There was no question about it, we were going to Carousel, an Armenian restaurant and gathering hall on N. Brand in Glendale. Last time I passed through town we checked it out and were sold on the food and service – even though we figured they sat us outside the main room because our casual attire didn’t compare to everyone else’s formalwear.
But this time around Ari, our server, assured us that would never have been the case. The adjacent seating area is always reserved for parties without reservations. Tonight, however, we got lucky. There was an available seat in the main room. Which meant full access to live traditional music, flaming cakes delivered to multiple tables while the happy birthday song is sung with an Armenian spin, and, best of all, glistening belly dancers who make it impossible to look away. Classy raucous is a good tagline for the overall scene. Or just plain fantastic.
After Ari told us to prepare for an amazing experience, he offered a schooling in regional drink options. My brother Joel started with a bottle of Kotayk, a pale lager from Abovian, Armenia. I opted for an Almaza, a Lebanese pilsner. Joel’s wife Brittany (my new sister-in-law) stuck with a glass of house pinot noir, unpretentiously (and un-Americanly) filled to the rim. We raised our drinks and cheered that small detail. We toasted family and togetherness. I asked Ari to sit down and join us. I was only half-kidding.
Lights dim, music volume turns up. Then a mesmerizing display of belly dancing during which young boys couriered five-dollar tips to tuck into a dancer’s stringy waistband. And get a kiss on the cheek. An ensuing roar of applause and no-brainer encore. All is lost in flashing lights, gyrating curves of skin, and choreographed glances.
Joel, Brittany and I dig into the eight-page menu. We had already decided to go full-on family style, so each of us is on the hunt for an appetizer and entree to share. After balancing an algorithm of meats and veggies, dips and soups, we are ready to go big. Ari’s return is perfectly timed.
We start with homemade pita and bright red muhammara, a spicy dip of crushed walnuts, red pepper paste, and pomegranate. Then kellaj, a grilled layering of Lebanese cheese, tomatoes, mint leaves, chopped peppers, and a drizzle of olive oil. We also prime the main dishes with fried fatayers of cheese and spinach, and a few beef sambouseks. The table fills up with each new dish Ari carefully places on the wide table.
Next comes the big plates: falafel sided with a small salad topped with tahini; Lamb shish kebab, cubed and seasoned; and a beef kafta lula kebab scattered with chopped grilled onions, regional seasoning, and parsley sprigs. Had we taken our time on the appetizers, Ari would have had to pull over an extra table to accommodate our Armenian feast. We eat messily, disregarding napkins.
More drinks. More conversation and music. More banter with Ari and the staff who clears away plates wiped clean. We have no room for dessert, but decide to ask Ari to see the menu anyhow.
But we don’t need to ask, because Ari brings us a giant tart and three forks (on the house, no less). A filo dough shell filled with sweet milk curd cream, topped with fresh fruits, crushed pistachios, and drizzled with a zigzag of spicy honey. Ari says he milked the cow himself, just now, in the back, with these hands, to ensure freshness. We play along, pretend to be full, but make room. Eat every last crumb. The result – we are wildly drunk on the food, inebriated by the experience.
So when Ari hands me the bill I don’t bat an eye. I glance at it, total $216, and ask Joel if we can split it. He agrees and reaches for the bill. I hand it to him. When he looks at the ticket he roars. Turns out it isn’t our bill after all. It’s not even a bill, in fact. Just a little something Ari scribbled up for kicks. On it:
Excellent and Friendly Service – $100
Explaining the Types of Beer – $50
Freshly Squeezed Milk Curd – $50
Tax – $16
Total – $216
We die. Crack the hell up. Then Ari joins us to fist bump and play along. The real bill, at a mere $130, now seems like a pittance in comparison (genius maneuver, by the way). We are inspired us to tip the hell out of him. We give more than 50% gratuity. Ari earned it.
Ari knows Carousel, in and of itself, creates a unique experience. But he doesn’t bank on it being enough (even though it probably is). He took his service to the next level and made our time with him absolutely unforgettable. This, more than anything else, is how businesses stay afloat year after year after year. They constantly tweak their customers’ expectations, they play into each person’s unique moment, and above all they make sure the customer leaves feeling better about themselves than they did upon arrival. Ari nailed it. Probably one of my favorite restaurant experiences, ever.
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