D.C.’s Armenian community has a new place to gather over slices of layered honey cake, diamonds of baklava, and cups of unfiltered coffee served with imported dried apricots. Yerevan, a cafe and market named after the capital city of the Eurasian country, opened near the end of August in Adams Morgan.
The lower-level, gallery-like space at 2204 18th Street NW features big windows and shelves stocked almost entirely with Armenian imports like tea, coffee, honey, and confections such as fruit rolls. A few Mediterranean and Turkish restaurants in town serve some Armenian dishes, but Yerevan owners Stella Grigoryan and Arman Avedisian believe their cafe is the first dedicated solely to Armenian cuisine in D.C. “I’ve been told there was one in Arlington, Virginia. But we have never seen one in the area and as far as we know, it’s the first one,” Grigoryan says. Across the street from Yerevan, Azerbaijani bakery Sharbat sells an intricately decorated honey cake and other dishes from the same region.
Yerevan is the first restaurant for the couple who owns it. They don’t have backgrounds in hospitality and are keeping their full-time day jobs. “The area could use some Armenian food,” Grigoryan says. “There was a void and we thought we’d try to fill it.”
Since they aren’t chefs, the owners decided to work with a few caterers who provide the cafe with fresh pastries and other dishes every day. The cooks connected with Grigoryan via Yerevan’s active Instagram page, which quickly proved to be popular with Armenian expats.
The cafe’s name sets expectations for a menu that reflects traditional recipes from the capital. The Armenian genocide that the Ottoman Empire committed in World War I and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have contributed to a widespread Armenian diaspora.
“It would be arguable to say that we represent authentic Armenian cuisine, just because Armenians are from so many different countries and they make things very differently,” Grigoryan says. “You can even see variations between the regions in Armenia. A lot of people could argue and say, ‘oh, we use more lemon in this, or we use nuts in this, but you don’t have it in your menu,’” she explains.
Pastries at Yerevan include French treats like Napoleons and Mediterranean sweets like baklava. Grigoryan says the “most authentic” dish on the menu would be a round gata, a semisweet, filled cake that she likens to a bread. “The Armenian pastries are not as sweet as Americans are used to,” Grigoryan says.
Savory dishes include lahmajun, which the menu describes as “Armenian pizza,” with ground meat on a layer of crispy flatbread. Armenian kufta is a stuffed meatball with bulgur and ground meat. Other cultures call it kibbeh.
Yerevan offers an Armenian coffee that is unfiltered with a very finely ground roast and a bit of sugar. The hot drink comes on hand-painted dishes with a piece of dried fruit on the side.
“Armenia is very famous for its apricots because they taste exceptionally good because of the climate,” Grigoryan says. Boxes of that dried fruit are available in the market, along with everything from Armenian-made baby rattles to mountain teas and Armenian cheeses like chanakh, chechil, and lori. A juice made from rose hips is getting a lot of attention from customers so far. “I think that it’s something that people in the area have not seen before or tried before,” she says.
Grigoryan and Avedisian say they had to work hard to find distributors for the marketplace. Once Yerevan’s alcohol license comes through, the owners plan to serve charcuterie boards along with Armenian beer and wine in the cafe. Like its neighbors in the region, Armenia claims an ancient wine culture.
Armenian wine is quite sweet, Grigoryan says, and the country is more known for its cognacs, which will be soon be for sale on Yerevan’s shelves. “If we would open an Armenian cafe and market without serving the Armenian cognac, I don’t think Armenians would appreciate that,” she jokes.