Dinner at Omar Khayyam's

George Mardikian, who named his celebrated San Francisco restaurant "Omar Khayyam's," acts on a charade from the best-known lines of that Persian poet's Rubaiyat. He holds "a loaf of bread" (in this case, unleavened Armenian lavash) and stands symbolically beside figures representing "a book of verses," "a jug of wine" and (face at top) "Thou".

To the 1,500 delegates, advisers and assistants at the United Nations Conference at San Francisco, the most favorably known man in America unquestionably is George Magar Mardikian. Other eminent Americans, such as Senator VandenbergSecretary Stettinius and Commander Stassen, have stirred a certain amount of interest, but by comparison they are transitory figures. The delegates see Mardikian almost every day and he’s a man not easily overlooked nor forgotten. His 220-pound ambling body is clad in spotless white, and his round, bald head is crowned with a towering chef’s cap two feet tall.

George Mardikian, once a genuine starving Armenian, now palpably well fed, is the semi-official chef of the Conference. Five times a week—with the help of about 500 working ladies of the American Women’s Voluntary Services—he feeds the delegates lunch and tea in the spacious basement of the San Francisco Opera House. A large number of delegates have dinner at his restaurant, the famous Omar Khayyam’s, where they stuff on ajem pilaff, shish kebab, kuzu kzartma, chakhokhbili, rose-petal ice cream, baklava and other exotic dishes of the Near East. Mardikian loves to watch them enjoy themselves with his cuisine. As an artist he is proud of his creations, but as an American whose heart is filled sincerely and 110% with love for America, he is even more grateful for the opportunity this gives him to deliver his message to the visiting diplomats. Briefly stated (Mardikian states it at length) the message is this: America is wonderful. Over here the people don’t fight all the time. Look! When I came here I couldn’t speak the language. I had no money. Now I have money and fine homes. In my country I would be humiliated to be a cook; in America I am proud.

Arshad Al-Omari and Nasrat Al-Farsy (right) dine every evening at Omar Khayyam's. To every delegate Mardikian willingly recites the story of his success.

A believer in food and people, Mardikian was one of the first to realize that both would be great factors in any gathering to determine future international security. Soon after the announcement that San Francisco had been chosen as the site of the United Nations Conference, he declared in a letter to Mayor Roger Lapham, “Peace in our time can well depend on whether we soothe or insult the gastronomic tastes of our guests… A good dinner will put any man in a conciliatory frame of mind. A bad one will make him quarrelsome and disputatious.” So saying, he developed a plan to marshal the city’s restaurants into a united food front.

The ladies of the A.W.V.S. had volunteered to handle the serving of lunches at the Opera House. It was soon apparent, however, that they didn’t have any idea of what preparing almost 2,000 meals in three hours five times a week could mean. An official of the War Food Administration called Mardikian early one morning. “Look George, these ladies have signed up for a tremendous job. They’ve got to have help.”

Mardikian instructs A.W.V.S. ladies who help him prepare and serve food for the delegates. Since taking on the job Mardikian has lost 23 pounds, now weighs 220.

“Is it a pay job?” asked Mardikian. “No? Then I’ll take it.”

Armenian food is served at the Opera House only once a week and homesick delegates form the Near East quickly found their way to Omar Khayyam’s. The Iraqis dine there every night, as do the Arabs and Egyptians, with sprinklings of Bolivians, Liberians, etc. Mardikian, who once never ventured from his home without a rock in his pocket in fear of Turks, finds his food popular with the Turkish delegation. “A few years ago my greatest joy would have been to put poison in your eggplant just because you are a Turk,” he told a member of the delegation. “But now that I am an American I feel no animosity.” For each delegation he cooks the things they like best: for the Saudi Arabians, lahmajoun, a glorified hamburger baked on a round dough base; for Egyptians, foul, a concoction of dried fava beans, and lulé kebab, a highly seasoned ground meat broiled on a skewer; for the Iraqis, their favorite dish, kibbe, a baked combination of cracked wheat, meat, Damascus nuts and currants.

The Saga of Mardikian

Mardikian tells his story to each delegate. “Sometimes,” he says, “I go home and my throat is dry I talked so much. I tell them all about America and about Mardikian, the cook.” His round face shines, his small mustache seems to quiver, his deep-brown eyes are serious and his voice is low when he tells them the Mardikian saga, a story fanciful and impressive.

