Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen will expand upon the menu and success of Zaytoon’s Bistro with a second restaurant location that opened in April at 1126 New Britain Avenue in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
This “vanilla box” is plain vanilla no more.
After teachers’ supply store The Chalkboard closed its store at 1126 New Britain Avenue for good in the fall of 2017, the property owner turned the space into a “vanilla box” – a construction term for a space that is completed but not finished for any specific use.
With the opening of Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen, Zainab and Omar Hayajneh – who have owned and operated Zaytoon’s Bistro at 165 Park Road in West Hartford since August 2017 – have completed the transformation of what was a vanilla box into a restaurant bursting with the savory and complex flavors of cuisine native to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and other Mediterranean countries.
Zaytoon means “olive,” Zainab said, and there’s a large olive tree holding a space of honor in the middle of the new dining room.
The appetizers at Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen are mostly the same as what they serve at the Park Road location – including their famed spicy hummus – but there are definitely distinctive differences between the two restaurants.
On the dinner menu are six or seven different dishes, unique to the new restaurant, and highlighting the refreshing flavors of Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian cuisine, as well as specialities from countries like Yemen like Haneeth. The menu includes Jordanian Mansaf, Kibbeh Labanieh (a Lebanese dish), and Lamb Tahini Cauliflower.
“It’s everyone’s favorite. I love the Maftoul,” Zainab said of her personal favorite dish, the Chicken Maftoul – a staple in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon – a sweet, savory, and fragrant dish which includes rice, onions, and chickpeas.
“Our lunch menu includes more bowls, salads,” she said. They’ve added a Greek Tzatziki salad to the lunch menu. “We didn’t have the Greek Tzatziki sauce, but people have been asking for it,” Zainab said.
“At lunch we have more vegetarian [items], more hot appetizers,” she said, noting the Beet Dip, Tahini Cauliflower, and Mushroom Potato – which are also on the dinner menu. Lunch also includes gyro bowls, and a falafel bowl.
New and exciting additions to the diverse menu also include the Israeli salad and Shakshuka for lunch, Zainab said.
“It’s Omar’s menu,” Zainab said of her husband and business partner, but it’s being executed by someone who is well known to many in the Elmwood area, and well versed in the preparation of Mediterranean food, albeit from another part of the Mediterranean.
The Hayajnehs hired Chip Cutting, who worked right down New Britain Avenue at Tapas for 16 years, as their chef. “I’m back in the neighborhood,” said Cutting, who also lives in West Hartford, not far from the restaurant.
When Tapas closed its doors in West Hartford in April 2018, Cutting moved to the Bloomfield Tapas location, and when that closed he opened the Tapas takeout in Glastonbury. The Hayajnehs had talked to him years ago about working at Zaytoons, and he’s glad they were still interested and that he has the opportunity to be back cooking Mediterranean food in Elmwood.
“He’s got a great reputation,” Cutting said of Omar Hayajneh. “There are a lot of people who follow him.”
The food at Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen is extremely healthy, Cutting said, and there are plenty of vegetarian options. “There’s a little something for everyone.”
“We’re open to accommodations for people who don’t eat certain items,” Zainab said, like onions, garlic, etc. “Everything is made fresh, so it’s easy to control.”
Like Zaytoon’s Bistro, Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen is BYOB.
“I want people to choose their own,” Zainab said. “There’s no charge for the corkage service,” she added, and they supply glasses. They’re also collaborating with Harvest Wine & Spirits is – three doors down in the same shopping center – where customers who stop in to procure their alcoholic beverage of choice before dining at Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen can get a discount.
Opening the restaurant has been a long time coming. Zainab said they originally signed the lease in 2019. Before they could open a restaurant in the space, they knew the Town Council needed to approve amendments to the special development district for the shopping center. And then the pandemic hit.
“When the pandemic hit it was a struggle,” she said. But they managed to keep all of their employees at the Park Road location, even though sometimes hours were limited. The landlord on Park Road, as well as the landlord on New Britain Avenue, have been very supportive and cooperative throughout the past several years.
“We signed this least in December 2019, and we hoped we would be open in a year, but that didn’t happen because of the pandemic,” Zainab said. She and Omar have four children – three of whom have now graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School – at the time all of whom were in or headed to college, and they were hoping for the income from a second business to fund the children’s education.
The couple forged ahead with the project of transforming the New Britain Avenue space, even though it took a few years longer than planned, and Zainab said thankfully they were able to secure additional financing with the assistance of the SBA. In the meantime, three of their four children have now graduated from college. (The youngest is at George Washington University studying aerospace engineering.)
Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen has 34 tables, and seats roughly 120. They plan to add outdoor seating as soon as possible, along the sidewalk in front and on the side of the space. Zainab said she will go back and forth between Park Road and New Britain Avenue, and currently there are seven employees – not counting the owners and their children, who while fully employed come back to help when they can.
In addition to helping out, the Hayajneh had a say in the decor of the new space, each recommending artwork for the one of the walls, and giving the final approval to the blue Moroccan tile Zainab chose for the rear wall to evoke the color of the Mediterranean.
The Hayajnehs believe the Elmwood and Park Road locations will attract their own customer bases, and won’t compete with each other. Some many prefer the Elmwood location because of the convenience of the large parking lot, but the Park Road location is an easy walk for many in that part of town. And having a greater variety of restaurants in each neighborhood is good for business overall, they said.
Zaytoon Mediterranean Kitchen is open daily, except Mondays, for lunch and dinner. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday hours are 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. and they are open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Call 860-231-8769 to make a reservation or with any questions.
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