Sometimes I think we live a little bit out of sync with everyone else. On weekends, particularly, we tend to start our days late. We get up late, and if we get out of the house, it's also late. This means we're usually hungry around 3 pm - which is just the wrong time. It's when lunch is over but dinner hasn't begun.
Some places are busy enough and eclectic enough that this doesn't matter, but other times we've missed out on lunch, or else we arrive at an empty restaurant.
This was the case one Saturday after a trip to the Norton Simon Museum, The museum is in Pasadena, which is some 40 miles east of our home, Topanga. On our way home, we checked out the Yelp app on my phone, and came up with an option for lunch in Glendale.
|Note the restaurant across the street|
Glendale, CA is home to one of the largest Armenian-American communities in the US, so when we came up with Old Gyumri, it sounded intriguing. The address, on San Fernando Road, was in a stretch of auto repair shops and tile and flooring showrooms. A low, cinderblock building occupied a parking lot, empty except for a pearly-cream Audi nosing out the driveway, a glamorous blonde at the wheel, wearing oversized dark glasses and grimacing at our little Honda interrupting her line of sight to make the turn.
"Do you think it's open?"
"The listing said good for lunch and dinner," I said. "Look, the door's open."
The entry, through an arched door fashioned from heavy wooden planks, was tiled and had a trickling wall-fountain. The dark room to one side was furnished with tables and chairs; to the other side was a room that seemed to be bisected by a wooden fence. Just inside the door, a bar stocked with fancy bottles glittered, and a propped door opened onto a kitchen hallway humming with machinery and thrumming fluorescent light. There wasn't a soul to be found.
"Hello?" It was hard to tell whether the sounds in the kitchen were human or simply mechanical.
"Hello, are you guys open?" We wandered through the darkened dining room. The furnishings were rustic-looking, rough-hewn pine. A small stage carpeted in black, with speakers flanking it, was wedged into a corner. We peeked into a private dining alcove, lined with more rustic fencing, but it was a dead end. We turned back toward the open kitchen door.
Just as we were about to leave, a young dark-haired woman in waiters' black-and-white appeared in the kitchen doorway. "Are you open to serve food?" we asked.
"To eat here, if we can," we said, and she looked at us as if we were asking something bizarre and strange, but then she pushed at the wooden fence, which opened to reveal a dining booth, motioning us to sit down.
In halting English, she offered us menus and took our drink orders. There was much gesturing back and forth to assure that my order was a glass of white wine, not a bottle. As she left us to get the drinks, we looked around in amazement.
|The view out the stockade doors|
So far, before even looking at the menu, the place was extraordinary.
The menu, though, is intriguing. Armenian cuisine is often similar to Mid-Eastern cuisine, with kebabs and hummus, but here there were other items we didn't recognize. Salads, soups, hot appetizers were all new words to us. The entrees included the usual kebab, but also oxtail stews, lamb chops, beef stroganov and sturgeon. The waitress said she was Russian - we wondered if perhaps Old Gyumri was more influenced by Russian culture than by Lebanese.
I would have liked to know more about the unusual entrees, but I was a little abashed about the language barrier. We ordered two appetizers - pickled vegetables and an eggplant dip. [The Man I Love] ordered the grilled pork ribs and I ordered Luleh Kebab, which is a kebab of chopped beef. Both were served with rice and grilled vegetables.
It wasn't until we finished our meal that we saw anyone other than the young waitress. Then the proprietor came to introduce himself. "Old Gyrumi" he explained, refers to an historic city in Armenia, one with a rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, much of the old city was destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1988. We were given a tour of the custom charcoal-fueled brazier that turned out the delicious grilled meats. And he proudly showed us the imported Armenian brandy - much of it aged over ten years. We heard how people flocked to hear great Russian and Armenian music and dancing on weekend evenings.
|Selection of brandies|
"Oh, no," he said. "We buy these from Mexico." The restaurant, he explained, with its arch-topped windows, tilework and rustic wood, had been a Mexican restaurant before he bought it. There were many craftsmen in Mexico, he said, where you could get furnishing like this at a very good price.
|In the stockade|
Los Angeles. Where nothing is quite what it seems to be.