I walk on Kentucky Street and I still think it’s there, darkly lit, behind the green burlap canopies and the ivy clad brick. Nothing has changed, not really, save for the preposterous, Cirque du Soleil teeter totter of chairs and tables just outside, and the absence of the weathered, Corona blue and white umbrellas that juxtaposed a bit of tacky convenience against the otherwise perfect patina of overgrown rosemary bushes and wild, run amok ivy. The floors are now gone, those lacquered wooden floors, craggy and pitted in channeled rows that lay flush against the exposed, red bricks and the pinkish beige plastered walls; but those ornamental tapestries, the ones weathered and stringy looking, hanging since 1989, I suppose, a decade before I first stepped foot inside, are no longer there, replaced by the barren void of things to come. I fool myself into thinking, still, that I can walk Eva downtown and step over the decorated concrete planter, onto the outdoor patio, and sit at my usual, slightly beleaguered plastic table, the one that folds in ever so slightly, making it hard to balance that tall, skinny glass with my cafe au lait. But, instead, there are no plastic tables, and that preposterous, precarious, precipitous mountain of tables and chairs is not a mirage at all. Aram’s Cafe is closed.
I honestly thought it would never happen. My family moved to Petaluma when I was 14, the day after my birthday and the day just before High School started, and Aram’s lay in secure repose downtown, infinitely secure from its 10 years afloat since 1989. A friend I would later meet at Petaluma High would tell me, in between mouthfuls of her cayenne-spiked falafel sandwich that she had been eating there since she was a kid, possibly for as long as she could remember. She was the one who introduced me to Aram’s, first gawking at me in wide-eyed befuddlement and then exclaiming in undisguised distaste that I just had to eat there, that I had to make baba ganoush a regular tenant of my diet. My first memories of Aram’s are unfortunately hazy, besmirched with the dark, latticed pockets that my mind, in an attempt to recollect with full authenticity, smeared beyond any recognizable means. I try to convince myself that Aram’s was different then, arranged differently perhaps, with proper lighting and differently presented food; but, once I recognize the plucky mirage of my High School world, with all its starry, idealistic glows, I remember that the only thing Aram’s changed from when I first dined there in 1999 to present-day 2010, was their choice in table candle holder, switching from the original orange glass to blue. Their menu hasn’t changed a bit, not a bit since a few months back when they finally made the momentous decision to add Schwarma to the regular menu, a highly acclaimed special that should have beaten past the dredges of weekend highlights years ago. Anytime Lamb Schwarma was on the menu, I undoubtedly saw 6 people enthusiastically clamping their jaws on its spicy but sweet, oily, yogurt-marinaded lamb, rolled in pita, and adorned with red onion relish. I wish saving Aram’s was as easy as putting Lamb Schwarma on the menu, but these things are never as easy as we’d like them to be.
I first heard about Aram’s closing back in April, from one of the longtime servers – I would say the one with the blonde hair, but save for one, infrequent server, all of them are blonde. She said that Aram’s would be taking a trip down memory lane permanently, but I was too slackjawed in denial to make any definite notes in my calendar, to pencil in Last Supper – Aram’s for my own memory lane. On that day back in April, I had just made small talk, a few woebegone statements that she bore with a patient smile, an appropriate grimace here and there, ending the conversation with the wry joke that all the customers had made similar, crestfallen gestures. And, before I knew it, I had walked downtown one day, thinking about lunch, and had come face to face with an empty storefront that was no longer Aram’s. I didn’t even have time to take pictures for this post, and so, have borrowed them from the defunct Aram’s website. I was confused: it didn’t seem that long ago that I was making weekend pilgrimages from college just for a familiar juicy but sweet bite of Pomegranate Chicken. Aram’s had always been there, you see, a quiet haven with good ambiance and reliable food. My memories of Aram’s, each passing day, seem more dashed, transitory and fleeting, a mirror of my own departure from adolescence into adulthood.
I think for me, and many others, Aram’s Cafe was more than a cafe – in some ways, what it represented was better than the food, itself. After the closing of venerable Deaf Dog on Petaluma Boulevard, there was no youth-friendly establishment where adolescents could grab some coffee, eat some baked goods or order a meal, and comfortably sit for hours chatting with friends, perhaps engage in a game or two. A middle plaza downtown remains a youth hangout to the point where adults often stray from its perimeter, but Aram’s over time became somewhat of a youth haven, like a hip Berkeley coffee house – Intermezzo on Telegraph comes to mind – where I would see a happy merge between adolescent and adult, sipping coffee side by side, engaged in their respective, but communal conversations. I’m sure Water Street Bistro will take the helm, and Mi Pueblo, to be sure, but Aram’s, like those two, is an icon unto itself, and Petaluma seems to have lost something historic and special along with it. And, the food! We can’t forget the food. No longer will I be able to enjoy a greek salad on hot summer days, or a bowl of black bean soup with sourdough, that amazing, luscious, never to be forgotten Red Pepper and Eggplant Sandwich, with dripping aioli and Provolone. My boyfriend’s parents fairly subsisted off Aram’s takeout, and now I’m unsure what cuisine they’ll adopt next. Turkish Doner, perhaps? Regular jaunts to the prepared foods section of Petaluma Market? I know I’ll be hard-pressed to establish a new lunch routine. I was just so comfortable with Aram’s.
