George Mardikian shows off one of his world-famous shish kebabs at his San Francisco restaurant, Omar Khayyam’s in a 1938 photo. The restaurant opened that year to great acclaim and remained open until 1980. SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

SAN FRANCISCO — The chef who brought shish kebab to America escaped from a Turkish prison first. At 15, George Mardikian ran away from home to join an Armenian guerrilla force to avenge his family. After Armenia gained its short-lived independence in 1918, he returned to his mother in Constantinople, but he was captured by the Turks when war broke out again. He escaped from the prison camp, and with the help of his brother and sister, both of whom had already immigrated to the United States, he came to San Francisco and Fresno in 1922.

Haig G. Mardikian, George Mardikian’s son, adds, “The Near East Relief (now known as the Near East Foundation) was instrumental in assisting my father to come to America. He had worked in the huge Near East Relief orphanage in Gyumri, Armenia as a Boy Scout leader. They helped to get him out of prison and to assure that he got on a boat to America. The first 50 pages of Song Of America, George Mardikian’s autobiography details these events. Today I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Near East Foundation.”

For information, go to:

Somehow, Mardikian channeled the pain, suffering, and hunger from his survival of the Armenian Genocide: He went from a dishwasher to a world-famous San Francisco restaurant owner, philanthropist, and humanitarian who won the Medal of Freedom and dedicated his entire life to feeding and helping people. And he did all of this with a smile. Omar Khayyam’s became the “celebrated Armenian restaurant with a Persian name in an American city,” and it was legendary even in that gourmet’s paradise of a California town.

Omar Khayyam’s was a dining destination for San Franciscans for more than 40 years at its underground location near the corner of Powell and O’Farrell streets. Celebrities, politicians, and professionals paid upscale prices while armed service members and refugees ate for free. Its authentic shish kebab and bulgur pilaf were the main draw for a largely American clientele unfamiliar with such food. But the restaurant drew its life force from, as William Saroyan called him, “the big man with the bright face coming over to your table.”

The timing was perfect in the 1930s and 1940s — America was falling in love with outdoor barbecues and fresh ingredients, and Mardikian was happy to share his novel-yet-accessible menu. Mardikian became a regular, smiling presence in Sunset Magazine, with sketches of him cooking alongside recipes for his Omar Khayyam’s specials, such as his famous chicken tchakhokbelli (braised chicken in tomato juice, sherry and paprika), kouzou kzartma, roast shank of lamb, and Haigagan Kebab (Armenian Mystery Package).

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Mardikian was among America’s first celebrity chefs and was as close to an Emeril Lagasse figure as San Francisco had at the time  in terms of fame, relentless optimism, and generosity. Fine-dining guides and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen celebrated him, NBC gave him his own radio show in the 1940s, and he wrote an autobiography and cookbook. Mardikian’s menu included popular American fare like baked ham, breaded veal cutlets, and roast turkey for the uninitiated. His khorovadz, as he referred to it in Armenian, “is to Armenians what corned beef and cabbage is to the Irish.”

When George Mardikian cooked in his kitchen, he always wore white with a towering hat. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

“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, who LIFE Magazine once referred to as ‘the most favorable man in America,’” says Liana Aghajanian.*

Sophene Books, an independent publisher celebrating the rich literary legacy of Armenia and beyond, has now made the treasures of old Armenian literature available to a modern audience. Including famed San Francisco restaurateur, chef, author and philanthropist George Mardikian’s cookbook, Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, first published in 1944.

This is a new edition of the 1944 classic by George Mardikian, America’s first celebrity chef. Foreword by William Saroyan. Order at:

Mardikian was influential in introducing a range of “exotic dishes” from Anatolia, Armenia and the Middle East to the American diet in masses. In his cookbook for all Americans, America’s first celebrity chef reveals the culinary secrets that made his San Francisco establishment so famous. The recipes are for Armenian food, prepared in the Armenian fashion, but seasoned to the American palate. The dishes were “exotic and different, but thrifty, healthful, and easy, even for amateur chefs to prepare. His food was sophisticated enough for parties, but economical and well balanced enough to serve the whole family.”

“He was the chef who brought shish kebab, kufte, dolma and ajem pilaff to America escaped from a Turkish prison first. Somehow, Mardikian channeled the pain and hunger from his survival of the Armenian Genocide: he went from a dishwasher to a world-famous San Francisco restaurant owner who won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and dedicated his life to feeding and helping people. He pioneered the introduction of Middle Eastern food to the public as early as the 1930s, and American diners got a taste of ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ Near East delicacies, including seasoned lentil soup, baked eggplant, lavash, paklava, and rose-petal jam.”

Here’s one of George Mardikian’s favorite recipes for Chicken Tchakhokbelli, also known as the “Prince Mdivani Special,” that was featured in Sunset Magazine’s Kitchen Cabinet in 1944.


2 2-pound chickens (each cut in 4 pieces)

1/2 cup butter

1 large onion, sliced

1/3 cup sherry

1/2 cup tomato juice

1 cup water

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon salt



Melt the butter and fry the chicken until light brown. Remove the chicken to a baking pan. Fry the onions in the remaining butter until limp and golden, then pour over the chicken.

Add the remaining ingredients. Bake uncovered in a hot oven (400º) for one hour, turning the chicken at the end of the first half hour. The juices in the pan make a delicious gravy. Serve with rice pilaf.

A note from <> Greg Keraghosian:

Omar Khayyam’s opened in 1938 in San Francisco to great acclaim from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen: “Bo-kays to George Mardikian, the Armenian chef whose culinary sleight-of-hand is drawing the celebrities to Omar Khayyam’s,” he wrote that year. As Caen intimated, Mardikian was as brilliant a marketer as he was a chef. He found a way to present his culture, best known to white Americans as working class and downtrodden, in a storybook dining setting (“Omar Khayyam” was a <> feature film in 1957). People dressed up and eagerly descended the stairs to a low-lit, walnut-paneled space with murals on the walls depicting scenes from the Rubaiyat poems attributed to the real-life Khayyam, who died in 1131. “You felt your emotions get stirred up there,” said Levon Der Bedrossian, who visited Omar Khayyam’s soon after emigrating to San Francisco in 1968. Mardikian used Armenian lore to broaden his menu’s appeal. Such as his arkayagan venison soup, which he said dated 3,900 years to when an Armenian king would serve it as a victory stew to his court. And he was a passionate advocate for the health benefits of yogurt, which Armenians <> played the leading role in bringing to Americans. To find the starter to make your own yogurt at home, Mardikian wrote, “just open any telephone book and find a name ending with ‘ian.’“

Many of George Mardikian’s recipes are featured in Breaking Bread with William Saroyan, an authentic Armenian recipe book derived from the heritage of William Saroyan’s Fresno and Bitlis, Armenia. An artistic and literary gem, it is a one-of-a-kind collector book offering the opportunity to prepare and sample foods common to William Saroyan and his fellow Armenians.

Order today:

Gallery II

Pat Hunter

1490 W. Shaw Ste G.

Fresno, CA 93711

(559) 222-4443


Omar Khayyam’s classic dinner menu is available at:

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: