At Kirby Club, one wall is reserved for co-owner Rose Previte’s family photos. The fading images are from gatherings in the 1970s, showing kin who are still living and those who are now fond memories. The theme of the pictures is a familiar one for the restaurateur, who also owns DC hot spots Maydan and Compass Rose. “It ended up being very hard to find pictures of my family without food,” Previte says.
Kirby Club is named after the Lebanese American social club that Previte’s maternal grandparents started in Akron, Ohio, in 1933. The original Kirby Club’s biggest event of the year was its mahrajan, an August picnic where all the Lebanese families in the area got together, enjoyed their native foods, and kept the community alive. Previte’s mother married an Italian man, but Lebanese culinary traditions live on both within the family and at what the restaurateur calls “Kirby Club 2.0.”
The menu at Kirby Club helps Previte tell her “Arab American food story,” she says. “These are recipes that came to America with people. They assimilated a little bit, just like we did.” Assimilation can mean combining traditions, which is exactly what Previte did with Kirby Club’s opening Egyptian chef Omar Hegazi, who left the restaurant in May.
Together, they conjured one of the most visceral, multisensory experiences that one can find in a local restaurant right now. You walk into an orange-hued space that reminds you of the desert, thanks in part to a portrait of a camel, while a Habibi Funk soundtrack plays in the background. Now, it’s time to order your picnic platter.
The half chicken and ribs platter, at $56, can’t quite feed the extended family at a mahrajan, but three or four people could be sated at the end of the meal. Then again, perhaps “sated” is too casual a word. I’m talking about the kind of satisfaction that might require a postprandial cigarette, even if you’ve never smoked.
That’s a credit to those pomegranate-kissed beef ribs. The dinosaur-proportioned bones jiggle with slow-cooked flesh as they’re deposited on the table, all collagen and bits of unrendered adipose tissue. Bite in, and the soft meat wrenches free with such ease that it’s almost as though you’re drinking the flavors of beef tallow enhanced with tangy pomegranate molasses, and its crust of cumin, Aleppo pepper, and allspice.
The roasted chicken is no slouch, either. The pieces have been brined to a juicy burst with turmeric and garlic, then coated in spices that in no way diminish the crispness of the bird’s skin. The pairing reminds diners that we have indeed evolved to eat meat and that it can taste best when it’s torn from the bone. The many types of kebabs available, including lamb shish kebab and chicken shish taouk, are worth several tries, but their impact doesn’t compare.
“Being major carnivores, they weren’t as concerned about vegetables,” Previte remembers of her family’s approach to picnics. But that isn’t the case at Kirby Club. Sides with the half chicken and ribs include unctuous turmeric rice, crinkle-cut fries dusted with za’atar from Rockville’s Z&Z, and the Kirby Salad — an appealing side consisting of a mound of escarole woven with cabbage, radishes, and peppers, served with your choice of house dressing.
Diners should also spring for the pickled eggplant, one of Hegazi’s family recipes. “He says it was always in his grandmother’s refrigerator,” Previte says. You’ll wish it were in yours. On one of the two occasions I tried it, the fried eggplant tasted as if it had been pickled longer than on another. But both times, the cumin-redolent combination, which also includes tomatoes and peppers, pleasantly singed my tongue with vinegar.
Another Egyptian recipe is the falafel, made with fava beans rather than chickpeas. The skinny shape of the sesame-studded pucks means every bite includes the craveable crunchy exterior. Each plate is packed with five pieces (or get the lunch falafel wrap, which also contains the eggplant salad), along with tahina dyed pink with beets, sumac-dusted raw onions, and a svelte, chewy pita in an individual paper envelope.
To further recreate a mahrajan, there’s no avoiding dips. Havuc, a silky bowl of blended carrot and whipped garlic decorated with fried onions, began as a seasonal option on the menu. Now, Previte promises that while other dips will rotate with the seasons, the tawny havuc, which perfectly complements the tones of the restaurant’s space, is likely to stay. Other highlights include bessara, which is akin to hummus thanks to the inclusion of tahini but is made with fava beans and cilantro. Grilled red pepper dip, or muhammara, sings with pomegranate molasses and gets its rich texture from ground walnuts. A single dip costs $8, but three for $21 is a better bang for your buck.
Wine was a part of every mahrajan for Previte’s family, who are Lebanese Christians. Kirby Club features bottles from Lebanon, Georgia, Spain, and Slovenia. But to really taste the essence of one of the original club’s picnics, it’s best to order from the spirit-free drink menu — and then add some booze if you choose. The minty limeade leans tart, but it’s so herbaceous and thirst-quenching that it hardly matters. The Mango Cooler features a splash of orange-blossom honey for an unexpectedly floral flavor.
You’ll see a bustling crowd at Kirby Club come dinnertime, which will make you feel that you are, indeed, at a festive event. It’s hard not to leave feeling like you’ve marked an occasion, thanks in no small part to the be-our-guest friendly service. And, the truth is, you have. You’ve shared in a picnic that used to be just once a year. Welcome to the mahrajan, Mosaic District–style.
See This: A garage door opens into a room decorated in ’70s orange tones and co-owner Rose Previte’s family photos.
Eat This: Havuc, falafel, half chicken and ribs
Open for lunch Monday–Friday and dinner daily.
2911 District Ave., Fairfax, kirbyclub.com
Feature image by Rey Lopez