In its last four years of operation, I’ve heard complaints from old friends that Aram’s was no longer the Aram’s they remembered from our days in High School. The food wasn’t up to par, cheaper ingredients were maybe used, and the staff had become, according to some, more dispirited and aloof than usual. This was always a quirk of Aram’s that I fancied for some reason – the servers had faithfully worked there for seemingly decades, one memorable one always bedecked in the usual pink lipstick, pink nails, dirty blonde hair, and some bangles or fancy earrings to merrily clash with the traditional Armenian decor. She was the aloof one, barely making eye contact through slitted eyes, but she was obviously a seasoned pro, jotting her own unintelligible shorthand while, in an almost bored drone of voice, she asked for your order. In a quick 180, if you engaged in some quick banter, she would light up, laughing, her jewelry clanging sweet jingles against her wrists, transforming into a bright, gleaming oddity amidst the dim, candlelit interior of Aram’s. Now, I wish I could remember her name. As for the food, in some ways I agree with my friends: the quality did seem to change near the end, but it wasn’t enough for me to give up my dedication, my near residency at Aram’s. In 2005, before the recession truly hit, the statistics for restaurants was a 95% failure rate within the first three years of operation. That’s tragically high. Aram’s, obviously, had established its seniority after more than a decade of operation, but I can’t imagine how tough it has been for any restaurant to stay afloat in the past three years, in the darkest times of our economy in recent history. With that in mind, and my general dedication to Aram’s as a convenient lunch spot, I was willing to overlook the abundance of feta in the Greek salad, the slightly tinny and very salty, overbrewed taste of their soups, the unpredictability of their Pomegranate Chicken (will it be dry today?), the lackluster hummus, and the past expiration olives. I was also willing to overlook why they kept, all these long years, the Luleh Kebab sandwich when I have never seen anyone order it, and why they bothered making an Empanada larger than a person’s head, with more bread than filling. Or, the mysterious Mad Max coffee that tasted no different than their House Coffee, but provided the same, strangely satisfying bitter aftertaste.
But, for every bad choice on the Aram’s menu, there was something glorious. The Falafal Sandwich forever remained emblematic of Aram’s potential: two halves of a pita, stuffed to brimming with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, a spicy, cayenne and paprika spiked tahini sauce, and perfectly fried falafal was always a perfect meal. The Pomegranate Chicken, despite all unforeseen dryness, was the local favorite, the highlight of the menu, with its sticky, almost sickly sweet flavor, balanced out with a rich, herbal syrup that perfectly complemented the dark meatiness of the chicken. The serving was always ample, too, and when perfectly cooked, better than any other Pomegranate Chicken I’ve had in similar establishments. The rice pilaf and pita served alongside the chicken were effective in mopping up any residual juices, and a red potato salad – or green salad if you desired – brought some much needed vegetable variety to the dish, topped, of course, with Aram’s classic garnish: the pickled carrot. The schwarma was a special brought too late to the regular menu, but the Lamb Schwarma remained greatly sought after, due to its rare appearance on the special board. It often sold out quickly and with good reason – if you love lamb, and you love meals perfectly wrapped within the comforting confines of a flour tortilla, its interior laced with a spiced, yogurt marinade and brined red onions, then wrapped tightly in a foil package with sauce on the side, then the Lamb Schwarma was brilliantly, perfectly conceived. Even on a full stomach I would order the Lamb Schwarma, just so I could have it for lunch the next day. My favorite dinner, however, has always been the Armenian Braised Vegetables – zucchini, eggplant and potato stewed in a delicious tomato-based sauce I cannot for the life of me replicate, with buttery rice pilaf, a green salad, and pita, of course. The vegetables were almost over-stewed, some soggy and disintegrating, but it was comfort food, absolute heaven to the very last bite of each zucchini morsel. I’ve made my own version at home at least five times now, and each time I trick myself into thinking I’m one experiment, one sauce or herb away from finally creating a perfect replica, but then I have the dish at Aram’s and I realize I’m nowhere near replicating it, at all. Now, I’m not sure I ever will. Their baklava, their jars of chocolate covered espresso beans, their brownie, lemon pie and berry pie, their overlooked desserts will even leave something to be desired at other eating establishments in Petaluma. A petty quarrel, to be sure, given our excellent dining choices here in Petaluma, but what can I say?
We’ll miss you Aram’s.