Our critic ranked it among metro Detroit’s best restaurants. Where is everybody?

For a chef who says “I hate thinking, I like moving,” Hisham Diab is doing a lot of pondering lately. He’s trying to figure out why his outstanding “coastal Italian” restaurant, Tiliani, isn’t packing in the guests.

When Tiliani, which Diab calls the only high-end halal restaurant in Dearborn, opened last July, it was bringing in far-flung foodies. They looked like “people who have decent jobs, people who are into food,” he said. Like most restaurateurs, Diab and owner Nasser Beydoun expected a winter slump. But after Valentine’s Day, the crowds didn’t return.

This reviewer called Tiliani “the best restaurant I’ve been to this year.” It was an Hour Detroit finalist for “best special occasion” restaurant. Friends I sent there, both vegetarians and not, raved about it. So where is everybody?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at how Diab, a Lebanese American from Farmington Hills, ended up running a white-tablecloth Italian place in Dearborn.

The oldest of five brothers, with a mom who cooked every meal in traditional Lebanese fashion, Diab got his start at the celebrated and very traditional, very Italian Café Cortina in Farmington Hills, across the street from his house. When he worked there, he weighed 400 pounds (at 6’5”, he thinks he may be the tallest chef in Michigan). After a bit the owners told him, in the nicest way possible, that he wasn’t moving fast enough. “They said, ‘It’s too hard to get around you, you’re taking up too much real estate for what you’re producing,’” Diab remembered without a trace of self-consciousness.

He enrolled in OCC’s culinary institute for a year, and then spent two years at the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He was older than most of the students, which gave him an edge — he wasn’t too cowed by an august French chef to ask for help. Living in the dorm, learning about nutrition, and playing on CIA’s basketball team, he lost 40 pounds.

Diab then moved to the United Arab Emirates, knowing his fluent Arabic would be a bonus. To prepare, he hired a trainer who helped him lose 80 more pounds in a summer through running, lifting weights, and more basketball. He left the UAE after a few months, though, disgusted. “Ethics were not really involved,” he said, referring to the treatment of the South Asians who make up most of the UAE’s workforce. “I’m the type of leader who leads by example. I get dirty first. It’s not right to make everybody get dirty for you.”

Back home, he became private chef to a Lions player and did some consulting on menus and kitchen organizing. In 2021 he opened Pump 5 Grille in a Livonia Mobil station. I never heard of the joint myself, but would like to have visited a burger place where the bun was custom developed at Rising Stars Academy and the chef served an everything-bagel fried chicken sandwich, ramp cream cheese, and soft-shell crabs.

Then came Nasser Beydoun, owner of two iterations of District 12, a burger place in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, plus Parts and Labor, an dive bar in Melvindale. Beydoun had joked for years that he wanted to open an Italian restaurant and call it Tiliani — Arabic for “Italian.” He invited Diab to his home and gave him a try-out, to which Diab brought his own traveling pizza oven. A simple margherita, a kale Caesar, some short-rib lasagna — Beydoun was sold. Together, the two transformed the former District 12 on South Military to Tiliani, doing the buildout themselves, without a designer. It’s one medium-sized room with an enormous flower painting dominating one wall.

And the people came, even though there was initially no liquor license. They found housemade burrata and snowy, buttery stracciatella; mafaldine pasta, dark with squid ink, topped with shrimp and clams; bruschetta with silky marinated eggplant, ricotta, and pine nuts; tiny Brussels sprouts with more pine nuts; mussels with navy beans tossed in beef-bacon fat and salsa verde; agnolotti stuffed with sumptuous winter squash.

click to enlarge Stracciatella cheese served with pickled vegetables and grilled bread at Tiliani. - Branded Creative Studio

Branded Creative Studio

Stracciatella cheese served with pickled vegetables and grilled bread at Tiliani.

Why Italian? Diab fervently believes that “it’s an honor to have people cook for you” and says that “you get that feeling strongest in an Italian kitchen.” Italian culture is nurturing, romantic, working to live, not living to work. (French is “cooking with a frown,” “Mexican is more in your face.”) For him Italian food felt super-familiar — “you felt you knew but wanted to explore more to figure out why you loved it so much.”

