Edinburgh’s only Armenian restaurant, the Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile is a legendary, almost mythical destination.
Cloaked in mystery, it’s based in an un-signposted, former police station in Abbeyhill where its only advertising is through word of mouth. It boasts reputedly sensational cuisine; a 10 course banquet prepared with love, care and a dollop of authenticity.
Opening its doors sporadically it is famously difficult to get a table and accepts no walk-ins. The food is cooked and served by the eccentric, Basil Fawlty-esque chef/owner Petros Vartynian, who is alleged to berate and eject customers for minor, perceived infractions like turning up late or asking for more wine. The hyperbole emanating from those who have eaten here has attracted many to try and get a booking, mostly without success. The stories of the lucky few that did succeed have become Edinburgh foodie folklore.
The sense of mystery pervades to this day. The restaurant is still listed in the online Yellow pages and the line is still in service but despite several messages, no response has been forthcoming.
The internet doesn’t provide much more. There are five or six positive reviews scattered around different websites, with the last one dated in 2009, but nothing concrete to suggest the Aghtamar is even still open.
I wandered down to the location at 55 Abbeyhill. It showed no sign of life. Locals seemed to find the idea of a restaurant there absurd and no-one I spoke to knew anything about this culinary hotspot.
Stumped, I mentioned the Aghtamar to a my friend Francis Owen, a former restaurateur who instantly recognized the name and proceeded to tell me of his multiple visits to the restaurant:
“I turned up at 8pm, and knocked on the door. The owner stuck his head out and inspected my group with a vaguely disgusted look on his face. It was the kind of reception you might receive after cold calling a pensioner at 11pm. He was austere and had more than a touch of a Quentin Tarantino character about him, with his wild beard and piercing stare. I call him ‘he’ because at no point during my visits did he give his name”
In an online review someone a little braver had described asking for his name and the owner simply said: ‘That’s a little personal’ and wandered away looking offended.
As I listened intently, Francis described the atmosphere as he walked through the door. The main eating hall was vast, cold and dark with only candle-light to guide your steps. There didn’t appear to be electricity. A giant moose head adorned the wall and various different posters advertising the Armenian tourist board were scattered around. There was a ghetto-blaster in the corner playing what sounded like red army choir music from an old, scratchy cassette. “The whole place had a Soviet era, beyond the iron curtain feel” he said. “There were no amenities like heating, menus or salt and pepper“
“We asked for wine. The owner would judge whether or not you could handle it. I heard that he monitored how often individuals went to the toilet for signs of alcohol intake and he would throw out potential inebriates. Once, my table drank a bottle and asked for another but were told we had had enough. We didn’t argue”
Francis said the food was “take it or leave it” with no choices and it took around three hours to get through all the courses. The food was always “excellent and unlike anything else served in Edinburgh at the time”.
“The best dish had minced pork and rice rolled up in cabbage leaves. The whole thing was steamed and served with a very nice salad with an amazing dressing. Dessert was also very memorable, a sort of fruit trifle, with very pungent flavours. The meal ended with a very strong Armenian style coffee.”
The coffee is at the centre of an interesting rumour when someone had the temerity to reject the Armenian coffee and request Turkish instead. Turkey and Armenia have quite lengthy historical bad blood and this request was like a red rag to a bull. In a sudden rage the owner unceremoniously threw out the entire group, ignoring their apologies and protestations. Francis commented: “I think most saw the owner as part of the charm, temper and all. It wasn’t really about a meal it was about an experience”.
There is evidence that suggests that the Aghtamar has now sadly shut. In an obscure Armenian publication called Yerevan there is a short article stating the restaurant closed in November 2012 and is being turned into an Armenian cultural centre. It is the most direct evidence of the restaurant’s demise, but that’s not to say it’s definitive. Like everything else about this fabled place, there are few certainties. No matter what its current status is, the Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile will endure in legend as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual and mysterious restaurants.