BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
On the last day of the Golden Apricot Film Festival, the buzz was to see the controversial and Avant-garde Swedish movie, “The Square,” that had won the top film prize of Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After watching the late screening of that movie, the press was invited to have a discussion about it at the The Club
It was well past midnight when I left The Club. On my way home, I stopped at the 24-hour SAS supermarket to buy a few necessary items for breakfast. There, I saw a big line. It came to no surprise, to see so many people, because life goes on late into the night in Yerevan.
Only two cash registers were open, and people were quarreling and nagging that the line was not moving fast enough. Armenians are warm blooded people and don’t have that standoffish or reserved attitude of northern Europeans. They never shy away to express their discontents. I gathered my groceries, paid, then trudged home on Mashtots Avenue.
Most cafés and business had wound down, and some cafés were still putting away tables and chairs. However, the Santa Fe café, at the corner of Mashtots and Moskovian, was still open. That sprawling café, perhaps the largest in Yerevan, had gone through a major renovation for two years, and now it sparkled with a slick and stylish look in its new trendy design, with white canvas ceilings and awnings.
At around 2 a.m., I crossed Santa Fe and arrived at my home on Cascade. At that wee hour of the night, Café France, that serves alcoholic beverages and desserts, was still open. As I was about to cross that café to arrive at my apartment, a guy stood up right in front of me, threw his hands up in the air, and in English with a tinge of a European accent, announced, “I am in love with Armenia!”
What? I couldn’t casually go around him and ignore what I had heard, so I stopped. My sleepy eyes widened, and I said, “Wow! That’s an interesting statement.”
He turned toward me, and I saw his happy face. He hugged me, and said, “Shnor-hakal-em.” (thank you in Armenian) He was wearing a turban. He continued, “This is my seventh time in Armenia.”
I said, “I’m a journalist, and I’m curious to know why you like Armenia so much.”
He invited me to sit down with him and his companions. The café was about to close, but they took his order, opened a bottle of champagne, and brought very delicious pastries, which I couldn’t resist.
The man was with his husband and their Armenian friend. We sat around a small round table, and our conversation began. It turned out that he was a young Polish doctor. I love this new generation of doctors—they’re so cool. He had started a foundation to offer palliative care for terminally ill Armenian children with hydrocephalus, a disease that causes liquid in the brain—his specialty.
After serving champagne and pastries, the servers left. They told us that we could stay at the café as long as we wanted. Café France is not enclosed; everything is out in the open. And since it offers alcoholic drinks, the café keeps an overnight guard on site to prevent theft.
We stayed there until around 3 a.m. and had a lovely conversation. Lucas, the young doctor, told me, “This is the reason that I love Armenia. People are very hospitable and friendly.” He continued, “Where else would a cafe invite you to stay after they’re closed”— only in Yerevan.
Since I brought you to this corner, let me tell you a little bit about my neighborhood and Yerevan in general, and what makes people fall in love with it.
Yerevan’s lively social scene is quite unique. Where else, at midnight, would you see pedestrians of all ages and tourists crowding the sidewalks—where young parents happily push strollers as if it’s early in the evening, and where chatty teenagers hand in hand, cling to each other and their laughters fill the air? Or if you find yourself, late at night, in front of the Opera Square, you might be amused to see kids enjoying rides on electric cars. Only in Yerevan.
Another cheerful aspect of Yerevan is its phenomenal café culture, which has flourished since 1991, when Soviet Union dissolved and Armenia became independent.
I often find myself thinking about how many cafés there might be. To me, seems endless dining and entertainment options—many more than in any other city that I’ve visited. The reason might be that the bulk of the cafés are centralized in a small radius within walking distance.
Cascade, where I live, is a very popular promenade area, which is connected to a cultural center, built during Soviet times in the 1970s. The building is flanked by a hillside, and has several landings, with beautiful architecturally landscaped areas, decked with water fountains, and million-dollar art pieces out in the open air and also inside galleries and museums. It’s an awe inspiring, one of a kind, monumental structure.
The promenade area of Cascade, is surrounded by numerous cafés and restaurants. To count the number of cafés, I went up and down on Tamanyan Street, and then crossed east to the west on Isahakyan. My leisure walk took maybe 15 minutes. In that short distance, I counted over twenty-five cafés, bars, and restaurants. Some of them have been around for many years, and some have mushroomed relatively recent, maybe within the past year or two.
