Yet another place that has gone away. I call it a place more than a restaurant because my Mother and Father used to talk about it all the time as a place you didn’t just go to eat, but you went to experience. There used to be more restaurants like that in San Francisco, but many of them have gone aways now.
Omar Khayyam’s was started by Armenian George Mardikian in 1947 in San Francisco [after he opened a restaurant of the same name in Fresno, CA]. While it was billed as an Armenian restaurant it really had a couple of Armenian dishes with Middle eastern and African mixed in after they were adapted for the American palate. When it opened there was a decent sized minority of Armenians in San Francisco, but the food was still pretty foreign to most people even in San Francisco at the time. You have to remember that back then spaghetti was considered ethnic food.
You can see on the menu I was able to find that there really wasn’t much special by today’s standards, but at the time George Mardikian was a restauranteur which for the time meant he wasn’t just a chef, but a showman as well. Mardikian started as a freedom fighter back when Armenia was having problems with the Ottoman Empire in 1903. His surname was that of the warriors being that Mardik meant warrior in Armenian. He work eventually led him to leave Armenia and come to the US around 1922. He went through Ellis Island and started life in the US in New York before moving west and ending up eventually in San Francisco.
He was very influential here and when he opened Omar Khayyam’s downstairs at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell there were pictures of him circulating around that showed him breaking bread with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt alone with other notables in local politics. As you walked down the stairs upon entering you would be met by the Rubiyat Lounge with it’s velvet tablecloths. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to clean those if you think about it.
Mr. Mardikian also served as a food consultant to the U.S. Army which if you think about someone who served ethnic food to the public being hired to construct food for our armed forces then it must have been pretty good food. He introduced the public to flatbread, probably a form of pita that would last longer than your average loaf and still be tasty so I could see why he was asked for advice.
From the day it opened until it eventually burned down in the 80’s Omar Khayyam’s was a well known restaurant. It was the type of place that it didn’t matter if you could pay the bill, you still had to put a suit on to eat there. While I won’t get into that argument here there was a time when having to get dressed up for dinner was a part of the whole ritual of going out to eat.
I have to say I came a bit late to learning about falafel, but when I did I happened to find the best place in the city to get it and that is the Sunrise Deli. They specialize in Middle-Eastern cuisine which means it could be based on just about any country there so expect to see a few variations [definitely not Egyptian based as those falafel are made with fava beans]. Opening in 1984 at 2115 Irving Street this location has expanded to serve a total of three locations in San Francisco and one in Berkeley.
Falafel tends to be on the greasy side and should be eaten as soon as it comes out of the fryer. I’m not sure what type of oil they use here, but it not greasy compared to other places and the taste holds up even after it’s sat for awhile. I know this because we were looking for an inexpensive way to serve up food to people at my daughter’s first birthday so we decided to go to the Sunrise Deli.
There is a lot more to this place than just falafel, but that’s what brings you into the store usually. I’ve gotten a lot of my friends hooked on the fried paste that’s made from dried chickpeas [garbanzo beans], onion, garlic, parsley and a few other spices and fried up into little hockey pucks as my cousin who’d never had them before called them. I like to dip them in hummus which is actually a little like falafel that hasn’t been fried with more olive oil mixed in, but they can be stuffed into pita bread with a host of other ingredients and served as a sandwich.
Speaking of sandwiches, I tried the shawarma one day that in some places looks more like a middle eastern burrito rather than the way they are truly made, but stuffing the contents into a half a pita bread. There’s usually some chicken or lamb involved with onions, tomatoes and other grilled vegetables topped with some tahini sauce and pickles and these are wonderful. Their vegetarian plate will appeal to vegans since there are no animal products involved at all.
The best part about the Irving Street location is the price. I won’t knock them because I know that downtown rents are expensive, but a half dozen falafel is less expensive on Irving Street than it is downtown and since they’re so close to us that makes it an even better bargain. When we called in the order for my daughter’s party we had more than enough to feed a crowd of about 30 people for a little over $50. Of course we had the tabouli, babaganoush and olives as well as the pickled turnips [those are the pink strips in the picture that if you don’t tell someone what they are they’ll try them and tell you they’re quite good]. We rounded it out with several of their fresh sesame seed bread rings.
On a weekend when you want something that you can say it fried, but light the falafel at the Sunrise Deli is the place to go.
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