Once Upon A Time, in a Land Far Away...
6 Generations ago, sometime in the 1800's Sito (Grandmother) Nejume went to a wedding in a tiny nearby Syrian village. Oh, what a ball she had! She ate, drank, danced and had fun! Then, when it was time to go home, she got into her carriage, because she was oh-so sleepy. But her family kept pulling her out, several times. She couldn't understand why, and what all the fuss was about. She later learned, it was her wedding she just attended. She was 12.
And that's where it all began...
Sito Nejume ended up crossing the Atlantic Ocean 3 times, smoked Cuban cigars with the men, bore 3 strong sons (and a female, but, really, who's counting)... and peddled fruit & vegetables with other immigrants in Pittsburgh's iconic Hill District. It was alongside her fellow immigrants, through their hard work and countless contributions, which helped lay the foundation of this great city of ours. Her son, Jabour worked in Pittsburgh's Steel Mills, and many of her grandsons and great grandchildren, served honorably in the Army, Navy & Marines. Her 3 sons had a pop factory in Pittsburgh, (K-lil Bottling Co.) that actually made money during the depression.
Meanwhile... back in the village....
Mikhail Khalil, son of Mikhaber & Helani Khalil was a hard working honest and honorable farmer, peddling olive oil on a donkey with his brother, Elias, up and down the mountain to nearby villages. And in 1956, when Agnes, his soon to be wife arrived, his life - and countless others -would change forever.
Here is a brief timeline our story...
(brief...ya know...by Arab Standards)
Late 1800's - Early 1900's...
The fierce strong willed Sito Nejume comes to America, settles in the Hill District and wakes up every day, like everyone else, and peddles fruits and vegetables alongside other immigrants. Her son, Jabour, worked in the Steel Mills before eventually marrying Sito Zareefee, a Syrian immigrant (with another really great story of her own) from Braddock/ Rankin, who's family were prominent figures in the Democratic Party in Allegheny County.
1920's - 1950's...
In the 1920's, Jabour and his brother, Elias opened up K-lil Pop Factory. They were the first ones to bottle "Squirt" pop and were among the few, rare businesses to actually make money during the depression. The factory was eventually moved to Philadelphia, but was forced to close down after a terrible fire burned it down, because there was no insurance. (Ya know...15 minutes could've saved a lot more than just car insurance!)
Jabour and Zareefee raised their children to love both America and Syria, equally. Their three sons, Harry, Danny & Joey all proudly served. Harry in the Navy, Danny in the Marines & Joey in the Army, while her daughters helped the WWII effort in various ways, including volunteering as junior cadets. Aggie, a young vibrant woman worked as a supervisor at Nabisco Biscuit Company, in the building of what is now, East Liberty’s Bakery Square.
1956 - 1972...
Agnes Khalil, married Mikhail Khalil in the tiny Christian village of Miklos, Syria - located at the foothills of the majestic Krak Des Chevalier French Crusader Castle. From this union was born the foundation of a true Pittsburgh legacy.
A poor farmer, with a pure and white heart, Mikhail Khalil arrived armed with only a 5th grade education, determination, a fierce work ethic, and most of all, an extraordinary humble love for God - and God alone. God was the center of his life and he lived that way. For him, there was God, church, family, and work. Nothing else mattered.
A devout Antiochian Orthodox Christian, he lived like this, chanting in the church for over 40 years, never missing a day, even when his exhausting work kept him until the wee hours of the morning, which it often did. "Mike" was there. And later on in his life, when he was confined to a wheelchair, after suffering a massive stroke, nothing could keep him from church, even in the snow, the ice, the heat - in his wheelchair - he was there. Nothing was more important.
His humility - matched only by his wife Agnes' - to feed the hungry, take care of the poor, lonely and forgotten, has stories upon stories, deserving of another website - entirely. And all done in rare quiet humility - to serve and please God, without seeking even just the slightest bit of attention or glory for it. Khalil's customers would often find him, after the dinner rush hour, quietly reading his Bible at the restaurant, on the family table - sometimes talking with them of a parable Jesus spoke of and relating it to the great lessons in life.