The oldest food business in the area is Smak. I went to see its owner, Karineh Badalyan, who started the business in November of 1997— exactly 20 years ago. Smak is a buffet-style restaurant that offers mainly salads and a few hot dishes.
My first question to her was about the name. She said, “In Latin, smak (without a c) means a tasty food.” I checked the word smack in an English dictionary and I found that it has a similar meaning: A taste, especially a slight flavor distinctive or suggestive of something.
My second question to her was about the concept behind starting a buffet-type eatery. She said, “My father was a Soviet diplomat, and we had the opportunity to visit European cities. The idea of offering food as buffet came from there.” Initially, the business operated as a takeout. In 2004, she added a few hot dishes and a few tables, so people could sit and eat. Little by little, she made a few more changes. Today, there are eleven tables, and the business is thriving.
The day I went to see her, she had fresh roses on the tables. She said she makes sure to always have fresh flowers, and, of course, cleanliness is her priority. Every morning, Ms. Badalyan comes to work at 7:30, and she herself starts the food preparation. Her employees come at 9:30. The business is open every day from 11am to 9pm. Her 30-year-old son is a great help in managing the business.
Next, I went to have lunch at Studio Café, which has been around since 2001—the same year we bought our apartment at Cascade. There, my favorite dish is borsht (Russian soup). Studio Café is more of a restaurant than a café. It has casual indoor/outdoor seating, with a delicious homemade menu. It is located at the promenade area, tucked under 50-year-old grapevines, and behind the huge black bronze cat (by Fernando Botero).
Until 1991, Armenia was under Soviet rule, and there were only a handful of restaurants in the whole city of Yerevan, operated by the government. This year, when I arrived in Yerevan, at Cascade, at the corner of Isahakyan and Tamanyan, a new restaurant had opened. The decor caught my attention. Inside, on the top of a tall wall, a vintage Soviet era car from the 60s had pushed open the bricks and was hanging from the wall as a sculptured decor. There also was a vintage telephone booth placed outside the restaurant.
I asked the general manager of the restaurant about the decor. He said, “Many years ago, during Soviet times, at this very corner there was a popular restaurant called Temourentz, because the name of the chef was Temour.
A few of my friends who were in Yerevan during that period, remember how they enjoyed the restaurant and the food, which mainly was kebob of sausage and roasted potatoes. The new Temourentz, just like the old one, offers the same food. I didn’t dine there, but seemed pretty popular— it was always crowded. And I could see trays of roasted potatoes and sausages.
Right next to Temourentz is the Wine Republic Restaurant on Isahakyan street. Here you cannot get the traditional Armenian food. I heard someone call it, “a piece of Paris in Yerevan.” Indeed, it is. It has both outside and inside seating, with a great one-of-a-kind ambiance and an international menu.
Wine Republic is right across from my windows, and I can see that the crowd stays past 1:30 AM. The restaurant opened its doors two years ago. I would say the Wine Republic is the most popular restaurant in the Cascade area.
Another unique aspect of Yerevan is safe streets. Not long ago, one late night in Yerevan, after midnight, I was walking home, and I saw an electronics store which was still open. The name of the store, on Tumanyan Street, was Hi-phone. I stepped inside to ask a question about a wrist-watch that measures steps, heart beats, etc. There was only one sales person. The store was open 24 hours. On the shelves were numerous iPhones, iPads, and other expensive electronic devices.
It occurred to me that if a gang were to enter the store, they could in no time steal items worth of thousands of dollars. I asked him, “Isn’t it dangerous to have the door open this late at night, with you here by yourself?” And he said, “So far, so good, and if anything happens, I have a bell under my desk, which is connected to the Police.” I thought that’s a wishful thinking. If it’s a robbery, who will have time to push a button? You will also see this, only in Yerevan.
Interestingly, according to Numbeo statistics, Yerevan, with a safety index of 69.42, ranks 30th among the 141 safest cities around the globe. (Numbeo is an online database which provides statistics for crime and safety.) With my experience, I thought Yerevan might have ranked higher in the safety scale.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, I saw an opposite situation. In the neighborhood of Palermo Hollywood, where I was staying, the mom and pop grocery stores after 9pm rolled down the outside steel shutters and left only a small opening for someone to buy items like a pack of cigarettes or a carton of milk. The shopkeepers stayed inside the store and helped the clients from that tiny hole.
It’s true, Yerevan is charming. For some people including myself, it creates a state of euphoria. Here, I’ve opened a window for you to see a few slivers of the enchanting Yerevan and why the young Polish doctor had fallen in love with Armenia.