Dalia Barness loves to feed people. “It’s a great feeling when my food makes them smile,” she said. For nearly two decades, Barness has been serving homemade knishes and hot corned beef sandwiches to her customers at The Orchid, the glatt kosher restaurant she owns in Metuchen. “We prepare it the way they used to on Canal Street,” said Barness, who still serves kosher pickles from a barrel.
Born in Israel, Barness and her family moved to the United States when she was 13, settling in Queens. Her parents had grown up in Tunisia and fled the upheaval there for Israel during the 1950s. Barness always loved to prepare Middle Eastern dishes like couscous as well as distinctly Tunisian foods — boulettes, North African meatballs, were a
In 2000, Barness and a partner took over the Metuchen Kosher Deli on Main Street and renamed it for a flower she loved. In addition to deli sandwiches, the menu offered falafel, kishkas, and an assortment of salads, burgers, and wraps. Two years later, her partner left, burned out by the long hours.
Barness, who was raising her then-8-year-old daughter as a single mother — her two older children were in college — decided to continue pursuing her dream on her own. She worked from 8 a.m. until well into the evening, stopping to pick up her daughter from school in Elizabeth and deposit her at a table in the restaurant, where she would sit and do her homework. Her older children waited tables, delivered food, and did the shopping. “Everyone had to help Mom,” recalled Barness, who served as chef and manager during those early years.
Barness knows most of her customers by name — and even dubbed one menu item “the Lincoln wrap” after a regular. Many families have hired her to cater a brit mila or a baby naming and then, more than a decade later, their children’s bar or bat mitzvah celebration. “I’m waiting for the weddings!” she said.
One of those customers, Lynn Kestin Sessler of Edison, said of Barness, “We really couldn’t imagine planning the bat mitzvahs for our daughters without her creativity, flexibility, and expertise. We love her food.”
About a third of those who come to eat at The Orchid aren’t Jewish, said Barness; they just enjoy the Middle Eastern fare and pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, as well as her extensive vegetarian menu. She is happy to go out of her way for customers — one couple posted an on-line review that described the time Barness agreed to stay open to serve them after they were delayed by a tornado alert. “I will stay and make it myself,” she said. “It’s hard for me to say no to someone who wants to eat kosher and doesn’t have another option.” During Sukkot, she serves meals in a sukkah installed behind the restaurant.
The restaurant has been the setting for some romantic encounters. One young man from Lakewood asked Barness to let him use The Orchid as the venue for a marriage proposal. She decorated the table with wine and flowers and huddled with the waiters until closing time, when the man popped the question to his future bride. “They were both very nervous,” Barness recalled.
Two years ago, Barness opened Bistro 70, a kosher restaurant located inside the Hillel on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus, serving sandwiches, pizza, salads, and Israeli specialties like shakshuka. On Friday nights, the restaurant prepares a Shabbat dinner for up to 400 students. Barness greets many of them by name.