Jonny McFarlane

Culture, Food and Football from Edinburgh!

Edinburgh’s Most Mysterious Restaurant: Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile

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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.

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12 thoughts on “Edinburgh’s Most Mysterious Restaurant: Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile

  1. This isn’t the old Abbeyhill Railway Station, it is a former Police Station. The old station is further up the line on the Abbeyhill junction, the entrance was on London Road.

  2. I went to its previous incarnation in maybe 1980 which was in an old laundry down the bottom of Hanover street somewhere in I think Canonmills. I forget the name of that part of town (I’ve not lived in Edinburgh for 30 years). The food was great. The wine was plentiful in those days (or maybe it was just we were students, but we got the impression he made his money on the wine, which was also Armenian). He was weird. Reservations seemed to be easier since we were a group of over 20 people. I think we were the only people there. Then he suddenly closed it and went back to Armenia. I’m assuming he is the same guy, sounds like it.

  3. Hi

    Bedros not Petros. Middle name Assadour. Sometimes known to his friends as Peter.

    The original restaurant was in Henderson Row. He leased it from Edinburgh Council but was kicked out when the bookbinding business who had the other half of the building promised that they would create new jobs if they got the the whole site. They went spectacularly bust shortly thereafter.

    Bedros made the odd visit outwith the country. Eventually, he came back to his top floor flat above the Polish Ex-Service Mens’ Club in Great King Street. His pre-war limousine which had Armenian Corps Diplomatique plates but no tax disk stood outside the Club there for years.

    He searched long and hard for another venue and nearly bought what is now the Pear Tree complex but decided that the dry rot was just too extensive for his resources.

    Eventually, he chanced upon the Abbeyhill site which was indeed a former police station but had been a mission hall for a good few years before he bought it. Because of its proximity to Holyrood Palace, he had to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for permission to open a restaurant there and she graciously consented. Even then, to be fair, he was describing it as an Armenian Cultural Centre.

    The wine was Georgian and not Armenian since the Soviet Union did not export Armenian wine. The brandy was cherry. The posters were nothing to do with the ‘Armenian Tourist Board’ but were instead representations of serried ranks of Armenian patriots and Soviet heroes. The important thing which Francis seems to have forgotten to tell you is that you were encouraged to dance for hours after the meal with Bedros leading the way. It wasn’t just a food experience. It was a night out.

    My version of the Turkish coffee story (which I believe to be closer to the truth) is that the group concerned knew that any mention of Turkey might not fill Bedros with delight. Part of that group was a Brit professor from the University of Ankara and his family. The adults knew what to do but the bilingual son said something in Turkish towards the end of the meal. Nobody got thrown out but there was a slight frisson for a bit to be fair.

    The Lake Van Monastery was a unique experience in so many ways and Bedros was a charming and superb host, provided that you played by his rules. I reckon that he must be well over 75 now. His other venture is the carpet shop near the corner of Great King Street and Hanover Street and I have not seen that open for quite a few months. I hope he is still with us.

    • Fascinating stuff John. I have spoken to a couple of people who said his name was Petros and there are council documents he has signed as P. Vartanyan but perhaps it’s because of the Peter nickname.

      He is definitely still with us as I saw him leaving the carpet shop a couple of months ago. Interesting character and I only wish I had been able to attend the restaurant myself!

  4. Pronounced “Petros” in Eastern Armenian dialect, and “Bedros” in Western Armenian dialect. Translates to “Peter” in English.

  5. Fyi, Bedros and Petros are actually the same name–”peter” in armenian. Bedros is the spelling/pronunciation used by Western Armenians (descendants of those exiled from Turkey), and Petros is the spelling/pronunciation used by Eastern Armenians (mainland Armenia, as well Armenians from Iran). From the

    The name of the restaurant is quite interesting though. Aghdamar/Aghtamar Church near Lake Van is currently in the borders of Turkey and significant as one of the main symbols (alongside Mount Ararat) of the lost homeland of the Armenians (wikipedia it). He called it Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile–interesting idea considering the physical Church remains on its land, but all the Armenians who would frequent it are in some sense “exiled” post-Genocide, including the owner of the restaurant himself.

  6. I have eaten with Bedros on 2 occasions. First with a party from the Brunton Theatre Musselburgh. A wonderful night lasting from 8 pm until around 2:30 am/ As I remember there were 14 courses served in a fairly arbitrary order. Bedros was in great form – he cooked and served everything himself – no other staff. When we had finished eating he produced his accordion and taught us some Armenian dances! He regarded us all as guests in his home and expected us to behave as such. The second time I went there was with a friend – just the two of us. On the phone he asked that if we were coming by taxi not to mention to the driver that we were going to a restaurant and to get him to stop some distance away and walk the rest. There was only one other couple there and we were place beside them. By the end of another fantastic night we were friends!
    So sorry to hear that it has gone!

  7. It looks really cool I like unusual quirky restaurants, next time try african flavour on great junction street even better

  8. I turned up at your blog after googling the Armenian restaurant. I went in late 1980s with a group of friends having been forewarned by the friend who lived in Edinburgh that the owner was quite mad and scary. When we turned up it all looked deserted, we hammered on the huge door and it suddenly creaked open and this old guy with what looked like a dead seagull on his head answered and finally let us in to the dark interior. I remember the food being great, I think he was reasonably generous with the wine. My friend and I snuck off to the women’s toilets for a ciggie between courses (I’m afraid we did in those days) and were scared he’d burst in and find us so took it in turns to stand on the loo seat and puff smoke out of the tiny top window. A shame it has closed but the owner was quite old then.

  9. I really curious what would make this restaurant so mysterious,,,,I hope I can visiting there someday

  10. Thanks for your memories of this unusual place! I have been there about 3 times, enjoyed the ambience, including candle-lit semi-darkness and soaking wet tablecloths as well as Greek style dancing and liqueurs, but after the last time decided I wouldn’t go back. We dared to announce we were vegetarian and had to endure several courses based on courgettes as if he (I thought his name was Pedros) had bought every courgette in the market and was determined not to be left with any. He even brought a plastic box for us to fill with any leftovers! It wasn’t cheap and since we couldn’t afford to eat out often, I thought it preferable not to risk insults or fear being thrown out. However I remember it with love and appreciation and a smile now.

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