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Luna Grill: Bringing Middle Eastern Food To California

March 2010

California Centers Magazine

Middle Eastern cuisine is undergoing a transformation in the United States: In the often fickle and always brutal battle for the American food dollar, it’s becoming the cool kid that everyone wants to have sitting at their lunch table.

In 2009, the Food Channel declared Middle Eastern food a growing trend, with Americans starting to embrace the savory flavors of the low-fat, high-protein, vegan friendly cuisine. In most American cities, that trend involves the rich middle ground of fast casual dining, a recession-friendly dining alternative most frequently dominated by Mexican food and pizza rather than hummus and tabouli.

San Diego-based Luna Grill hopes to capitalize on the growing American fondness for chickpeas, tahini, and pita bread by introducing traditional favorites with a contemporary twist to the American palate – all made fresh and at a budget-friendly price. “We offer food that is not expensive, but is the equivalent to being at home and cooking,” explains owner Sean Pourteymour. “It’s healthy. It’s as fresh as can be. In today’s economy, with both parents working, that’s more important than ever.”

A family-owned enterprise, Luna Grill offers a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, with a varied menu that reflects his wife Maria’s Greek heritage. Alongside the lamb and beef kabobs and fattoush salad drawn from the cuisines of Syria, Iran and Lebanon are spanakopita and gyros, tzatziki, and baklava. Luna Grill also features modern, innovative creations such as mahi-mahi, tiger shrimp, and Cornish game hen kabobs, salmon wraps, and a Luna burger made from grass-fed beef.

“The way we cook is special,” declares Pourteymour. “We don’t skimp on anything. Our ingredients are always top-of-the-line. Our customers always get the best – or we don’t do it.”

The Pourteymours are extremely passionate about the quality of service and food at Luna Grill, eagerly pointing out that kabobs are 100% all-natural and additive free, and that their livestock is humanely raised and free to graze on grass and clover in pastures.

“We offer actual food,” notes Maria Pourteymour. “Everything is made fresh. The meat was cut that morning and marinated. We use individual skewers, and it goes on the fire as you order it. Even our in-house salads are chopped that morning.”

Middle Eastern cuisine – with its reliance on spices over fat in cultivating rich flavors – is a healthier alternative to many ethnic foods, and superior to most fast casual foods. This is due to the unique cooking methods developed by Persian soldiers millennia ago, who used their swords to roast food over an open flame.

Once the restaurant was established and thriving, the Pourteymour’s redirected their attention to their brand, hiring international designer Amir Taj. Today, the restaurant boasts a distinctive, vibrant red-and-white color scheme, with white enamel tabletops and red chairs that mimic the interior design. Vivid photographs of fresh tomatoes, red onions, and other colorful vegetables adorn the walls, amid boldly stenciled phrases encouraging patrons to ‘eat and be refreshed.’

“We cover the gap between fast food and fine dining,” continued Pourteymour. “We’re a step above fast casual. You order at the counter, but we bring it to you. You don’t have to bus your tables. There are no trash stands. We use real silverware, and actual china. Our ingredients are all-natural.”

“It’s not just Middle Eastern food,” re-joins Maria Pourteymour, whose family operated one of San Diego’s best-known Greek restaurants for over 20 years. “What we do is create delicious, healthy food at an affordable price point,” asserts Pourteymour. “It’s like mom cooked the meal, at a price you can afford. If you try to buy the ingredients and do what we do, it’ll be more expensive. In a nutshell, we’re trying to replace your kitchen.”

Luna Grill expects to open five more locations in Southern California by the end of the year, with two locations already scouted and secured in San Diego’s Hillcrest and Eastlake communities. Additionally, the Pourteymours hope to open up five locations in Orange County by 2012. They are also actively seeking locations in Los Angeles and Riverside Counties, and their current expansion timetable accounts for almost 50 locations by the middle of the decade.