Dinner at Omar Khayyam's: How George Mardikian Introduced Middle Eastern Food to America
For over 50 years, George Mardikian stood at the helm of Omar Khayyam’s, his world famous restaurant in downtown San Francisco. Customers from all echelons came to 200 Powell Street not just to indulge in once-exotic dishes like shish kebab and dolma, but to mingle with the energetic and passionate Mardikian himself, which LIFE magazine once referred to as “the most favorable man in America.”
Mardikian, an Armenian-American immigrant, revolutionized Middle Eastern cuisine in America, introducing masses to the spices and flavors of a far away, unfamiliar world. But his journey to renowned restaurateur as well as philanthropist was an arduous one, marred with trauma and hardship before he reached the gates of Ellis Island to begin his new life.
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, George Magar Mardikian grew up in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in a prominent Armenian family. Both his father and mother’s side suffered casualties during the Armenian Genocide - his father was one of the intellectual leaders of the Armenian community rounded up and arrested on April 24, which marked the beginning of the mass killings and several members of his mother’s family were also killed.
In an attempt to avenge their deaths, he joined the Armenian Legion to help a newly yet short-lived independent Armenia in its early days by organizing boy scout troops. But as the Russians advanced from one side, he was captured by Turks along with 200 others and thrown into a concentration camp where he was forced to spend his days chopping ice.
When Captain Eddie Fox, his friend and district director of the Near East Relief heard Mardikian was in prison, he demanded his release on the account of Mardikian being an American. Of course, Fox had made up the story to earn his friend’s release, but it was Mardikian’s first brush with a country who he would be enamored by for the rest of his life. As he describes in a This I Believe story he recorded in the 1940s, “I became an American before I became an American.”
With their help he escaped to Alexandropol (present day Gyumri) and worked at a Near East Relief orphanage with some 20,000 Armenian children who had survived the Genocide, before eventually having to flee again as Armenia came under Soviet rule.
With the help of his sister and her husband who had left for America years before, Mardikian secured passage on a Greek steamer and made his way to New York, where the beginnings of his American identity formed right in the showers at Ellis Island.
“I washed away the grime, and I washed away all the hatred and injustice and cruelty I had known, all the hunger, all the weeping, all the pain,” Mardikian writes. “It was as though I had been reborn, as though I were a completely new human being, a taller, stronger, prouder man - an American.”
After taking a train across the U.S., he reunited with his sister, her husband as well as his brother in San Francisco, eventually finding work as a dishwasher and moving his way in the city’s restaurant industry to become a manager.
Settling on his dream of wanting to help Americans learn to eat better, he quit his job and secured a spot as a steward on the luxury liner, the President Wilson, where he toured the world trying new cuisines and sharing meals with Armenian Diasporans in the food business from Shanghai, Singapore and Egypt as well as pouring over ancient Armenian recipes in the library on the Venetian-Armenian Island of St. Lazarus, which he hoped to adapt for American palates.
He also married his wife Nazenig, who was instrumental in helping Mardikian bring Omar Khayyam’s restaurant to life.
After a four month journey across the world, Mardikian arrived back in California and opened his first restaurant - Omar Khayyam’s - in Fresno. Named after the Persian epicurean poet, the restaurant operated under the motto “The Food of Good Quality” and debuted right in the middle of the Great Depression. Despite the recession, Omar Khayyam’s restaurant became so successful, it led Mardikian to open up another location in San Francisco in 1938, where it continued to operate until a fire destroyed it in the 1980s.
He was influential in introducing shish kebab, dolma, pilaf and dozens of other exotic dishes for the time from Anatolia, Armenia and the Middle East to the American diet in masses.
Over the years, he entertained local and international dignitaries at his restaurants, and even catered for a San Francisco conference which would end up establishing the United Nations.
As Omar Khayyam’s popularity soared, the U.S. entered WWII. Mardikian, forever grateful to the country that had changed the course of his life, became more involved in philanthropic efforts by becoming a “dollar-a-year” man and helping out the American military for a one dollar salary. In addition to hosting veterans at Omar Khayyam’s where they never had to pay for dinner, he volunteered as a consultant to the U.S. army, where he was essential in improving food for servicemen during the war. This service earned him a Medal of Freedom given by President Harry S. Truman.
Never one to slow down, Mardikian was always willing to donate his time to causes he believed in through his expertise and passion for food.
“He was a great force of nature, with boundless energy,” said his son Haig Mardikian. “I literally don’t think this man slept.”
His compassion also extended to the worldwide Armenian community. After meeting displaced Armenian refugees in Europe, he created the American Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians and was instrumental in bringing thousands of Armenian immigrants to the U.S., some of which he employed at Omar Khayyam’s.
“He was always connected to the Armenian community, looking for how he could help them, get them started, get them on a job,” Haig said.
Mardikian passed away in 1977 at the age of 73 and was buried at the Armenian Ararat Cemetery in Fresno, Calif. He had suffered a heart attack and was convalescing at home, reported the Lodi News Sentinel.
Despite the hardships he endured early on in his life, Mardikian’s hard work and will to keep moving forward is what ultimately earned him a place in American consciousness.
“One moment you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays, the next you belong to a million unborn tomorrows,” Mardikian said about his journey as an Armenian Genocide Survivor to lauded American. His words, which are on a wall at Disney’s Epcot Center, were referenced by President Obama during a naturalization ceremony last year.
The strength he drew from his adopted country, didn’t go unnoticed by those around him, either.
This is perhaps best summed up in a note a friend left him, which he recounts in his autobiography, “Song of America:” “Every time I lose faith in America, I always remember that it made you.”