He was born in Papert, Armenia, on November 7, 1900, and the first years of his life were spent in Constantinople, where his father was a prosperous commission merchant. By 15 he was a cavalryman in an Armenian guerilla legion loosely attached to the anti-Turk Russian army, primarily a brigade of revenge-seekers out to kill Turks. In 1920, when the Armenians and Turkey were fighting, Mardikian again joined the army and was captured by the Turks. He managed to escape and finally reached Dr. Clarence Usher, an American missionary who cared for his injuries and let him have the uniform of a Near East relief worker. Thus garbed, he returned to Constantinople and embarked for America an hour before the Turks came to arrest him.

America was puzzling to him. “Even the people in uniform were smiling. In my country people in uniform have to be mean and domineering.” He crossed the country (eight days by coach) with a lapel label announcing his destination. “I know how hard it is for foreigners to get things to eat in a strange country,” he says. “For eight days I ate nothing but potato salad because I knew how that looked on the men u wand was afraid to point to anything else.

Soon after he arrived in San Francisco in 1922 he got a job in Coffee Dan’s, a basement restaurant which specialized in ham and eggs and furnished little mallets for customers to beat time to the music. As a dishwasher, far removed from this clatter, he got $12 a week, with every other Sunday off. He hasn’t yet quite got over his initial thrill that water is given away in America and that he, a dishwasher, could go to the opera. He moved from Coffee Dan’s to a cafeteria ($14 a week) and then to a chain restaurant ($18). By 1929 he had become general manager of the chain.

Somewhere along in here, although the dates and details vary as widely as the pronunciation of “chakhokhbili,” Mardikian signed as a steward on a world-cruise boat, stopping off from time to time to work with various chefs and to pore through ancient manuscripts on cooking in the Armenian monastery on St. Lazarus island. At any rate, supposedly laden with recipes, he reached Fresno, California, the Armenian center of the U.S. in 1929. He had $2,200 and a four-year-old idea for a restaurant of his own: a place to be called Omar Khayyam’s after the epicurean Persian poet, where he would serve the dishes of Armenia.

Omar Khayyam's, at the corner of Powell St and O'Farrell St.

In this first restaurant, Mardikian both cooked and waited on tables. His wife Nazenig (which means dainty in Armenian) was the greeter and cashier. A few years later he opened a larger restaurant in Fresno. By 1937 the Mardikians had saved some money and were planning a European trip. Then, one day, George walked into the old Coffee Dan location and 15 minutes later he had bought it. He decorated it with walnut paneling and pictures of scenes from the Rubaiyat with verses underneath; and early in 1938 the present Omar Khayyam’s of San Francisco was launched on the spot where Mardikian had started 16 years before as a dishwasher.

Then to the Lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean'd, the Secret of my Life to learn;
And Lip to Lip it murmur'd"While you live,
Drink!for, once dead, you never shall return."

In the blue room of his Nob Hill apartment overlooking San Francisco bay Mardikian reads Saroyan.

Now, although he still cooks, Mardikian’s heart is in his missionary work. Rolling around his restaurant, visiting every table, he explains the food he serves, suggests exotic delicacies and invariably gets in a plug for America. Whenever he can he invites Conference delegates to his opulent Nob Hill apartment to show them what a hard-working cook can achieve in America. He shows them his oils and water colors, the magnificent view, the hammered bronze covers from a 1,200-year-old Bible, the books autographed by famous authors, inevitably including William Saroyan, and lets them tread deep rugs and sink in soft sofas.

A few weeks ago he cooked a royal meal for the Saudi Arabian delegation aboard a new tanker in San Francisco Bay ($30 a plate for 200 people). “I was the first to greet the crown prince, H. R. H. Faisal Ibn Abdul Faliz. And after I finished serving, I changed my clothes and I was his interpreter. In my country people don’t even approach royalty and there I was talking to him about America, talking on equal terms. How far do you think a cook would get with him in Saudi Arabia?

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The preceding was first published on June 4, 1945 in a Life magazine article by Robert De Roos entitled “George Mardikian Dispenses Armenian Food and American Sentiment to Conference Delegates.”