At Upcoming Restaurant Dyafa, Chef Reem Assil Unpacks Arabic Hospitality, On and Off the Menu
Dyafa, the name of chef Reem Assil’s upcoming restaurant in Oakland, technically translates to “hospitality” in Arabic, but the word conjures much more than that. It reminds Assil, the brains behind Restaurant of the Year winner Reem’s, of all the times family friends invited her and her family into their homes. Where the first thing she saw once she stepped through the door was all the food made just for this gathering. Where she came to be nourished, not needing to lift a finger.
Dyafa, according to Assil, also means making the guest feel a sense of abundance, even if the host doesn’t have much to offer. “We always think about the extreme limit that hosts go to make sure everyone feels the ultimate sense of being taken care of,” says Reem. “I always describe it as sweet torture.”
That’s the vision behind Assil’s first restaurant, but it’s always been part of the five-year plan. After traveling to the Middle East, most recently Syria, she wanted to bring back to that magic of dining out—tons of mezze, hands reaching unabashedly to pass them around, and a shared sense of something special to celebrate. She also wanted to bring back dishes, techniques, and ingredients not often seen here stateside, like ferments and the kind of seafood her mom grew up eating in Gaza.
To make this happen, Assil has partnered with Best New Chef alum Daniel Patterson of the Alta Group. He’s someone she’s followed for a while through working as an advisor to Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a non-profit advocating for restaurant workers, fair wages, and overall a more equitable workplace. Patterson has always been considered a high road employer. “He’s been creating more opportunities for people of color to have positions of leadership, especially in the front of house,” says Assil. “There tends to be a gap, where the further back of house you go, the darker it gets. But Daniel has made a conscious effort to use the platform he has had to do work in a meaningful way.” So when he was figuring out what to do with the old Haven space, he felt compelled by Assil’s story, and the two partnered to open Dyafa, where his restaurant group helps with hiring and managing staff, like their new chef de cuisine Samir Mogannam, the former sous-chef at Tawla in San Francisco. “It’s exciting to get another Palestinian in the mix,” says Assil. “He’s a super talented, young chef, with an extensive background in fine-dining.”
Together, the team has been working on the menu of Dyafa, which will progress from small plates to eat with your hands to cold (dips and salads) and warm mezze (clay pot shrimp, fried potatoes) to large platters you’d usually find in homes, like braised lamb shanks with yogurt sauce and Assil’s personal favorite, sayyadiah, whole fish encrusted with aromatics and served with a super rich broth and rice. As for dessert, she’s excited to introduce dishes customers may not be familiar with, like Arabic-style ice cream and kanefa, a special-occasion-only cheesecake-like pastry that always sells out immediately when it pops up on the Reem’s bakery menu.
“Behind each dish, there’s a story of hospitality,” says Assil. “Our hospitality was our survival in a way.” It’s through this grace and abundance at the table a younger Assil could find her way in school in the white suburbs of Boston. When she felt like an outcast—fasting during Ramadan, bringing something unrecognizable for lunch—her mom would respond triumphantly by showing her classmates how to make baklava. “Food was the way to connect,” she says.
But it was also a way to challenge. Assil has always thought of the table as a center of discourse—”That’s where all the hardcore conversations were had,” says Assil. And that extends to Dyafa, with its blue and turquoise color scheme, splashes of pink, and 96 seats. There won’t be a polarizing mural, like at Reem’s, but she's still cultivating that kind of engagement with her upcoming restaurant.
“I’m trying to take away the homogenizing terms of ‘Middle Eastern food,’” says Assil. “It’s not about ownership of food, but putting a voice behind it. I want people from my culture to feel be proud of it, but in this Trump era, often times people feel vilified or victimized. I want to give power back.”
She wants to do that for her Oakland community, too, so she and the team are hiring locals to staff the front of house and relying on local artists for serving ware. So far, things are going according to plan—the five-year plan, that is.
“When I opened Reem’s, I always imagined that ten years from now Arab cuisine would be a focal point in terms of culinary accomplishment in the U.S.—and I wanted to be one of the people who put it on the map,” says Assil. “Revolutions are born in cafes and bakeries, and I want to create safe spaces for those conversations.”