I started hanging around Bashir’s Taverna a week before the Friday evening that Paris native and singer Jean Jacques, aka J.J., was booked to perform during the dinner service. J.J. had stopped in to drop off some flyers that featured a manipulated photo of him standing next to the Eiffel Tower, the two figures in the photo appearing to be about the same height.
“Jean Jacques will sing A French Songs Evening,” the flyer proclaimed. I was kind of excited to find out exactly what that meant, but Bashir was skeptical, having never put J.J. on his bill before. That fish can get fried later. Like a lot of Charlottesvillians this time of year, Bashir Khelafa and his wife Kathy were going to the beach for a few days before the show to stay with their daughter and grandkids, which is sort of how they wound up in town in the first place.
The Khelafas were living a pretty good life in New York City but their daughter, Andrea, had come to school at UVA, married a young man, and decided to start a family down here. Even though Kathy was hip deep in her art curator career and Bashir was starting to publish in his academic field, they made the move south in 1996, like so many other families, because this was a place they could see their roots spreading out.
“We talked about it for a year before we did it,” Bashir said. Kathy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“I promised him I would make him famous if we moved to Charlottesville,” said Kathy.
I spent about a week hanging out at the restaurant, asking questions, trying to figure out how an Algerian academic and a Hungarian-Brazilian aristocrat ended up bringing their particular brand of global culture to the Downtown Mall. It seemed like there were two answers to every question I asked. Or maybe just one answer in two voices.
The beauty of Bashir and Kathy and what they bring to the people around them could have easily been lost in the mad and infinite shuffle of New York. They wouldn’t have had the money to open the kind of restaurant they wanted. The globe-hopping international eclectic cultural soup pot they stir together, equal parts food, music and art, wouldn’t be a thing you could notice in the world’s polyglot food metropolis. The warmth of heart that comes from foreigners of polite society who have been wrenched from home by war and heartache would make them a dime a dozen in the country’s biggest port of entry. But in Charlottesville, the couple still fascinates, and it’s not because of who they are so much as how they are.
Bashir and Kathy are impossibly cute together. They step on each other’s stories, then apologize and defer, then jump back in with bombast to correct a detail or give it a more appropriate tone or pace. One night Bashir was describing two “weddings impossible,” war stories from the frontlines of the catering world: two hopeless situations where they, by dint of their will and wits, won the day. Kathy listened as Bashir wrapped up the story of the twin catering triumphs and then they high-fived each other.
When the couple first arrived in Charlottesville, Kathy kept one foot in the New York art scene at first, commuting back occasionally. Bashir found some partners and opened the Blackstone Coffee Company at Albemarle Square. It lasted six months.
That was the moment the Khelafas decided it was time to go whole hog into the restaurant game and opened Bashir’s Gourmet Take Out on the Mall in 1997. There wasn’t much happening Downtown on the world cuisine front then but Kathy was familiar with the charisma of her husband’s playful charm, so his name became the name and personality of the place. By Bashir’s recollection, the list of Downtown eateries up and running read like this: Baggby’s, Escafe, The Nook, Eastern Standard, Chaps, Miller’s, Christian’s Pizza and The Downtown Inn. That list may be a couple names short but it is a far cry from the 60 odd establishments operating now.
“We never had any doubt that our restaurant would work. Never gave it a thought from the very beginning,” Kathy said.
In 2001 the couple took up the lease on the space they’re in now, in the building next to City Hall. There was a gap of a few months between when the old place closed and when they got Bashir’s Taverna ready to open in the fall. In many ways, the business is still built on a loyal customer base, people like Liz Schley, who first flocked there out of the culinary desert. “I was very very bereft at that time. I had to eat other places. I was traumatized. I really was,” said Schley, who has been a three-time-a-week regular right from the beginning. “I would go place to place eating food I didn’t like very much.”
And, of course, there are always new characters passing through, like J.J., and, I guess, like me, who catch a whiff that the place is about more than well-seasoned white beans and fall off the bone lamb, who get sucked in by Bashir’s voice, as he grills you about what you liked and didn’t like on your plate, and want to know more about him and the little den he’s built in the shadow of City Hall.