I was absent-mindedly perusing through the Harris Teeter produce section when I heard a voice call out, “Hey, Michael!”. I turned around to see a then-unfamiliar face smiling back at me. “Hello!” I waved back, still trying to recollect who this kind-looking lady was. “It’s just so hard…” she said, “I am trying to find grape leaves for my stuffed grape leaves dish, and I can’t find any. I only want to serve them if I can make them from scratch. How’s your family doing?”
And then it hit me – this was Jale Evsen, the lovely owner of Naci’s Corner Café, a delicious Turkish restaurant that had recently opened down the street from where I worked on Granby Street. I’ve only eaten there maybe twice, but already she recognized me and genuinely seemed to give her best wishes to my family and me. There are restaurants in Ghent that I’ve eaten at more than 300 times in my life, and I still have no idea who the owner is – let alone them having any interest in wanting to connect with me. And here she was, making an effort to get to know a visitor to her restaurant that she’s only seen less than a handful of times. This is the best way to describe Naci’s Café – putting in the actual effort it takes to connect with her community and meticulous, loving care towards her attention to detail. Over time as I worked my way through her great menu, I realized there was no filler. Every dish reflects who she is as a person, where she came from, and how hard Jale worked to get to where she is today.
On July 8th, 2020, at the height of uncertainty during the COVID Pandemic, Naci’s Corner Café officially opened its doors at 1900 Granby Street. Previously an upholstery and fabrics shop, the entire interior was completely renovated to reflect the warm and welcoming homestyle comfort food from a distant land featured on their menu. From strong, interesting Turkish teas, to light Mediterranean-style salads and soups, to hearty chicken and meat patties over fluffy spice-filled rice and other grains, Naci’s quickly has become my go-to for quick light lunches or hearty indulgent dinners and everything in between. The ‘Kofte’ ground meatballs remind me of the food my Grandmother used to make. Refraining from ordering the eggplant platter for lunch has become a daily struggle. The light and fluffy vegetable and meat-stuffed pastries ‘Borek’ are impossible to ignore; a large side of them must be included with every meal. Even the Baklava is hard to turn away; the sweet sticky pastry dish has become a guilty pleasure of mine. I had a chance to sit down with Jale recently to quickly chat about what it was like opening a restaurant during the Pandemic.
Michael Mahgerefteh: “So, tell me the story behind this lovely space….how you’re coming to this area and how Naci’s Café came to be”
Jale Evsen: “When both of our sons decided to attend Old Dominion University, we visited them so often we realized how much we loved the area and how tired we were of Northern Virginia…with all the traffic and just too busy of a hectic life. So my husband and I decided to invest in Norfolk. We loved it here, and he was very much into the ocean and fishing…anything on the water. All our lives we were cooking together, we were married for 28 years. We found this space which was an upholstery store which was for sale, and we decided to convert it into a little cafe…and my husband was an amazing cook. He was the meat guy, he would love cooking meats, and my specialty was more of the vegetable dishes and the Kofte (ground meatball dish). We invested here and wanted to take our time, so first, we tore down the entire interior until all that was left was an outer shell, and everything else was a full buildout. All the walls are new, the HVAC, and all of the designs. Unfortunately, about a year before opening, my husband fell ill and passed away, so I decided to press on and dedicate this restaurant in his Memory which is why It’s called Naci’s Café.
MM: “Can you tell me what it was like opening a restaurant during the Pandemic?”
JE: “One of the most difficult parts was tracking down the ingredients to make my dishes. I make my dishes from scratch, and I don’t want to compromise or cut corners by purchasing pre-made items or different brands and quality than what I am used to. But really, the community has been so supportive of the restaurant and me. Between navigating the different laws, purchasing the necessary equipment and items to keep things sufficiently up to COVID standards, and becoming personally involved in each dish that leaves the café, it was tough, but this wonderful area worked hard to keep this dream a reality.”
When my Dad was in the hospital in early April, how I knew he was finally getting better was when he finally said “yes” when I asked if he wanted me to bring him some outside food. Naci’s Café was the very first thing he wanted. This should tell you how important Naci’s Café has become to our family and how much we have grown to love Jale and her amazing food in such a short amount of time. If you are visiting Naci’s for the first time, I recommend that you try the ‘Naci’s, Sampler Platter’ .’ Don’t forget to get a side of the amazing ‘Shakshookah’ eggplant salad and, of course, a side of the Borek Pastry Dish. Afiyet Olsun!
North Colley, NFK
Michael Mahgerefteh is a Norfolk Native specializing in Commercial Real Estate and Event Planning. Michael is the drummer and manager of Galaxy Dynamite, a space-rock outfit dubbed 'The King's of Space' on National Public Radio which has performed more than 500 shows all across the US. He is also the manager and part-owner of Colley Executive Offices, a locally owned and family-owned facility with private all-inclusive office spaces. As the creator of StarFire Festival, an event centered around music, art, video games and cosplay which boasted an attendance of more than 5,000, and also with experience as part of the Downtown100 and tHRive events committees, Michael is uniquely experienced in local business and events.