Foodies Delight: The “Friday Night Dinner” in Palermo Viejo

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armenianfood3I heard about the restaurant in the type of hushed whisper that is reserved for quasi-spiritual experiences like natural wonders or ghost sightings. If the nameless establishment had not been mentioned in the public domain of the web, I would swear it was part of an underground gastronomy-lovers cult that met once a week to eat dolma and kufta. However, the “Friday Night Dinner,” as it is so-called, is frequented every week by hundreds of Armenians and food lovers in a cultural center located in the heart of Palermo Viejo.

Appropriately located on the calle Armenia, the Armenian cultural center is the principle gathering place of the 65,000 members of that Diaspora in Buenos Aires. The Unión General Armenia de Beneficencia (General Armenian Union of Charity), or UGAB, was formed in 1911 and is the oldest Armenian entity on the South American continent. After the atrocities surrounding the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917, Armenians immigrated to Argentina in droves and the membership of the UGAB swelled enormously. During the following decades the center added an array of cultural activities, athletic services, and a school.

The UGAB operates the Friday Night Dinner as a weekly fundraiser for that Armenian high school. The traditional food is prepared during the week by parents of the pupils, and the students act as servers and kitchen assistants. The class photo is prominently displayed on the menu, and evidence of support from the Armenian community- from local advertisements in the laminated pages of the menu to the festive and familial air of the dining room- is on full display.

My first introduction to the establishment was one of perplexity. The cab driver dropped me in front of the appointed address, and I found myself facing a drab, six-storey office building surrounded by restaurants. Had I not known that it was a school-sponsored event, the cliques of teenagers at the door would have added to my confusion. Instead, they confirmed that I had arrived at the correct building and directed me towards the basement of the center. Descending, I was confronted with a seemingly impromptu dining hall located in an enormous multipurpose room that was filled with hundreds of adults and children, chatting and milling about in a barely-controlled chaos. I was immediately seated at a rickety table with a modest, slightly-stained tablecloth and handed a thick menu.

The food reflected the frenzied feeling of the establishment: there were dozens of hot appetizers alone, and the dishes arrived at the whim of the chefs while the servers presented the plates with an innocent gusto that was both endearing and slightly suspicious. The food was undeniably delicious- I swooned over a red pepper and nut dip, and the lamb kebabs were cooked to perfection. Other Armenian staples such as hummus, eggplant puree, and grape leaves were hands-down the best I have had in South America. The food is accompanied by a decent wine selection, and the low prices, especially given the enormous portions, are unheard of in the Palermo neighborhood.

Make sure that you book a reservation ahead of time; the establishment is incredibly popular. Unlike other restaurants in Buenos Aires, book early (around 9PM); because the food is prepared during the week, they often run out of house favorites. Finally, if community centers are not your scene, the group operates an efficient take-away system so you can enjoy your meal at home.

While it may be located underground, the Friday Night Dinner is no secret hideaway. Pass the message on- this weekly supper is BA’s best Armenian food.

The Friday Night Dinner is open every Friday except during the summer holidays. Call 4771-6500 for reservations.

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