So he makes a white sausage Bolognese with Michigan ramps, serves linguine with house-smoked lamb belly, makes a simple branzino with caper honey, tops a polenta fritter with balsamic sweet and sour, makes stracciatella in house, candies fennel to serve with spicy greens.

It’s all fabulous. But: “People look at us as a special occasion restaurant. It could have to do with our price point.” Yes. It can be startling to read $55 for branzino, even if you understand the “large plates” are meant to be shared. Pasta in the $20’s is not unusual these days, but it can seem high when it’s not the only thing you’re ordering, and appetizers in the teens — again, not unusual, but still — contribute to a bill that easily tops $100 for two.

Diab says what he wanted at Tiliani was “chef quality but affordable.” He wanted to serve “quality halal prepared by a traditionally trained chef in ways that could be unique to Dearborn, an approachable experience for everybody.”

Instead, he says, “white tablecloths, elevated dining — they can be confused as not supposed to be frequently visited. Like Café Cortina — you don’t just go and then go on with the rest of your day.” You’re there for a while.

He also wonders if guests aren’t used to a “coursed out” meal. Lebanese people eat fast, he says: “We want the food to be piled up, a table full of everything all at once.” It’s different from those who want a bottle of wine to accompany them through a long meal. (Alcohol, under beverage director Gillian Teall, is now a well-attended aspect of Tiliani, featuring 21 wines from Lebanon as well as some from Italy. Earlier this year they put on a Lebanese wine dinner with five wines. No alcohol is ever used in the cooking, however.)

So potential guests see Tiliani as a place to “celebrate, not as a regular everyday eatery.” The reservations service, besides inquiring for allergies, asks guests whether their visit is a special occasion. Very often, it is. When Diab’s parents talk about the restaurant, he says, they always get the question “what’s the dress code?”

“I didn’t want a special occasion restaurant, I wanted elevated dining,” Diab moans. “There’s frustration with feeling that the price point is worth it. We’re the only restaurant down here that puts in the effort to source locally. I don’t know if it’s easy to appreciate that when it’s something that’s unique.”

He adds, “It’s hard for chefs to connect what we think is cool and worth it to what other people think is cool and worth it. I would give 20 percent of my cooking skills to know that.”

Tiliani’s prices, he says, are based on food costs: the produce, the vinegars, the oils. “A big part is how we source,” he says, with “tangible relationships” at farmers markets: “We want to do them proud.”

There’s more labor to pay in a scratch kitchen. Brussels sprouts aren’t coming in pre-cut. A worker is paid to bake the bread that’s offered free, so rare these days. That’s an area Diab doesn’t want to compromise: “If you have bread in the building, give it to me for free,” he says. “Bread is community sharing.” That bread, by the way, is an airy sourdough focaccia, served with tart olive oil from Diab’s grandfather’s farm in Lebanon. Since both are replenished as needed, they could be part of a strategy for the impecunious food fan who wants to eat at Tiliani but can’t afford to sample every course. Those tacticians aren’t helping Diab and Beydoun, though.

He seems to have it figured out: “If I come in at 5:30 and order one plate of pasta, I’ll have to spend more than $30. That’s not a satisfying enough one-stop-shop meal.”

He’s mulling, and I have to say I worry a little about the results. There are enough restaurants in Dearborn already where the experience is exactly the same as at all the other restaurants in Dearborn. “The target,” Diab says, “is to fine-tune and try to bring something closer to what the community was expecting. Maybe give them options of experiences at $30 to $35, options in each section that are more approachable. Give the guests the power to make the experience what they want it to be — if we want people to look at it as their regular halal eatery.”

I showed a draft of this article to two people who didn’t know Tiliani. They both said, “I’d go!”

Tiliani is at 1002 S. Military St., Dearborn, open for dinner Wednesday-Sunday with a Sunday brunch buffet. Parties of 10 or more can order a prix fixe menu for $55 or $75. 313-444-8889.

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