Nilufar Al-Shourbaji, the namesake and guiding hand of Montreal’s Nilufar restaurant, loves falafel.
It’s accessible, she gushes. It’s versatile, she exclaims. “It’s fantastic food,” she says over a generous plate of fresh falafel, hummus, and garlic sauce.
Nilufar—the restaurant, but also the gregarious woman—is immensely popular in Montreal, and for good reason. A few blocks west of Concordia University and a few blocks east of Dawson College, squeezed between a bookstore and a ramen spot, Nilufar is one of several of a breed of restaurant that offers cheap, satisfying food to a diverse community.
Its home is the immigrant-heavy, student-full, culturally rich area known to some as Little Chinatown. Nilufar, which has stood in its place since 1994, has largely escaped the gentrification transforming other lower-income areas of the Montreal, fits right in.
Welcoming and warm, like the woman behind the cash, Nilufar is a kinder kind of place. And the people love it.
During what Al-Shourbaji says is a quiet time, at 3:30 p.m., 20 people enter over 20 minutes. The restaurant is small, so it fills quickly with conversation—which is then silenced by eating.
As customers walk in, Al-Shourbaji knows some of their orders and shouts them from behind the counter to the cook. Nilufar’s mother, Nasrin Talab, is the head chefs and comes in every morning to prepare food, but this afternoon it’s one of six rotating chefs handling the falafel.
“Some people have been coming since we opened,” she says.
The restaurant is the creation of Al-Shourbaji’s parents. Her dad is Syrian, her mother Persian—they met while studying in England. Al-Shourbaji herself was born in Kuwait.
Her parents opened the restaurant 23 years ago, after immigrating to Canada. Al-Shourbaji was six, and they took her name for the restaurant.
“My mother loved the name,” Al-Shourbaji says, which means water lily in Arabic. “She thought it was the most beautiful name.”
Al-Shourbaji adds that her brother’s name is Amir, so that was a non-starter.
Because of the restaurant’s name, Al-Shourbaji says that she’s always had a strong connection to Nilufar. She was there when it opened, on Halloween. She was young.
“I was there mostly just to cry,” Al-Shourbaji says. “And to throw a tantrum.”
But as she aged, the restaurant became like a home base for adventures downtown. She lived in the West Island, so she’d come with her friends after school, get falafel, then go shopping.
Six years ago, by Al-Shourbaji’s estimate, her mother called to say that the woman who usually operates the cash was moving to Egypt.
“I said ‘I’ll come in today to help’”, Al-Shourbaji says, “and I never left.”
What kept Nilufar at Nilufar is was what brings so many other people to the restaurant.
“We’re able to feed so many people,” she says, before listing why: Falafel is vegan, it’s gluten free, it’s soy free, it’s a food that crosses cultural and economic lines.
Nilufar’s menu makes particular accommodation for vegans. Al-Shourbaji herself is vegan, and has been for almost five years—a decision she made overnight, she says.
“I was like ‘let me try to be vegan’,” inspired by those clients who would come to her and talk about their own veganism. “I liked their aura or whatever.”
She tried it for 24 hours, and the next day made a chicken sandwich for herself. She couldn’t bring herself to eat it.
Now, for Al-Shourbaji, providing vegan options is a point of pride.
“You don’t have to be rich to be vegan,” she says.
Superficially, Nilufar welcomes vegans with green-painted walls. Substantially, options include a vegan garlic sauce and potatoes, a vegan falafel poutine (fries, pieces of falafel, tahini, and hot sauce), a tofu shish taouk, and vegan alternatives for almost everything but the chicken shawarma.
Al-Shourbaji’s interest in meeting her clients’ needs comes from a place of compassion. In university a few years back, down the street at Concordia, she studied Sociology and Psychology. She knows the area. She’s deeply invested in the community.
In that vein, Al-Shourbaji gives away food. For free. All the time.
“I’m not blind,” she says, her voice heavy with concern for the people she sees every day. “People are desperate to eat and don’t have money.”
Sometimes she gives out the food herself, to people who come into the restaurant. Other times she asks her clients to do it for her, making accessible not just food, but the feeling of doing good.
With a smile, she pulls out her phone to show a message received an hour before, from a man who says he lived off of Nilufar through CEGEP, at Dawson.
It reads, in part: “I recently had a bite to eat at your restaurant and was given two sandwiches to hand out to whoever seemed the neediest out on the streets. The two people were extremely grateful.”
The message ends. “Keep at it!”