First lady Eleanor Roosevelt was among the many dignitaries who visited chef George Mardikian's San Francisco restaurant, Omar Khayyam's. Roosevelt regularly dropped in with wounded servicepeople, who ate for free.Archival / San Francisco Chronicle
The chef who brought shish kebab to America escaped from a Turkish prison first. Somehow, George Mardikian channeled the pain and hunger from his survival of genocide: He went from a dishwasher to a world-famous San Francisco restaurant owner who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and dedicated his life to feeding people.
All of this he did with a smile.
Omar Khayyam’s — an Armenian restaurant with elegant Middle Eastern decor named after an epicurean Persian poet — was destination dining for San Franciscans for more than 40 years at its underground location near the corner of Powell and O’Farrell streets. Celebrities and professionals paid upscale prices while armed service members and refugees ate for free.
Its shish kebab and bulgur pilaf were the main draw for a largely white clientele unfamiliar with such food. But the restaurant drew its life force from, as poet William Saroyan called him, “the big man with the bright face coming over to your table.”
Mardikian was among America’s first celebrity chefs and was as close to a Guy Fieri figure as San Francisco had — in terms of fame, relentless optimism and generosity. Fine-dining guides and Chronicle columnist Herb Caen celebrated him, NBC gave him his own radio show in the 1940s, and he wrote an autobiography and cookbook.
When Omar Khayyam’s went up in flames in 1980, it marked the beginning of the end for Armenian restaurants in San Francisco. Today, no specifically Armenian restaurant exists in the Bay Area.
Mardikian, who died in 1977 at 73 years old, nevertheless inspired many in the food business. One of them was Levon Der Bedrossian, an Armenian who emigrated from Lebanon and opened his first Le Méditeranée in 1979 in San Francisco — it is still serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food there and in Berkeley.
Der Bedrossian’s first memory of Mardikian was as a 12-year-old in Beirut, where he saw Mardikian, in his customary all-white outfit, speak at an Armenian college while traveling to bring Middle Eastern refugees to the U.S.
“I don’t remember any words, but it is a subliminal image,” Der Bedrossian, who is 74 now, told SFGATE. “We all are survivors of the massacre. I consider my parents and grandparents as refugees. Our collective experience has been one of there wasn’t a big role model for us. We were surviving.
“Here is this man as an Armenian who is helping. It was a good role model that made me proud.”
Mardikian’s enthusiastic love for America began before he got here. He was the child of a prosperous, landowning family in present-day Istanbul when his father and other
family members were rounded up and slain by the Ottoman Turkish government in 1915. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the resulting genocide, with many more displaced.
Mardikian sought to fight back as a 15-year-old guerrilla fighter. After Armenia’s independence was briefly recognized in 1918, he organized Boy Scout troops before war broke out against invading Russia. Lt. Mardikian was captured by Turkish forces and imprisoned for about two years, forced to chop ice on a frozen river while fighting starvation.
It may have ended that way if not for some intervention from an American friend Mardikian had made. Capt. Eddie Fox, who was directing Near East Relief, urged Mardikian’s captors to release him on account of his being an American.
The Turks apparently bought the lie. Mardikian boarded a ship for Ellis Island and took a train to San Francisco to join his brother and sister in 1922.
Mardikian often talked of his Ellis Island stopover as a foundational moment in his life, including on Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” radio show in the 1950s. “My feelings when I first saw the Statue of Liberty cannot be described,” he said.
When George Mardikian cooked in his kitchen, he always wore white with a towering hat. (Photo: San Francisco Chronicle)
When Ellis Island opened as a national historic site in 1976, Mardikian was one of six U.S. immigrants honored.
In San Francisco, almost penniless and living with his siblings, Mardikian was hired as a dishwasher at Coffee Dan’s on O’Farrell and Powell.
Mardikian wrote in his cookbook, “Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s,” of his transformative first days in San Francisco, witnessing hundreds of happy beachgoers and walking past people who smiled at him when all he had known was hostility. He vowed to let go of his own anger right there.
