At TAWLA, a Silicon Valley marketing-guru-turned-restaurateur shines a new light on eastern MEDITERRANEAN cuisine.
Azhar Hashem wants to change the way people think about the Middle East, one bite at a time. As the force behind the Mission District’s incoming Eastern Mediterranean eatery Tawla (named for the Arabic word for both table and backgammon—a game popular throughout the region), the budding restaurateur plans to celebrate flavors and ingredients from Greece, Turkey and the Levant, including her native Jordan.
“Food has a very special role in terms of people of different cultures and backgrounds coming together,” says Hashem, who moved to Massachusetts at the age of 16. “I love feeding people, and seeing the happiness that comes from experiencing something new and awesome while satisfying a basic need,” she says.
Though the role of restaurant owner seems to be a natural fit for Hashem, she took a roundabout way of getting there: After earning a degree in computer science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by a liberal arts degree from Wellesley and a business degree from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, she immersed herself in the Bay Area tech scene, including seven years at Google spent marketing new products. “There was a moment where I was thinking about what my next step was going to be and I wanted to do something kind of closer to my heart,” says Hashem, who thrived on her mother’s cooking growing up.
Don’t expect to only find standard street fare such as falafel and hummus at Tawla: Together with Executive Chef Joseph Magidow (formerly of Delfina) and additional help from culinary-minded family members, Hashem has crafted a thoughtful menu that emphasizes refined, traditionally home-cooked dishes, from tahini-braised meatballs to summer squash blossoms with mint and warm yogurt. She also tapped the mixology team behind hospitality and design firm Bon Vivants to create a wine- and beer-driven drinks menu, and to hone a wine list that showcases bottles from the region, as well as similar varietals grown in California.
Equal parts modern and inviting, the space echoes common decorative elements from the area, such as a coffee-cup installation that climbs up a wall, and a patio that is a nod to the Mediterranean’s alfresco leanings. And thanks to San Francisco’s forward-thinking approach to sophisticated cuisine, as well as the abundance of readily available, locally grown ingredients (not to mention purveyors like Belfiore in East Bay who are handcrafting items including a Syrian cheese for the project), Hashem believes the city is the perfect backdrop for her new venture. “A big part of my inspiration comes from people’s understanding of the region this restaurant represents, and the role food can play in helping them gain a more complete picture,” she adds. “I hope it will cause them to see it in a frame that I helped create.” 206 Valencia St., S.F., 415-814-2704; tawlasf.com.
Written and edited by LESLEY McKENZIE.