Assad Not To Relinquish Power at Geneva Talks
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was seen dining with John Kerry at Naranj in 2009 (Reuters)

It's been a favourite among heads of state since it opened in 2007, but the Naranj restaurant in Damascus is reeling from the strain of Syria's civil war.

Located on the iconic Straight Street in Damascus' old city, the elegant Roman-built restaurant has hosted 37 heads of state over the years.

Just five years ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma were seen entertaining John Kerry and his wife there.

While the Syrian President continues to dine there twice a week, according to Naranj's top chef, the restaurant is struggling to fill its rooftop terrace and the owner had to make a tough choice to open a branch abroad.

The Syrian conflict has now entered its fourth year and there's no end in sight at the moment. The government met with the political opposition for peace talks in Geneva in February, although they ended acrimoniously with no future talks planned. It's in this context that Naranj has opened a new branch outside of Syria.

While other iconic Syrian brands like Bakdash have relocated to Jordan, Syria's neighbour to the south, Naranj's owners decided to move east to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The booming city of Erbil is a far cry from the war-ravaged Syrian capital. Expensive cars decorate the city streets, awash with petrodollars.

While the rest of the country is mired in violence, the autonomous region in Iraq has maintained excellent security. Money has flooded in to its capital Erbil, and Naranj's head chef Talal Nizam decided it was the best place to set up his new venture.

Speaking to the National newspaper, Nizam said that he brought 60 staff with him to Erbil.

"I had a lot of employees in Syria," he said. "They were with me in the successful times, and I didn't want to fire them in the hard times. So I thought the only solution was to branch out."

The chef said that the embattled Syrian president still visits the original branch in Damascus.

"Twice a week, Mr President comes to dine with us at the Damascus branch," Mr Nizam says. "He always says 'put everything aside and give me the burghul.' His favourite is the one with meat.

"Every meal is from a different part of Syria. The burghul is the traditional cuisine from Qaradaha – an Alawite region where the president is from."