Mikhail, speaking no English, worked as a laborer in any job he could find, including in Pittsburgh’s tunnels, under our rivers, cleaning cement trucks and even at the iconic Islays, before landing a job as a butcher/chef at the famed Lebanese restaurant, Omar Kayyam - one of the last elegant supper club style restaurants of it's day. He worked faithfully at Omar Kayyam for 12 years, under owner Eddie Khoury - who loved him & treated him like a son - as a cook and butcher, while Agnes worked in Nabisco as a head supervisor. Mikhail was known to have cut, on average, 30 legs of lamb each weekend. So great was his mastery, that later in life, he cut an entire leg of lamb... blindfolded. Yes, blindfolded.
June 17, 1972...
On June 17, 1972, at 8:00 at night, Mikhail & Agnes opened their very first restaurant, on 414 Semple Street in South Oakland, and together they began a legacy. Aggie was in the front of the house, welcoming guests with her exceptional warmth and beautiful personality, while Mikhail made the most mouthwatering food that sustained his reputation for over 46 years. For years, customers lined the streets to get a seat in the door, and on a few rare occasions, that line extended around the block to Bates Street.
Before the Strip District became what it is today, Mikhail used to go down to the "produce yards" at 2 o'clock in the morning when the trucks just pulled in, to buy his produce from the other old timers.
In the dead of winter, he and other restauranteurs of the day would go to the platforms, and go, up and down, one by one, to each "produce man" - mostly cigar smoking, coffee drinking, old timers from the old country - The Italians, The Jews, The Greeks - and haggle the price of a box of tomatoes or lettuce, all the while "threatening" each other that their competitor had the better price - and the fresher produce! And, eventually all making deals.
(Haggling...its an ethnic thing... even if the price is right...it just wouldn't feel right, unless you haggled...Why? ... Well... because just being normal, and actually paying the asking price...would be way too simple and much too smooth a transaction...and really...where's the fun in that?)
Aggie was so full of life! Her amazing, gracious and beautiful personality was what made Khalil's what it was! She treated every single customer as if they were the only person in the world! Customers loved her genuine, beautiful personality! She would give that million dollar smile as soon as they walked in the door, and more often than not, pull up a chair, smoke her cigarette (as was done back in the day), and, after a long dramatic whif of her Lucky Strike, ask, "Honey... How the hell are you?... It's good to see you!"
The consummate hostess, if during her conversations, she discovered that any of her guests had a talent, she would shine the spot light on them and allow them to perform their art right then and there in the restaurant - whether it was a group of Gospel singers in town for a performance, dancers from India, or Scottish bagpipers - before you knew it, a simple delicious dinner, turned into an impromptu, fun concert with customers joining in the celebration! You just never knew what kind of party was going to happen on any given night! These are the memories she created. People still talk about their wonderful memories, to this day!
One of the most memorable moments, was when Michael Murphy (Hit song: Wildfire) came in the restaurant, and ended up staying till 3 o'clock in the morning, singing his songs & playing guitar -- along with the family, singing their Arabic songs, playing the oud (Arabic stringed instrument) -- and essentially a having an impromptu "ho-down" with both American and Syrian music! He later invited the family as guests to his concert at the Civic Arena, and dedicated his song, "Wildfire" to "A bunch of crazy, fun Arabs I met last night!"
Another testament to Aggie’s amazing and rare personality was in 1973. On the eve of the Yom Kippur war, when Middle East tensions were extremely high, Aggie, on a very busy night with no open tables and lines outside the door, deliberately sat an Arab couple together with a Jewish couple.
Any other restauranteur, in the interest of avoiding a possible scene, would be sure to keep them as far apart as possible, especially in this climate, but not Aggie. This was her way of being. This is how she lived her life and conducted her business. She knew above all that our common humanity far outweighed our differences. This is what made her so unique ... and so beautiful!
One of the many amazing events Mikhail was honored to participate in...
And folks, you just don't get any more Pittsburgh than this! This really just says it all!
Sito Helani, seated right there front & center, among the top, 5 star chefs in Pittsburgh! All in their fancy executive chef coats & hats... there sits badass Sito Helani!
A testament, and tribute, to all the Pittsburgh, ethnic, old fashioned, babushka wearing, black dress, black tights, black shoes (Black of course, because they're still mourning their husbands who died 40 years ago...because that's the way they do it in the old country!) grandmothers who can out cook any fancy, schmancy French educated, prestigious, award winning culinary chef out there!... Blindfolded... with one arm tied behind her back!
