Levon Demerdjian came to Chicago to study engineering, but soon teamed up with his brother Arsen to run authentic Armenian restaurants, serving the food of their heritage.
The first of the restaurants —all called Sayat Nova for a famous Armenian poet and musician — was on Sheridan Road near Loyola University’s Lake Shore Campus. The second still operates on Ohio Street off Michigan Avenue and is run by a nephew. The third was started by Levon Demerdjian in Des Plaines.
“He and his brother had the vision to open an Armenian restaurant,” said Rouben Terzian, a friend since the two were in high school. Terzian said Armenian food is similar to Middle Eastern cuisine, but with some special touches.
Demerdjian embraced friends, employees and customers, inviting them to be part of his family.
“He became like a second father to many of us,” said Paul Seitz, who first met him 40 years ago when Seitz went to work as a busboy in the Des Plaines restaurant. “You could see in him the things that were good and right.”
Demerdjian, 80, died of lymphoma May 17 in the Oak Park home where he’d lived for more than 40 years, according to his son, Raffi.
He was born in Beirut, where his family settled after fleeing the Armenian genocide. As a teenager, he made his way to the U.S. through Canada, intent on furthering his education by enrolling in an engineering program at what is now the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But his formal schooling ended as he teamed up with his brother to go into the restaurant business. Arsen, who spelled his last name Demirdjian, died in 2013.
Their first venture was called the Auto Grill, a place near a row of car dealers around Irving Park Road and Western Avenue that Terzian said served shots and beers and simple sandwiches. They opened it in 1964 and ran it for two years.
“That was a stepping stone,” Terzian said with a laugh. “They learned there what not…