>Abla’s is a bit of institution in Melbourne, reputed to be one of the oldest Lebanese restaurants in Australia. Able herself was born in Lebanon in 1935, and emigrated to Australia as a seventeen year old girl. During her young married life in Melbourne, she was taught to cook by the other women in the close-knit Lebanese community, as well as her uncle Joe. Abla’s restaurant opened in 1979, in a terraced house in Carlton, and has been there ever since.

Inside, the restaurant still looks and feels like a house. Tables for two and four nestled downstairs near the kitchen, but they had put our rowdy table for thirteen upstairs in the open-plan area. It still felt like two bedrooms knocked into one.

We had ordered the banquet, so the food started coming as soon as the last person arrived. The white linen tablecloth was littered with wine (Abla’s is BYO) as dishes of hummous, baba ganoush, and delicious think yoghurt came accompanied with flat Turkish bread. We tried not to fill up on bread but everything was so enticing.

Soon the starters arrived: bright green tabbouleh, falafels and silverbeet leaves wrapped around chickpeas and rice. the ladies’ fingers were not okra, but sigar-shaped parcels of minced lamb, pine nuts and spices. Mena’s favourite was the loubyeh, simple green beans tossed in a tangy tomato sauce.

The wine flowed and the conversation got louder. My wine bottle was emptying fast, and it was not my doing. The platters emptied one at a time, and we were wondering if we had space left when the main courses were served.

Chicken and rice was served beautifully, the chicken forming a crust around a mound of fragrant rice pilaff and almonds. The lamb skewers were perfectly grilled.

No dessert as such, just strong coffee served with the most divine Turkish delight and home-made baclawa.

As the evening drew to an end, Abla herself strolled from table to table, making sure to talk to each and every diner in her restaurant. Dressed in her utilitarian pinny she looked like a regular Melbournelady of a certain age, not the legend she is. She graciously stood for a photo with myself and Noela as we thanked her for a lovely evening.

It really did feel like you had gone to your aunty’s for dinner: great food, wonderful service, engaging conversation with new people, and a chat with Abla at the end of the night. We shall be back.

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