In November 1979, Lavash owners Saeed and Nazila Talai each found themselves with a sudden, forced change of plans.
The United States levied economic sanctions against their home country of Iran in response to the Iran hostage crisis amid a revolution, cutting the pair off from family funds they needed to complete their American college educations. Both ended up in San Francisco around that time, joining their families who came from Iran in the 1950s and 1960s; Nazila took shelter from visa complications at her sister’s home, sometimes passing as Italian or Turkish to avoid stigma, while Saeed retreated from pre-medical school in Oklahoma to live with his uncle.
Prompted by a love of nature, Saeed began selling flowers out of a bucket on the corner of his uncle’s 76 gas station then located on 7th Avenue and Irving Street. Rushing to a night shift at a bank downtown capped a full day of selling flowers while running on a couple of hours sleep in his VW van at the Flower Mart parking lot. Within a year, he needed help running the popular stand and Nazila needed a job.
“She said, ‘This is the guy you’re going to work for,’” Nazila says of her sister, who knew Saeed’s cousin, after asking who the guy with the van was. “I said, ‘No way.’”
A partnership — though not yet a romantic relationship — was born that would launch flower shops, a tea lounge, a taqueria, and finally, a Persian restaurant mostly around the Inner Sunset. Named for a Middle Eastern bread popular in Iran, the Talai family fully opened Lavash at 511 Irving St. in 2008 to rave reviews for its Iranian classics like fesenjan (pomegranate walnut stew) and kabob koobideh.
A decade later, the family-run restaurant suffered a fire and set off on a long path to a tentative reopening this month.
“It’s a domino effect of things you have to fight through here and there,” says Kaivon Talai, the couple’s eldest of three sons, of updating building codes and hiring staff. “But we’re getting there. We feel like there’s such an expectation for us now.”
That expectation was built up long before Lavash came along. The “No name flowers” stand turned into a full store, Iris Flower Shop, where the restaurant’s kitchen is today. By the mid-1980s, the Talais opened Camila Flower Shop on Clement Street and Fourth Avenue in the Inner Richmond, Forest Hill Flowers on Judah Street, and another stand at Union Square outside Saks Fifth Avenue. They each had significant others when they met that eventually fell away as the two became really close friends.
“The friendship go on, go on, go on [sic] and there are things [that] happen,” says Saeed, zipping through their love story. ”And the friendship became a relationship.”
In 1986, Saeed filled up the Irving flower shop with roses and proposed. The couple married later that year at a small wedding where Nazila supplied flowers. “I was really good at what I was doing,” says Nazila, who was able to take some design classes at City College of San Francisco in between running businesses.
The couple sensed a limited future for a flower business now corporatized by grocery stores and gas stations. Naturally, the Iranian immigrants’ next move was to open a taqueria — at the suggestion of an Ethiopian friend, no less.
“The flower business became very competitive,” Saeed says. “I always wanted to open a foodie place. I loved burritos.”
Saeed and Nazila enlisted Chef Cesar Aguilar to launch L’Avenida Taqueria in 1990 with some Persian touches, like using Basmati rice. The Westside had a sparse presence of Mexican eateries and the Talais found themselves ahead of another booming business trend with their first acclaimed restaurant.
The couple bought a house in San Bruno the next year to raise sons Kaivon, Kamron, and Kian, who all help run Lavash. In addition to operating a small Mexican restaurant, flower shops and raising a family on burritos, they often invited people over to serve Persian food out of pure love of cooking.
By 2007, more taquerias opened up and the Talais could sense the competition growing once again. They opened a small, to-go version of Lavash in place of Iris but eventually closed the taqueria to concentrate on keeping Lavash a proper, cozy sit-down restaurant.
“We put a lot of love to this place,” Nazila says. “It became our baby. It’s home. ”
The endeavor fired up Nazila once again, who had brain surgery in 2005 followed by depression. After Lavash opened in 2008, she launched Rose Tea, a tea lounge and flower shop on the same block as Lavash and across from the Cranberry boutique run by her other sister, Susan Tabrizi. Nazila eventually closed Rose Tea to spend more time with Susan, who died in 2014.
Lavash also quickly became a spot that required a reservation and had special requests for their “love corner,” a spot by the fireplace where proposals often happened.
A dish dubbed “chaklava” — baklava with layers of chocolate — became a hit, along with soltani kabob (lamb chops), kashk-e bademjan (eggplant dip), zereshk polo ba morgh (rice with barberry and chicken) and saffron ice cream.
Even as Middle Eastern cuisine becomes more popular, Persian food’s long preparation time — fesenjan takes hours to make, for example — and expensive ingredients has the Talais confident that this market won’t be saturated. They haven’t worked out how to expand locations and retain the quality that people crowd the flower-adorned restaurant for.
The pressure is on as people repeatedly message the family for a new opening date, which hasn’t been finalized. The Talais feel that they’ve both made Iranian culture approachable to the broader public, a comeback from the negative image and discrimination produced by the hostage crisis, as well as made more Iranian friends than ever.
“I was cultured here,” says Saeed. Both Saeed and Nazila came as teenagers and call San Francisco home. “We still have those Iranian roots, we cannot get away from that. One of the best things about the Lavash restaurant is we introduced ourselves and our culture to people. That made us so much at ease, made other people at ease toward us.”
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer for SF Weekly covering news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @idamoj.
UPDATE, 12/30: Lavash opened its doors over the weekend once again for a soft opening, leading up to a grand opening in January. The restaurant will be open for dinner on Tuesdays through Friday and for lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. Follow @lavashsf on Instagram for hours that may change.