What a great place to spend Friday (or Saturday) night. It's buzzy and boisterous, and the food is so fresh and intriguing that you will probably cover your table with plates and then need room for more.
This is the Lebanese restaurant Phoenicia in Glendale.
If you make a reservation, you might snag a table in the patio (above), which gets very crowded. Before the food starts coming, order arak, which is said to be good for the digestion. With it, snack on fresh pistachios and Middle Eastern cheeses.
Then ask for cold dishes such as warak enab (rice-stuffed grape leaves) and bastourma, which is thinly sliced cured beef. And don't miss mouhammara, an addictive spicy dip of crushed walnuts, red pepper paste, pomegranate juice and olive oil.
Creamy baba ghanouj (roasted eggplant) is nice and smoky. You can also have eggplant chunks baked with tomato, onion and garlic. In the priest's salad (imam bayildi), the eggplant is stuffed with tomatoes, onions and garlic and simmmered in olive oil.
Of course there is hommos. In the dark you could confuse this creamy dip with labni, drained yogurt that is the Mid-East's answer to sour cream and creme fraiche.
Phoenicia has pickles and salads galore. The tabbouleh is so loaded with parsley you can hardly detect that it contains bulgur.
But there's plenty of bulgur in dishes such as itch, where it's combined with tomatoes in a zesty mixture to spoon up by itself or eat with pita. Still more appears in kibbeh makli, ground beef and pine nut dumplings with a bulgur crust. And a little is mixed into kibbeh nayeh, which is Lebanese beef tartar.
Tiny Lebanese sausages tasting of sweet spices come in a cute little skillet. Balance these with soujouk, spicy air-dried Armenian sausages cooked with tomatoes and onions. Then get san bousek, which are small fried pastries filled with beef and pine nuts.
After all this, who needs lamb chops, kebabs and shawarma? But these are on the menu, just in case. And if you have no idea what to order, ask Ara Kalfayan, Phoenicia's silver-haired owner.
The screen can't capture the belly dancer from head to toe, but soon she's out in the patio, undulating from table to table, folded bills bristling from the top of her low-slung skirt.
That's dessert enough for some, but Phoenicia has wonderful creamy Middle Eastern sweets, like fat mounds of soft milk curd drizzled with honey and topped with strawberries (center, above). Another is kanafeh, a cream mixture combined with kadayif pastry (on the edge of the plate).
Aish al saraya is the Middle Eastern answer to bread pudding. The syrup-soaked bread is layered with thickened cream and topped with crushed pistachios. You can see squares of that on the plate in the photo.
The later it gets, the more lively the hookah traffic in the patio. You'll detect the indulgers by the clouds of smoke rising from their tables.
If you leave through the back parking lot, you can see the hookah staging area. Tobacco aromatic with mint or with fruit is spooned into a hollowed apple, which is then wrapped in foil. Fiercely glowing coals go on top of slits cut in the foil.
Meanwhile, Middle Eastern dancing takes over the dining room. It's noisy and fun. And the exercise is necessary, if you've explored too much of Phoenicia's menu.
Phoenicia Restaurant, 343 North Central Ave., Glendale, CA 91203. Tel: (818) 956-7800.