“Since then, my ability to smile has been of the greatest help,” Mardikian wrote. “I could smile when I couldn’t talk English, and while I was learning to cook. I think my ability to smile, even when I was losing money, gained me the many friends who have made the restaurants a success.”
Mardikian spent several years working his way up to floor manager at Coffee Dan’s while working hard to eliminate his accent because “I was young and proud and I didn’t want anyone laughing at me,” as he said in a 1962 interview with the Chronicle.
He had been promoted to cook when he received his citizenship in 1928, and he vowed to make food his life’s work.
Mardikian left town and spent two years on an international food odyssey — learning recipes and techniques on cruise liners, working for a master chef in Egypt and reading manuscripts at an Armenian monastery in Venice, Italy.
“It was through these musty, old manuscripts that I came to realize that Armenian cuisine goes back 3,900 years,” he wrote.
After seeing the world, Mardikian settled down in Fresno. Which made sense as a proving ground for Armenian cooking, given it had one of the largest Armenian populations in the U.S. He opened his first Omar Khayyam’s there as a lunch counter in 1930, with his new wife, Nazenig, working as greeter and cashier.
What vaulted an immigrant cook in Fresno to international fame? Says one expert, it was a breakout magazine feature produced by two traveling food writers-slash-secret lovers.
John Birdsall, himself a food author, points to a September 1934 Sunset Magazine article about Mardikian’s food, produced by Genevieve Callahan and Lou Richardson. It included recipes for his shish kebab and brining fresh grape leaves for dolma.
“Gen and Lou discovered these new and exciting foods like tacos, pozole and guacamole and introduced them to Sunset’s white, upper-middle-class readership,” Birdsall told SFGATE, adding that they “were the first to really champion and write about George Mardikian.”
The timing was perfect — America was falling in love with outdoor barbecues and fresh ingredients, and Mardikian was more than happy to share his novel-yet-accessible menu. He became a regular, smiling presence in Sunset, with sketches of him cooking alongside recipes for his Omar Khayyam’s specials, such as chicken tchakhokbelli (braised chicken in tomato juice, sherry and paprika) and rice pilaf.
This page from a 1944 edition of Sunset Magazine's "Sunset Kitchen Cabinet" feature shows cartoons of George Mardikian cooking some of his signature dishes. The page includes his recipe for chicken tchakhokbelli.Screenshot courtesy of John Birdsall
With Omar’s a national hit, Mardikian returned to Coffee Dan’s in San Francisco and promoted himself from dishwasher to owner — according to a Life Magazine article, the sale took 15 minutes.
Omar Khayyam’s opened in 1938 in San Francisco to great acclaim from the Chronicle’s Caen: “Bo-kays to George Mardikian, the Armenian chef whose culinary sleight-of-hand is drawing the celebrities to Omar Khayyam’s,” he wrote that year.
As Caen intimated, Mardikian was as brilliant a marketer as he was a chef. He found a way to present his culture, best known to white Americans as working class and downtrodden, in a storybook dining setting ("Omar Khayyam" was a feature film in 1957). People dressed up and eagerly descended the stairs to a low-lit, walnut-paneled space with murals on the walls depicting scenes from the Rubaiyat poems attributed to the real-life Khayyam, who died in 1131.
“You felt your emotions get stirred up there,” said Der Bedrossian, who visited Omar Khayyam’s soon after emigrating to San Francisco in 1968.
Birdsall, whose San Francisco roots date to his great-grandparents, said he first heard of the restaurant from seeing a menu that his grandmother had saved: “She told me what a special restaurant that was and what a special occasion it was to go eat there. It had a kind of glamour.”
As the décor blended cultural influences, so did the food. Many who first walked in would have never tried shish kebab and pilaf, but Mardikian’s menu included baked ham and roast turkey for the uninitiated.
Shish kebab’s origins span the Middle East and Caucasus region, and they aren’t specifically Armenian. But khorovadz, as Mardikian referred to it in Armenian in his cookbook, “is to Armenians what corned beef and cabbage is to the Irish.”
