It is not impossible to eat by yourself at Old Gyumri, an Armenian restaurant in Glendale unlike any other, but it definitely would be difficult. That’s because the portions are, as a rule, massive — big even for a twosome. They’re made for four or more.
Thanks to the unique physicality of the place, large parties are found everywhere. In the semi-private spaces that fill the entry room, where picket fence-like doors block the visibility of the groups within. And most notably on the unexpected, sprawling patio in the back — where large parties, many of 20 or more, consume staggering portions of extraordinary Armenian cooking. In, to repeat myself, a space like none other.
Old Gyumri is named for the second largest city in Armenia. (The largest is Yerevan on the Hrazdan River, which is one of the oldest cities in the world; it’s been around for more than 2,800 years!) Old Gyumri the restaurant feels as if it could be about that old, or at least ancient in Glendale terms, a curious fortress-like building with, of all things, a metal stagecoach on the roof. A metal stagecoach drawn by two metal horses, tarnished with what seems like, from below, rust; it’s the darndest thing. But then, so are those picket fences inside the dining room. And the oversized white curtains that provide complete privacy on the outdoor patio. Dining areas that come with…couches! Where am I?
Old Gyumri, an Armenian special occasion restaurant in Glendale, has plenty of dining space for large groups. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)
The staff at Old Gyumri is affable, though far as I could tell, not a lot of English is spoken. And since my knowledge of the Armenian language is little to none, communication had its moments. And Old Gyumri is such a destination for large groups of Armenian locals celebrating special events, there was a certain amount of surprise to have a non-Armenian show up for dinner. I didn’t feel like an outsider. But I definitely felt like visitor to another world, maybe even a stranger in a strange land. More than any of the many Armenian restaurants in Glendale, Old Gyumri is a door into another reality.
The common language here, of course, is culinary. Many of the dishes are very familiar to those of us who like to eat around. Hummus, tabbouleh, borscht, a quartet of kabobs, baby back ribs, beef stroganoff — superb versions, served, as I said, in heroic portions to be shared with the hungry multitude. The hummus is a wonder, and more garlicky than most, which is not a complaint. The tabbouleh salad seemed especially lemony, the kabobs had a notable crispness to them that I appreciated; I love texture as much as taste.
It’s easy enough to select nothing but dishes we know well — look, chicken soup! lentil soup! Greek salad! — but the challenge for me is to go for dishes that ring no bells, at what may well be the least Americanized Armenian restaurant in town. There are few restaurants offering ghavurma (beef fried in butter, then sliced like a terrine and served cold surrounded by a layer of congealed butter).
There’s also a dish called plech — a wonderful name, and a wonderful dish, though it was a bit of a disappointment to find it was just barbecued potatoes. And what a surprise to discover that ajika, the Armenian equivalent of salsa, can actually be found bottled at, of all places, Trader Joe’s. I do love living in a multi-ethnic city — though sometimes the reach of that multi-ethnicity can stagger. Can…and does.
Along with the chicken soup, the lentil soup and the borscht (heavy with cabbage, in the style of the region), there’s a deeply green sorrel based soup called aveluk; sorrel is indigenous to Armenia. It’s THE Armenian herb. There’s also a lamb and garbanzo soup called piti. And a yogurt and barley soup, served hot or cold, called spas.
More notable, the soups are big enough to be main dishes. As are the red beet salad, the eggplant salad, and the Russian minced meat salad with sour cream and mayo called stolichni. Which is both fun to eat, and to say.
But then, if you get the soup or the salad as a main, you’ll miss içki-bir, a lamb heart and lung barbecue entrée. The pot roast is jarko. The marinated Cornish hen is topaka. The fried sausage and potatoes, a real country dish, is temur. The pork barbecue is xryashik — possibly the only dish I’ve ever seen that begins with an “X”! Goat meat is tonri gar. Cow’s foot soup is khash.
Most of the folks sitting on the long patio tables seem to order one of the group combos, for five, 10 or 20. The combo for 20 costs $300. That’s $15 a person, for a lot of food. And an amazing evening, that takes you far from Glendale, across the world to Old Gyumri.
Celebrate with the local yogurt drink called tan. It won’t get you drunk. But it tastes like a night in Armenia.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]
- Rating: 3 stars
- Address: 4441 San Fernando Road, Glendale
- Information: 818-550-0448; www.oldgyumri.com
- Cuisine: An Armenian special occasion restaurant, with tables and rooms everywhere, all of them for groups that are large and even larger. It’s a journey to another land, in one of the quirkiest spaces in town — what is that stagecoach doing on the roof?
- When: Lunch and dinner, every day
- Details: Soft drinks. Reservations are essential — so is going with a group.
- Prices: About $45 per person
- Suggested dishes: 21 Appetizers ($3-$30); 4 Sandwiches ($12), 9 Salads ($15-$20), 6 Soups ($15), 29 Entrees ($16-$40)
- Credit cards: MC, V
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)