Edinburgh's Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile was an extraordinary restaurant with a mythical quality – Stephen Jardine

In the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, there is a telegraph pole festooned with drawing pins. Today it is easy to miss, but half a century ago it played a pivotal role in the Summer of Love.

Formerly a police station, this Romanesque building on Edinburgh's Abbeyhill was once home to a restaurant called Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile (Picture: Google Street View)
Formerly a police station, this Romanesque building on Edinburgh's Abbeyhill was once home to a restaurant called Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile (Picture: Google Street View)

For hippies drawn to the grooviest part of the coolest city on the planet, the telegraph pole was an information centre where people pinned requests for rooms, information on bands and flyers offering everything from magic mushrooms to LSD.

As I stood looking at it a few years ago, an ageing hippy passed by and muttered “that used to be our internet”.

In Edinburgh Stockbridge is the best place to remember that era. It’s also home to one of the few surviving restaurants from that time. Bell’s Diner opened in 1972 and remains as popular now as it was then with a falafel burger being the only concession to modern tastes.

Not many places have survived from that time in a city where tastes and fashions are constantly changing but this week an old curiosity resurfaced.

Opened in 1979, the Aghtamar Lake Van Monastery in Exile was about as far from the slick modern restaurant experience as it’s possible to get. Based in an old police station in Abbeyhill, it had a mythical quality. The telephone number was passed around by word of mouth and on the odd occasion when it was actually answered, you faced a barrage of questions before being considered for a reservation.

I know all this because I booked it for my birthday in the 1980s. On arrival, Peter the owner showed us the pictures of the dead Armenian intellectuals that lined the walls then reminded us of the complex rules surrounding our visit.

He then disappeared into the kitchen and, after a while, a ten-course banquet started to emerge. Peter was a self-taught amateur cook but the food was delicious and unlike anything else available at that time. There were kebabs, bread, salads and dips and with Armenian folk music playing in the background, it was like being at a wedding reception in Yerevan.

Later, Peter emerged from the kitchen and encouraged everyone to start dancing. The wine was flowing, the music was turned up loud and everything was fantastic and then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

Peter told us we’d had enough to drink and asked us to pay up and leave, which we did.

My friend David knows someone who was shown the door “for not dancing seriously enough”. It was that kind of place.

I never went back and down the years the building looked more and more dilapidated and dishevelled. Tales would occasionally surface that Peter was in jail for spying or had returned to Armenia and was now the country’s president but whenever I walked past, the big door was firmly locked.

This week Peter resurfaced when a journalist tracked him down, still alive and well and living in Edinburgh. He confirmed to the reporter that everything I remembered was real.

“I would only do it if they, the guests, were coming here for some reason I was looking for," he said.

Long before Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay, Peter the Armenian was the original chef with attitude and I’m proud to say I met him and ate his amazing food.

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