Mardikian used Armenian lore to broaden his menu’s appeal. Such as his arkayagan venison soup, which he said dated 3,900 years to when an Armenian king would serve it as a victory stew to his court. And he was a passionate advocate for the health benefits of yogurt, which Armenians played the leading role in bringing to Americans.
To find the starter to make your own yogurt at home, Mardikian wrote, “just open any telephone book and find a name ending with ‘ian.’” (Most Armenians, including this writer, have such a name.)
Describing food as “exotic” has rightfully fallen out of favor in recent years. But the word was often used to describe Omar’s as it gained popularity, even as critics praised the food for its quality regardless of origin.
Katherine Kerry called Mardikian “undoubtedy America’s best known and best loved restaurateur” in her 1953 restaurant guide, “Look What’s Cooking.” She described the fare as “genuine Armenian delicacies, cooked up to American tastes, rather than down to American conceptions.”
Mardikian didn't just appeal to tastes — he made them, too. When he released the Omar's Delight cocktail to help his friend sell more Southern Comfort, the restaurant accounted for more sales of the liquor than the rest of San Francisco combined, according to a 1951 Chronicle story.
Mardikian quickly went from attracting celebrities to becoming one himself, hosting a weekly radio show for NBC where he shared recipes and received hundreds of letters per episode. He put his fame to philanthropic use often. During World War II, dignitaries such as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt often dropped by with service members, whom he personally served for free. He served 210 wounded soldiers from Bay Area hospitals on Thanksgiving 1943 alone.
That paled in contrast to the amount of feeding he did during the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco in 1945. For nine weeks, 282 delegates from 50 nations, plus their staff, ate food he catered for free in the basement of the Opera House. According to the Life article, that was almost 2,000 meals in three hours, five times a week, with 500 members of the American Women’s Voluntary Services helping.
According to the Life article, Mardikian told a Turkish delegation member eating his food, “A few years ago my greatest joy would have been to put poison in your eggplant just because you are a Turk. But now that I am an American I feel no animosity.”
Mardikian took his culinary skills abroad as a food consultant for the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1954. His efforts to better feed Army troops in Korea were enough to earn him America’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom from President Harry Truman in 1951. He consulted for subsequent presidents up through Richard Nixon.
The Chronicle’s obituary for Mardikian said, “He liked to tell army mess sergeants that they were competing with every soldier's mother and that they had better use their wits to convert a slice of Spam into something more appetizing and attractive.”
So concerned was Mardikian with conserving food during World War II, he issued 10% refunds to diners in war stamps if they would simply clean their plates.
When Mardikian made humanitarian visits, he didn’t just bring back souvenirs. He sponsored and employed Armenian refugees. One such case was Yousef Injian, who came to San Francisco with his family after he cooked for Mardikian at the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem. Mardikian sponsored and hosted at his restaurant another 13 Armenians who survived a Nazi forced labor camp.
Mardikian split time living at his home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and his 300-acre ranch in St. Helena until he died at age 73 in October 1977 of a heart attack. Omar Khayyam’s lived on for three more years, when a fire broke out inside the restaurant, badly damaging the famed interior and forcing it to close.
The restaurant maintained its magic even after Mardikian had gone. Roseanna Sarkissian recalls dining at Omar Khayyam’s on New Year’s Eve of 1978, less than three months after his death. She was 18 and had just moved to San Francisco from Iran months earlier. She had never heard of the restaurant and knew only one person in her group that night, a family friend.
The paintings on the wall and elegant decor struck her, as did the pilaf — even after growing up in an Armenian household, it was different from what she’d eaten, and she loved it.
“It was overwhelming for me,” she told SFGATE. “That’s when I realized there are Armenian restaurants and how well known this was around the world. I had no idea.”
Greg Keraghosian is an SFGATE homepage editor. Before joining SFGATE in 2016 he was an associate editor at Yahoo Travel. He was born in San Francisco, grew up in the Los Angeles area and graduated from the University of Southern California.