Until the conversation turned to freedom of expression.
Shallal, 60, was born in Iraq. In 1966, his father, a diplomat, was assigned to the United States. Two years later, when Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq, Shallal's father was out of political favor.
The family could no longer return to their homeland.
His passions -- food, friends and expression -- led him to open his restaurant called Busboys and Poets, in 2005. There, customers can eat, read, watch performances and express their political views freely.
Shallal expresses himself artistically in many way. At Busboys and Poets hangs a civil rights mural called Peace in the Struggle Wall. Shallal is the painter. He holds leadership positions in numerous peace movement organizations. Among them are Iraqi-Americans for Peaceful Alternatives, created prior to the 2003 invasion, and the Peace Cafe, which seeks to promote Arab-Jewish dialogue.
As you listen to his story, you might find your thoughts and struggles echoed in his words.