americans to pronounce.

Tanoreen emerged in a cultural climate generally indifferent to Palestinian food. It was a time, Rawia remembers, when the dominant American mindset seemed to be that all Middle Eastern cooking amounted to street food staples—shawarma, falafel, hummus. So Rawia played it safe when she opened the restaurant in 1998: She offered sandwiches and salads.

Rawia soon learned to trust her instincts. She sensed that diners might cotton to the charms of knafeh, the dessert of flossy cheese mixed with tiny matchsticks of shredded phyllo dough, baked until it takes on a furious red, then showered with orange blossom syrup and a blizzard of pistachios. She had faith that her customers would respond to cooking with character and that they might even dig a bit deeper to see her. When you eat what someone cooks, she says, “something becomes in common between you and the other person.”

But food only possessed so much power to change minds. The restaurant suffered a serious dip in sales during the year that followed the attacks of September 11. Customers reportedly made snide comments about Osama bin Laden.

Yet the intensity of such prejudices abated with time, and the restaurant bounced back; the quality of the dishes spoke for itself. In 2004, New York Times writer Eric Asimov, then in charge of the “$25 and Under” column, gave Tanoreen rhapsodic notices. “In a business where decisions are too often based on focus groups and consensus, Tanoreen comes down firmly on the side of art over product, of craftsmanship over assembly line,” he wrote.

She had faith that her customers would respond to cooking with character and that they might even dig a bit deeper to see her.

Attention to Tanoreen grew rapidly: In its 2008 survey, the then-quintessential restaurant guide Zagat named Tanoreen the city’s best Middle Eastern restaurant. A year later, it migrated to a larger location a block away, where it stands today. The restaurant received press befitting its maturation, including a glowing review from the Times’ then-new restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, along with positive write-ups in the Village Voice and the New Yorker, all noting Rawia’s charismatic mien. During the next decade, Rawia dispensed her intimate style of cooking in two cookbooks, Olives, Lemons & Za’atar (Kyle Books, 2014) and Levant (Kyle Books, 2018), displayed today with pride in the windows of the restaurant. Institutional laurels ensued: Rawia was named a James Beard Award semifinalist four years in a row, starting in 2016.

The restaurant’s shift to proclaiming itself Palestinian, rather than loosely Middle Eastern, was an organic one over those years. During that period, America’s perception of Palestinian cuisine became more nuanced, says Palestinian food journalist Reem Kassis.

“Many people were probably familiar with hummus and Middle Eastern foods, because most restaurants identified themselves as Middle Eastern,” Kassis says.“But almost no restaurant openly labeled themselves as Palestinian, so familiarity with it was not as high.” Slowly, the tide began to turn. Publishers released a spate of Palestinian cookbooks, including Kassis’s The Palestinian Table (Phaidon, 2017) and Falastin (Ten Speed Press, 2020) by London-based Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi.

Tanoreen has evolved into a complex creature with age: a reflection of who Rawia is, as a Palestinian immigrant living in the United States, overseeing a kitchen staffed largely by fellow immigrants. Jose Alfredo, originally from Mexico, began working here as a dishwasher 15 years ago; he is now a senior member of the kitchen staff. Next to him on that chain of command is Adrian Vargas, who has been at the restaurant even longer, for about 18 years. He, too, washed dishes at first, and transitioned to the kitchen after a few months because of his interest in Rawia’s cooking. “I was watching, watching—and she said, You want to learn? I said yes, and then she started teaching me.”

Left: Rawia kissing her daughter Jumana on the cheek. Right: a cauliflower steak

Left: Rawia’s daughter Jumana joined her as partner in the family business in 2006; At Tanoreen, Rawia Bishara’s Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn, the cauliflower steak is a menu stalwart.

Photo by Brad Ogbonna

This has long been Rawia’s mission—to share her people’s food with those who appreciate its virtues. Her daughter Jumana, who joined Rawia as partner in 2006, now feels the call. (Saying yes was a “no-brainer,” Jumana says, because she could “promote our culture, our cuisine.”) Jumana has spearheaded a partnership with the delivery service Goldbelly, which ships the restaurant’s knafeh across the country. “My dream is to have knafeh in the frozen food aisle of every supermarket in America,” she says.

Today, Tanoreen is a vital thread in the culinary fabric of the city. Other proudly Palestinian restaurants now exist across New York City, testament to Rawia’s impact: Ayat a few blocks away in Bay Ridge, Al Badawi in Brooklyn Heights, Qanoon in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Some of them cite Rawia as a direct influence, regarding her with reverence.

“I love Rawia’s work and her commitment to our culture,” says Tarek Daka, the chef and founder of Qanoon. He remembers making the pilgrimage to Tanoreen after he first moved to New York in 2007, looking for food that was close to Palestinian. It was also around this time that Nasser Jaber—the Palestinian co-owner of the Migrant Kitchen, a restaurant with Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn locations that braids the flavors of the Middle East with those of Latin America—first ate at Tanoreen. He was a cash-strapped 19-year-old immigrant from Ramallah living in the Bronx when he made the hours-long trek by subway to visit the restaurant, craving the comforts of musakhan rolls with strings of shredded chicken tucked into tubes of pita. “I didn’t have the money for it,” Jaber remembers, “so she gave it to me.” Jaber has since come to see Rawia as a “godmother,” he says, her restaurant’s staying power a lodestar for younger Palestinian chefs like himself. “She made us all believe that we can open a successful restaurant that can last past the five-year mark and succeed,” he says. “And become an institution.”

James Beard Award–winning writer Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. He’s currently writing two books, one focused on the Indian-born actress Merle Oberon, the other a collection of essays about American TV soap operas.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR