A local Lebanese restaurant is bringing a new vibe to Stratford Hills.
Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon is relocating from its home of five years at 3601 Cox Road near Innsbrook to 2825 Hathaway Road in the Stratford Hills Shopping Center.
Natalie’s plans to open next month in the roughly 4,700-square-foot space that was most recently home to Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe.
Founded by Anne-Marie Irani and Larry Schwartz in 2016, Natalie’s is named for their daughter, who has Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition that’s often characterized by highly outgoing personalities, cardiovascular problems and learning challenges.
The couple, who are also both doctors at VCU Health, decided to get into the restaurant business for Natalie, who’d fallen in love with the food and culture on trips to Irani’s native country of Lebanon. They saw the restaurant as a way to combine that love with a concerted effort to employ young people with special needs, Natalie included.
“The whole reason we opened the restaurant in the first place was we wanted to provide a fulfilling job for our daughter,” Irani said.
A lack of full-service Lebanese restaurants in the Richmond area only helped the doctors make the leap of faith, as Irani described it.
“The reality is, we’ve been at VCU our whole careers. We’re not businesspeople. But I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned which I think will serve me well,” Irani said, laughing.
They opened the restaurant in late 2016, with Natalie often working as a hostess and around eight other young adults with special needs also on staff. Over the years in Innsbrook, Irani said Natalie’s built a solid following serving classic Lebanese dishes like kebabs, shawarma, moussaka and lamb shanks.
The pandemic played a role in the decision to move.
“We did have a good lunch crowd because of all the businesses but of course with COVID that lunch crowd disappeared,” Irani said. “We were busy on the weekends, but there was very little traffic during the week. It wasn’t sustainable long-term. That was one of the factors.”
With Natalie’s lease in Innsbrook coming up at the end of 2021, Irani and Schwartz found the old Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe space and leased it from The Wilton Cos., which owns the entire shopping center off Forest Hill Avenue.
The Positive Vibe Foundation operated Max’s Positive Vibe Cafe, offering job training for people with special needs. Garth Larcen, its founder and executive director, said they’d closed in March 2020 at the touchdown of the pandemic but continued to run their training program.
Larcen said they’d been planning to reopen in 2021 however they struck the deal with Irani and Schwartz before doing so. He said they’re planning to continue running the training program out of 2825 Hathaway Road with Natalie’s.
While Natalie’s is unaffiliated with The Positive Vibe Foundation, Irani said they hope to keep the job training program going — especially since
The relationship between the restaurant and the foundation was forged in part through Natalie’s participation in the Positive Vibes training program years ago.
“I enjoyed it and I learned a lot in order to become a hostess,” Natalie said.
Added Irani: “The idea is that we’d run the restaurant but allow the Positive Vibe training program to continue. We’re also hoping to employ some of the young adults they had working in the cafe.”
Work is underway on the space, and Irani said they’ve already received positive feedback from the local community.
Jon Cramer of HHHunt is leading the restaurant’s renovation. Irani said that when the company found out about Natalie’s mission to help young people with special needs, they decided to do the work pro bono.
Similarly, Natalie’s is working with Jim Ertel, former executive chef at the Salisbury Country Club, to expand the restaurant’s menu to include some dishes from other Mediterranean locales.
“I’ve met so many people who are amazing and are helping. It’s really heartwarming to see that because I think we tend to get jaded as a society — it’s all about business, right?” Irani said. “But when they hear a good thing happening, they want to help.”
Natalie herself said she’s sorry to leave the old location but that she’s excited to be back in the restaurant once it opens in the Southside.
“We’re optimistic and hopeful about it. We hope that everything goes well and that it’s really going to work for us,” she said. “It’s bittersweet, but now it’s time to move and hope for better things to come.”
So happy about this! We look forward to eating there!
Mmmmmmmm. my favorite cuisine gets closer to my house. I love Natalie’s. And I really appreciate what they are doing with Positive Vibe.
New to the area love the mission, cant wait to enjoy the food!
I’m very glad to see this article after seeing the restaurant on cox road closed. I commend you for supporting your daughter and others in one of the most difficult businesses there is. Many Blessings for continued success.
It is so nice that they are renting space to the Positive Vibe foundation so they can continue your training program at that location like they have for the last 20 years. I can’t wait to go and try there many dishes.