Laila's Kitchen owners came a long way for their dream

January 23, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Sharif and Laila Basharyar, owners of Laila's Kitchen at 4 E. Franklin St., opened their restaurant in 2007.
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

It’s a gray, wintry afternoon and Mother Nature is showing off.

Temperatures hover in the 20s, a strong wind swirls through the streets and snow begins to fall.

But inside Laila’s Kitchen, a cup of hot tea warms the spirit.

So does the hospitality.

Hugs and handshakes are the order of the day as Sharif and Laila Basharyar greet a visitor to their restaurant.

“I like making people comfortable,” Sharif Basharyar said.

He also likes to feed them — especially the exotic cuisine of his homeland.

Afghanistan is a long way from downtown Hagerstown, but at 4 E. Franklin St., a taste of the ancient country is readily available.

Food is a passion for the Basharyars.

“It’s the love of our lives,” Sharif said. “Always has been, always will be.”

The couple doesn’t remember a time when they haven’t enjoyed cooking. There have been occasions where they have entertained more than 50 family members and friends with special meals.

A long story

But they never imagined themselves owning a restaurant.

“Like everything in our lives, it’s a long story,” Sharif said.

The short version begins in 1985 when the Basharyars immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan.

“The reason we came is a book by itself,” Sharif said. “Mostly, the Russians were in Afghanistan and we didn’t get along. We wanted to leave.”

Sharif studied in the United States from 1971-72, he said. So he decided to return — this time with his wife and three children, hoping to make a better life far from his war-torn country.

Upon arriving in the United States, the family settled in Montgomery County, Md., and soon afterward, welcomed a fourth child.

Laila said she didn’t know a word of English: “French was my second language.” But she quickly learned while juggling restaurant work and a second job at a medical supply company.

Back in his native land, Sharif was an officer with the Afghanistan Insurance Co. and had opportunities to travel the world. So with his qualifications, he landed a job in insurance and worked several other jobs, as well.

As their children grew, he tried to find work where he would be able to take them back and forth from their various activities. He explored all avenues and decided that being a cab driver was the best option.

“That experience is a book, also,” he said.

Sundays, however, were family time and Sharif said everyone climbed into the car for day trips to historical places.

“I have always loved history,” he said. “My own country’s history, United States history, world history — it’s all so fascinating.”

With many historic sites nearby, Sharif said they decided to take advantage of the opportunity to explore and learn, and traveled to places like Frederick, Md., Gettysburg, Pa., and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Finding Hagerstown

On a visit to Antietam National Battlefield, Sharif said, the family stopped in downtown Hagerstown and toured the area.

“We loved Hagerstown,” he said. “The history, the architecture. We thought it was wonderful.”

In 2004, the family was ready for a change of pace and made the decision to move to Hagerstown.

While still commuting to their metropolitan jobs, the couple began talking about opening their own business. Sharif said Laila suggested opening a restaurant, “and she’s the boss.”

So they started looking at various spaces before choosing their current location on East Franklin Street. Laila’s Kitchen officially opened in 2007.

Before opening their business, the Basharyars said they spent months renovating the restaurant and adding their own touches.

Today, the space is pleasant and airy, with artwork and photographs on the walls, and tables decorated with white cloths and jars of seasonings.

A unique cuisine

But it’s the food that stands out and makes the restaurant shine.

“We use the freshest, healthiest ingredients,” said Laila. “Nothing is artificial. That’s what separates us from fast-food places.”

Sharif said the couple tries to make their food as authentic as possible.

“But some of the products offered in the U.S. are different than in Afghanistan,” he said. “So we have adapted and Americanized some of the dishes.”

Still, it’s a cuisine that’s unique to this area.

Much of the food is grilled or sauteed, and Laila prepares all of the marinades for their chicken, beef and vegetable kebabs, often served with a homemade salata — a blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, mint and onions in a rich sauce of spices.

Diners also can enjoy naan, a soft and chewy flat bread, as well as soups, rice and hummus.

And there is Laila’s signature drink — Afghan Shir Chai, a milky green tea that is a great accompaniment to their baklava, rice pudding and cakes.

Sharif and Laila do all of the work, including prepping, cooking, hosting, serving and cleaning up.

They make it look easy.

One minute Sharif is in the kitchen, the next he’s happily chatting with customers, answering the phone or clearing plates off tables.

Grateful to the community

It’s a 12-hour juggling act that some people would find exhausting.

But the Basharyars said they are content.

“We are very happy that we’ve been welcomed so graciously by the community and have been able to assimilate our food and culture in Hagerstown,” Sharif said.

They also are grateful for the many friends they have made.

“Many of our customers come in on a regular basis, so we get to know them fairly well,” Sharif said. “I consider myself very lucky to have so many very good friends in Hagerstown.”

The Basharyars said they have been fortunate to have their restaurant written about in several publications, including The Washington Post. But much of their business is through word of mouth.

“And that’s very important,” Sharif said. “One person comes in to eat, enjoys it and tells someone else. That’s the best publicity.”

Laila said they have so many regular diners, she usually knows what they will order as soon as they walk through the door.

“Others trust me so much, they say ‘surprise me and make me whatever you want,’” she said.

Sharif said one of his favorite things to do is hold casual conversations with the people who visit the restaurant.

“We talk, we laugh, we get to know each other over food,” he said. “And the world becomes a smaller place. Food brings people together.”

Laila’s Kitchen is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

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