Chef and restaurateur Fares Kargar always wanted to own a restaurant from the first time he started working in one as a teen. After a couple decades he fulfilled his goal by opening Delbar in Atlanta. Only it launched at the beginning of March 2020, so he flipped his dream restaurant of a high-end Middle Eastern spot and turned it into a to-go eatery. Fast forward three years and Delbar remains a popular destination, and now, he has a second location of it, with another on the way.
This is just the beginning for the Iran-born chef, who moved Atlanta when he was a teenager. Kargar loves the whole idea of running restaurants and showcasing food from his home country. The menu features dishes such as savory-topped tahdig ($7 to $16), gheymeh bademjan, or lamb shank stew ($29), and akbar joojeh, a northern Iranian Cornish hen confit with pomegranate walnut sauce ($23). The cocktails also showcase Persian ingredients.
Now with multiple restaurants under his belt, Kargar has formed his own company, Nooshé Jân, which means “bon appétit” in Farsi.
He recently discussed his plans for expansion.
You studied hospitality once you arrived in Georgia, had you ever had a cooking job before going to school?
No, but I have been cooking since I was a kid. My biggest hobby was to cook. My dad worked and wasn't around often and my mom was a fashion designer, also always working. I have a sister and brother, and grew up in the kitchen around my aunt and my grandma. The best time I had in the kitchen was learning to cook.
I loved to have my parents give me money and [I would] buy ingredients and then cook for them. Then at one point I had three or four roommates and started cooking for them every day. For me, it was a hobby, and for them it was good that someone could cook. When I started [waiting tables] at an Italian restaurant [Luciano's Ristorante Italiano in Atlanta], I would cook the dishes I served there at home. My off days consisted of me going grocery shopping and cooking and inviting people over. It was a part of my identity. It was the one thing I could do 24/7 for the rest of my life.
Commercial cooking wasn't my thing, but I was exposed to a commercial setting in catering and managing. It was in my head, and when I went to hospitality school the kitchen was touched on too. I realized I didn't want to go to culinary school, I wanted to open restaurants and I wanted to do things differently. I never wanted to go to school and become a chef of my own restaurant. It was the entrepreneur part, that was more exciting to me than being a chef day-to-day. I didn't want to be stuck in the kitchen. Instead, I was looking at the bigger picture of designing the experience rather than just designing the food and the plate.
So you never cooked professional prior to opening Delbar, but you did work as a restaurant server and manager for years. How did this help prepare you for opening your own place?
The way Ali [Mesghali, the owner and chef of Rumi's Kitchen, a Persian restaurant in Atlanta] tried to educate me and my colleagues [inspired me]. Also, I look at serving as networking. Yes, you're serving tables, and people say it's just a temporary job, but to me it always had been about networking, and it made a big impact. I served many different neighborhoods in Atlanta for years and years, and it gave me a sense of clientele. The second I opened [Delbar], people were there to support me.
Why did you decide to open Middle Eastern restaurants?
Prior to working at Rumi's, I always wanted to own a restaurant, but I never wanted to own a Persian restaurant. I never saw it as a big hit, but at Rumi's I saw the opportunity there. Lately Middle Eastern food and restaurants have been getting popular. I saw the opportunity, that there is a lot of room for Middle Eastern food and Iranian [Persian] food. Before Delbar I had a different concept, but couldn’t get anyone to look at the concept or answer my calls.
A big part was Rumi’s in general — it created this atmosphere where people were proud to be Iranian. There was all this recognition that was happening with Middle Eastern food. Maydān [Rose Previte's North African and Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington D.C.) got a Michelin star. When it got it, I was like, [this cuisine] is going to blow up. I knew there was a niche I could tap into. It was then I realized I could open an Iranian restaurant.
But Delbar isn't just Iranian food is it?
I made Delbar as a Middle Eastern restaurant, not Persian. It gave me more room to play around with the foods. Iran has a lot of ecosystems — desert, super cold, super lush, so many different demographics and different food. From one end to the other the cuisine is entirely different. There is so much food I grew up eating, and half the Iranians don't know it's Iranian. There's an unlimited opportunity to create, so I wanted to open a Middle Eastern restaurant to [encompass it all].
I grew up north, in Gorgan, and it's lush and famous for its greenery and fruits and herbs. I spent summers in Dastjerd, close to the city of Birjand, where my grandma is from. It's farmland and full of peaches, grapes, and farm animals. I like comparing the foods from the regions. I could serve Persian foods no one has had in the U.S., and create a restaurant around things no one has had before.
Can you explain the concept behind your two Delbar restaurants?
I wanted a steakhouse [style] menu, where you pick your meat and have so many different things to choose from and make it custom so you can do what you want. One step forward, I thought, let's cook it the old-school way, let's cook with charcoal. Then one more layer, finding a way so everyone can have their own tahdig, that crispy rice.
I wanted to make sure we weren't just another Persian restaurant on the scene. If someone has this thing on their menu in Atlanta, I don't want to do it because 90-percent of Persian or Iranian restaurants are the same. People are accustomed to it, and the biggest thing I wanted to do was educate people about how much food is available throughout Iran.
You opened the first Delbar just weeks before the pandemic rules kicked in, how did you get past that and to the point of running multiple restaurants?
I signed the lease at the end of February 2020, and right after that in March is when COVID happened. I did takeout and had a limited menu to start with. Then, when I started to move toward what I really wanted to do, it was hard to find workers since people were leaving the industry. Or they had kids and didn't know what would happen with school [so didn't come back to work]. That's where the networking came in and people came and helped. I did social media and the rest was word-of-mouth.
With two open and one more coming, what has made Delbar so successful?
A lot of little details. We tried to basically create our own revolution of Middle Eastern and Persian food as much as we could. Part of it is the way we make people feel. Of course it's also about the food and service, but the experience as a whole makes people want to come back.
Why did you choose the suburb of Alpharetta for the second Delbar location?
I have a lot of clients coming down from Alpharetta to us. They were traveling to the Inman Park location and it's a good 45 minutes away. I realized there was a lot of demand. We opened [at the end of May] and it's been good. Then we will open in Buckhead in the winter, and Eden, a different concept, at the end of 2024.
You use a lot of Persian ingredients in Delbar’s cocktails too. How did that develop?
During my times at Rumi's, I worked with [lead bartender] Francis Coligado. We both left, and when it was time to open my own place I contacted Francis. He came onboard [as beverage director] and he is so good I don't even touch the cocktail program. The goal was always to have the cocktails mirror the food. It was to create things around Persian ingredients and give them fun names. We had one that was called Saudi Money ($15) and another called Silk Road ($14). We wanted to make the whole cocktail experience more fun and have customers learn the names quickly.
What are some of the food dishes that you're most excited to share?
It's the things I grew up eating. Stuffed branzino is one of my favorites and my mom makes it when she comes to town, also dishes chenjeh ($31), a beef kebab I used to make when camping or having people over. We have a labneh ($17) that we add sautéed lamb to and it reminds me of a dish my grandma made.
What are the customers' favorite plates?
There are some menu items that we can't take off without people getting mad at us. One is the lamb and labneh, the beef sirloin, the adas polo ($10), a crispy rice with raisins and lentils. The core of the menu too, the seabass ($46), salmon kebab ($29), and stuffed branzino ($33).
Congrats on all the success, and to opening your second restaurant.
There are a lot of people in my life that have influenced me and given me courage to do this. It's been truly amazing and I have made it father than I thought I would in these few years, and I hope it stays that way.