Since Donald Trump's election, Nicole Harris says she been trying to find small ways to become politically active. She's marched in local protests and registered as a voter registrar, but she wanted to extend that activism to the money she spends locally. So, Wednesday night she did something special. She trekked up from her home in Oak Cliff to Richardson for a $20 dinner out.
She wasn't alone. Bilad Bakery and Restaurant, a family owned Iraqi spot, sold out two special seatings for Texas' first Breaking Bread dinner celebrating diversity, immigrants and small restaurants.
It was, Harris said, a beautiful experience. She may not be able to make a difference on a grand scale, she says, but events like these make her feel as if she's contributing something where she lives.
"We can start to change what's happening down the street from us," she says. "We can let people know that they're welcome here, even if the administration doesn't make them feel that way."
That was goal for Salvy Mohammad, who helped organize the dinner after reading about Bilad in a recent restaurant review in the Dallas Observer .
"My family and I only eat halal meat, so it was exciting to see a Muslim and halal restaurant being featured on the Dallas Observer," says Mohammad, a woman who's worked with resettled refugees in Atlanta.
Mohammad and her family eat in Richardson often, she says, because "many of the best halal restaurants are there," but they wanted to try something new. "We actually made that whole Saturday ... a Dallas Observer recommendations day. After Bilad, we headed out to BigDash, a Syrian ice cream place which was also featured in a Dallas Observer article."
Soon after, Mohammad connected with Jeff Orlick, a New Yorker who runs Breaking Bread NYC, an organization that puts together dinners and neighborhood tours of independent international restaurants. After Trump's first travel ban, Orlick decided that all of Breaking Bread's upcoming events would focus on the seven countries initially affected by the ban.
"Hearing about these cultures in the news, you become naturally curious, and we're feeding into that curiosity," Orlick says. "It's food diplomacy."
When Orlick approached Mohammad about hosting Breaking Bread's first Texas event here in Dallas, she knew exactly which restaurant to approach.
"Fuad [Al Bawyma, Bilad's owner] was very excited about the dinner from the very beginning," Mohammad says. "I told him we want people to have a very authentic Iraqi dining experience, and have a chance to try a little bit of everything." The pair communicated with the help of Arabic-speaking employees since Al Bawyma speaks predominantly in Arabic, while Mohammad does not.
With only a few days' notice, Orlick and Mohammad worked with Al Bawyma to organize a dinner for about 50, the most that can fit in the restaurant at once, on Wednesday night. But they soon realized that one 50-person seating wasn't enough. After the $20 tickets sold out quickly for the 6 p.m. seating, they added a second 8 p.m. seating that sold out, too.
"The response has been crazy amazing," Orlick says. "It's really special to see so many people curious about this culture."
Wednesday night's dinners were packed with a wildly diverse crowd, including multiple nationalities, a few Iraqis living in Dallas and some locals who had never been to Bilad.
Al Bawyma spoke to diners through a translator, sharing the story of his family's first restaurant that opened in Baghdad in 1956. Throughout the meal, he frequently stepped in between crowded tables to take photos, grinning wildly with a thumbs-up. Since the Observer's first visit, it's been a great few weeks at the restaurant, says Fawzi Al Bawyma, Fuad's son.
"Business was good, but now it's been great," he says.
Richardson has been nothing but welcoming to his family's restaurant, Fawzi says, and seeing so many people flood his restaurant in an effort to learn about Iraqi food and culture has made his family feel even more connected to the community. At Bilad, a sign on the front door tells diners that if they can't afford to eat, they can dine at the restaurant for free. Proceeds from the Breaking Bread dinner will help grow that initiative.
"I was really impressed by this," Mohammad says. "Being hospitable, helping those in need and treating everyone with respect and kindness are all very fundamental teachings of Islam that Muslims are encouraged to practice. Fuad is leading a great example of this."
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On Wednesday night, diners were treated to massive sampler platters of food — falafel, tabouleh, cucumber-yogurt salad, fresh-baked pita bread — and despite the quantity, nearly every plate in the restaurant was eaten clean. After dinner, the bakery treated the room to the most beautiful fresh baklava, and people wandered the room making introductions. Fuad grinned from ear to ear the entire time.
"I was pleasantly surprised by all the positive feedback and how many came out to the dinner showing they care and are wanting to have conversations to learn more about each other," Mohammad says. "I have been feeling extra inspired and hopeful for a brighter future after meeting everyone last night."