Chapel Hill began 2011 minus one institution. Café Parvaneh closed at the end of 2010, leaving behind a 15-year legacy of food and friendship.
The taste of the small restaurant's Persian cuisine and memories of its cozy atmosphere linger with its devoted followers, many of whom had become like family to owners Mohsen and Parvaneh Pirzadeh. Landlords for the 24-seat cafe in Galleria Shopping Center chose not to renew the Pirzadehs' lease. The couple bears no hard feelings about the property management's decision. They're happy to have had a good run.
"We did not know how much work it would be," said Mohsen, "but everyone was always supportive ... Even after 9/11, community support remained constant. That October was one of our best months ever."
Anna Marie Gutierrez was a regular. "What my mother and I will miss most from our almost daily visits is the warmth, the loving energy that went into the preparation and serving of every meal," she said. "The atmosphere was indescribable."
The kitchen, which Mohsen built, sat so close to the dining room that the sounds of vegetables being chopped, pots being stirred and plates being prepared mingled with the chatter of customers' voices and traditional sitar music.
"We ran the cafe with Iranian hospitality, providing the best things for our guests," Parvaneh explained. "Each meal was hand prepared to order with the same care and attention afforded a guest in our home, and our relationship with our customers was more like a friendship ... like family. Their appreciation gave us the energy to continue all these years."
Natives of Iran, the Pirzadehs emigrated to the United States after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah's regime. "After the revolution, things changed," said Mohsen. Parvaneh, she said, had held a prominent banking position before the upheaval.
"Life was quite different from what we grew up with," said Mohsen, "We lost our country, but not our culture ... that we brought with us."
Parvaneh came first in 1983, with their 16-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. The political turmoil meant it would take an additional two years before Mohsen could join them in Raleigh.
"It was rough in the beginning," said Parvaneh, "a new country, a new culture... but we wanted a better life for our children. Being an immigrant is hard, but everyone was so supportive and made it very easy on us."
After Mohsen's arrival, they began a small catering business, gained a loyal following, and caught the attention of then-owner of the Galleria Shopping Center, Javad Vakil–Zadeh, and his wife, Mina.
In 1995, the Pirzadehs opened Café Parvaneh in the Elliott Road shopping center next to the hair salon Mina's Studio. It quickly developed a base of loyal followers, and, with the help of their children over the years, it remained largely a family-run business.
"We preferred to work ourselves," said Mohsen. "Sometimes we had help, but especially the cooking ... that we wanted to do ourselves."
The menu, from Aush soup to its signature Khoresh Fesenjun—a pomegranate and walnut stew—focused on traditional meals, reflected the family's favorite dishes and served the cafe well. It remained largely unchanged over the years.
"All my recipes are from my sister and mother-in-law," said Parvaneh. "Mohsen and I have worked hard to provide the best Persian food outside of Iran. We prepared the menu to observe the Persian tradition of 'cool' and 'hot' foods. Each dish is balanced in this age-old tradition that spans many centuries."
New Galleria management and planned expansions to Mina's Studio have led to the cafe's lease not being renewed. Their neighbors in the Galleria will miss them.
"They were always such a sanctuary for me, my family," said Mina. "I got to see so many people, so many good friends and family. They leave with such good memories, and it will be heartbreaking to see them go, but everything has a beginning and an ending."
Efforts to reach management for comment were unsuccessful.
"We want to thank everyone for allowing us the opportunity to introduce the unique flavors of Persian cuisine to the Triangle," said Parvaneh. "It was the support of our customers and especially our regulars [who became part of our family], together with our dedication to quality and authenticity, that made this endeavor a success, and it will be sad to go."
Fans of the restaurant want to know what's next, and many hope for a book of Parvaneh's recipes. The couple says they plan to remain busy with children, grandchildren and travel.
"It is very satisfying that we have done so much," Mohsen said. "We leave with many, many good memories. Now it is time to get some rest."
Persian Wheat Salad
This is a traditional recipe dating to the time of the Silk Road. The ingredients were easy to obtain on the journey, with the production of wheat second only to rice in Iran, and the salad's preparation was amenable to a life on the road. Over time, and along the Silk Road, the recipe has been modified to appease new tastes and to incorporate new ingredients. This version was a favorite at Café Parvaneh.
Serve wheat salad alongside grilled chicken or use it in other dishes. Stuff rolled grape leaves with it, serve inside pita pockets or spruce up a garden salad with wheat salad topping.
1 cup bulgur wheat
2 spring onions, green tips only, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 sprig of mint, finely chopped
3 dried apricots, chopped
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup raisins
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup feta cheese, coarsely crumbled
Soak bulgur in 2 cups of water for two hours. Drain any excess water. Add the onion, parsley, mint, apricots, cranberries and raisins. In a separate bowl, mix the oil and vinegar using a whisk. Add to bulgur mix and toss. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix. Top with feta cheese. Serves 4-6 people.
For an even tastier salad, let sit for a couple of hours before serving.