She could make a peirogi, pot of homemade Italian tomato sauce, halushki or anything else that would knock you off your feet! Nobody cooks like a good old fashioned grandmother, especially from the old country!
Cheers to all the grandmothers & all the love & hardwork they put into feeding their families, from their hearts!
In 1977, Eddie Khoury offered to sell Omar Kayyam to his former employee, Mikhail, and Khalil's II was born. At its height, Khalil's had live Arabic music and dancing, as well as live Greek music and dancing every weekend, complete with a classy, dignified belly dance show.
A gorgeous sun drenched second floor dining room was built in the late 1980's, complete with gorgeous chandeliers and a wide open bar, where guests celebrated countless weddings, parties and other special events.
In the 1980s, Khalil’s also opened a 3rd cafeteria style restaurant on Forbes Avenue, in the heart of Oakland, but eventually closed both the first & third restaurants, and kept the current one, on Baum Blvd. affectionally called "Number 2"
Despite all of his success, Mikhail Khalil, along with his beloved wife, Aggie, who worked tirelessly, kept his promise to his father, and brought his entire family over from Syria, one by one, family by family, and gave them housing, jobs, support, and the foundation necessary to succeed in America.
With the success of the restaurants, Aggie and Mike were commonly being featured in news outlets and doing cooking shows on local television. And for 10 years, Mikhail was featured along with 4 other chefs in the Kitchen Theatre of the Carnegie Science Center when it first opened in 1991.
But, despite their success, nothing compares to their humility, kindness, generosity, love for God, and helping the hungry, the poor, the lonely and forgotten. This, above all, is how they lived their lives and what they are most known for.
In 2016, Mikhail Khalil was nominated for the Immigrant of the Year award from Global Pittsburgh, by the beautiful Susan Brozek. However, after learning all that he has accomplished and for his many contributions in making Pittsburgh one of the greatest cities on earth, they found him worthy to receive the first ever Lifetime Achievement award from Global Pittsburgh for his contributions.
For all that Mikhail & Agnes have done throughout the years to promote the beautiful Syrian culture to Pittsburgh, it is fitting that Mikhail was also the founder of The Syria Culture & Education Exhibit in The Pittsburgh Folk Festival. Today, their legacy continues, and their family is proud to carry on their spirit of generosity and vibrancy.
In 2005, Mikhail had a massive stroke which confined him to a wheelchair, but being the hard worker that he was, he kept coming to his beloved restaurant. With help, each and every night, he would climb up the stairs to get to his work. His honorable son, Michael, took care of him, and never left his side for over 13 years. He kept going strong. Going daily to the JCC pool every day for years, doing his own self designed therapy, and keeping active in so many other ways. In 2012, he had heart surgery and was in and out of the ICU for months, with severe complications, including a trachea, he was extremely ill for almost a year. But his faith in God, never wained.
In 2015, his children had to make a decision - the restaurant, or their father. They chose their father. Intending to close for only a few months, Khalil's unexpectedly closed for 3 years. God is good. Mikhail recovered - thrived even. And was anxious to get back to work. Khalil's renovated by putting in new open air windows - allowing guest to enjoy a Mediterranean feel by dining al fresco. While in the ICU - his kids, trying to uplift his spirit by encouraging him that he will eventually get better and go back to work - he expressed he wanted 6 windows. So, 6 windows were put in.
Khalil's opened and received a beautifully written unexpected review from Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Melissa McCart, and the word got out that Khalil's reopened. Customers who have been coming to Khalil's for over 46 years, as well as when he was a cook at Omar Kayyam, greeted him with all the love one would feel reflective of a relationship built over 46 years. They thanked him for reopening and told him how much Khalil's - he - meant to them throughout the years. Ever so happy and grateful, he said in his kind, humble voice, "Thank you... Thank you so much... We are so happy you are here with us."
On June 17, 2018, just months after reopening, he celebrated his 46th year anniversary in the business he and his beloved wife, Agnes, started. And just a few months later, on September 16, 2018, he joined his beloved Agnes, in God's Kingdom. They passed away within 24 hours of each other, 15 years to the day.
It is in the same spirit of warmth and hospitality that Mikhail & Agnes are known for, that we welcome both our amazing customers who have been with us for over 47 years, as well as our new guests who are just discovering us for the first time.
We say, as they did, "Ahalan Wa Sahalan!" Welcome!