THE PIONEER: 'DOLMAMA JIRAIR' HAS FOUND HIS PLACE AT HOME
by Gayane Abrahamyan
In the 1990s Jirair Avanian's reputation was near mythical in Yerevan. Whatever business appeared that broke the Soviet mold in the glacial-speed development of Armenia as a free market was immediately thought to belong to the repatriate with Western ideas.
For more than a decade, though, his own name has become an appendage to the landmark restaurant he opened in 1998. The bubbly businessman is more likely now to be referred to as "Dolmama Jirair."
Tucked away from busy Abovian Street with a modest sign on Pushkin Street, Dolmama has become something of Armenia's national restaurant—a stopping point for officially escorted dignitaries and a destination designed to impress through understated elegance and with a menu that synthesizes the mix of influences that also make the man who made the restaurant.
Avanian summarizes his resume as: "character—businessman; academic background—uneducated."
In 1970, at age 17, Avanian moved from Yerevan to the United States. On Armenian Christmas Day (January 6) 1993, he returned to his home as a 40-year-old businessman, believing that "my presence here was much more important than in the United States."
He reflects on the move as being based more on a heartfelt conviction than on good business logic. (Prior to moving to Armenia, he owned an art gallery in New York City, popular with the Manhattan East Side art crowd in the 1980s, dealing mostly German impressionistic works.)
"Logically I shouldn't have taken any step from New York to Yerevan," says Avanian. "I could have supported my motherland from there if that was my motive. But I wanted to come, and nothing—neither my parents' prohibition, nor my friends' warnings—was able to keep me from coming, and even I couldn't understand why."
The newly independent Armenia was a blank slate for the creatively inclined Avanian. He quickly made an impression, and has since made a mark.
In 1994, in partnership with locals, he opened the city's first "supermarket," which back then wasn't affordable to many in Yerevan, but they would go to "Jirair's market" like they'd go to a museum. He would patiently receive them with a smile, with a clear understanding that most were not there to shop, but just to look around.
By today's Yerevan standards the market would not appear so alien; however, in the mid-90s, it was a rare find. Avanian's artistic sophistication now showcased at Dolmama was also apparent in his food shop. There, shoppers long-accustomed to dealing with stern clerks, who reluctantly retrieved items from shelves behind dimly lit counters, found instead aisles spaciously laid out around display stands where one could, for example, purchase imported wines and cheeses from designed and decorated woven baskets. Elegance was introduced to the grocery-shopping experience in a way that has not yet been duplicated in Yerevan, though the consumer concept of "exotic" has long since been updated.
A year after the opening of the market on Terian Street in the city center, a café with an unusual name—Havaboun (hen house)—opened nearby, which was another revolution and quickly became a popular gathering spot for the youth of the time.
"It was rather an experiment to me. It was a place I built for myself, an atmosphere I'd like to be in and others happened to like it too," Avanian recalls.
Then in 1998, when the country was emerging from the first dark phase of independence, Avanian opened Salt Sack, an artsy souvenir shop on a prime corner of Abovian Street. Till then, visitors to Armenia had mostly relied on finding crafts, jewelry, carpets, etc., at the open-air weekend bazaar, Vernissage.
Salt Sack offered products like those at the Vernissage, but often of better quality, surely higher-priced, and available during routine daily business hours in a cozy (and, again, artistic) setting that bore resemblance to a village inn.
"I realized that besides the romanticism of Vernissage, where everything is direct and straightforward, laid on the ground, and you communicate directly with the people who make the items, the city needed a more sophisticated place, where all those products would be wrapped and presented in a different way," says Avanian.
He wasn't mistaken. Tourists liked it and Salt Sack became the pioneer of a similar shop industry.
For Avanian, who was full of ideas and energy, the shop was interesting, but was not enough. He needed something that would satisfy his desires as a "gourmet."
Dolmama restaurant is Avanian's favorite "child"; he calls it the "Garni-Geghard" of all restaurants—a classic institution, in its way.
Dolmama's every stone was chosen by Avanian, who also created the menu—with items such as a modernized version of Armenian dolma and a number of other traditional Armenian dishes, slightly and distinctly modified.
"When I showed my friends the room of this old and shabby house I bought on the corner of Pushkin-Abovian streets and told them I wanted to open a restaurant there, the response was one: 'Are you crazy?'"
That "crazy idea," unusual to the monumental mentality of Armenians who believe that everything has to be big, massive and ornate, became a reality that remains out of the price range of most Armenians but beloved by Yerevan's upper-crust society and a site that still offers rare elegance and sophistication to foreign visitors.
Former President of France Jacques Chirac has dined at Dolmama, as did Vladimir Putin when the current Prime Minister was President of Russia. Presidents from about 15 countries have visited Dolmama, though no photographs of their dining there are publicly displayed because Avanian says he doesn't want his ordinary customers to feel less important.
"They are all equal to me, and we equally serve everyone," he says.
Dolmama is a fusion of old and new. One of the rooms is decorated in an old-fashioned manner, with 19th-century furniture, and faded walls Avanian did not re-paint; instead, he ripped off 130-year-old wallpaper and layers of the walls until he reached a layer whose color and shades he liked.
"This room has a special feeling for all, even foreigners. Here everyone believes they are at their grandmother's place. An Italian recalls his grandma's place in Venice, a Greek recalls his grandma's place, an Armenian feels as if he is in his grandma's village house," says Avanian and laughs. The other room is modern, simple and stylish, and an outside courtyard is naturally decorated and screened by lush grape vines.
Carved from an old house, Dolmama created new life in Armenian society, just as his move here was a new beginning for Avanian. "To me, my return was extremely important. I acquired things I couldn't have had otherwise—warmth, friends... I was needed here, and any man whose presence is needed, try or not, becomes a better person, and I felt that here," he says.
Avanian feels himself continuing to move forward, just as the society in which he has played a distinct role has evolved over the past 17 years despite shortcomings and setbacks. "The most important thing is that we are a country, and one that has overcome. We have learned the price of independence," Avanian says optimistically.
What angers him, though, is that "Armenians do not preserve traditions." His example of gentrification has rarely been followed yet in Armenia.
"In order to build something new they destroy the old, destroy their history, want to start everything from scratch. We have to understand that customs and traditions have to be preserved, valued and worshiped. We have to worship Aram Khachaturian, Komitas, and we have to worship and preserve an old house. That is tradition and that's what makes a people ancient and rich," says Avanian.