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$20 Dinner

Delight in the DIY Charm of Greenpoint’s Little Armenia Cafe

The lack of polish here, and the relentless force of chef and owner Ararat El Rawi's personality, is refreshing. Just don't expect heat.

Armenian plate with roast meats and stuffed grape leaves.

Armenian plate with roast meats and stuffed grape leaves (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

There's a definite throwback vibe to Little Armenia Cafe, a highly personal, deeply eccentric new restaurant that opened last week near the north end of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. 

Not that chef and owner Ararat El Rawi is really going for that old-school style that spots like S&P Lunch and Superiority Burger have embraced to excellent effect in recent years, though like those two beauties the bones (and booths) of Little Armenia come from its previous tenant, the long-running Greenpoint Diner. 

Eating dinner at Little Armenia harkens back to North Brooklyn's fabled DIY culture of the aught years, those no-rules days that gave us legendary music venues like Death by Audio (RIP), 285 Kent (RIP), and Secret Project Robot in the basement of Monster Island (RIP). True, the only music you might hear at Little Armenia is an ancient Grateful Dead show blasted from a tinny Bluetooth speaker, but still, the spirit is there.

Chef and owner Ararat El Rawi, in shorts, explaining the menu (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

El Rawi, whose last official restaurant job was as a waiter at Esca, and who made a bit of a name for himself throwing early pandemic pop-ups on the sidewalks of Bed-Stuy, does absolutely everything at Little Armenia, from the decor, to the menu design, to the cooking, to the serving. The lack of polish here—and the relentless force of El Rawi's personality—is refreshing. Just don't expect things like fixed hours. Or signage. Or heat.     

The menu is unpredictable, a handwritten, photocopied document that El Rawi will also walk you through verbally, and may or may not reflect what you'll be eating that night. We thought we were ordering our dinner in à la carte fashion, for example, but it turned out to be more of a $25 tasting menu type deal. And sometimes El Rawi will just bring you out something random—a shrimp corn dog, say—because he feels like it and has the stuff in the back.

Shrimp corn dog (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Other things that hit the table the night we went: a decent bowl of tabouli; shrimp and crab ceviche blended into a vegetable mash and served with Tostito Scoops; salmon roulade swimming in what El Rawi called gazpacho; and an Armenian plate with hunks of various grilled meats, a bit of rice, and grape leaves. For dessert we got two triangles of baklava and a bird's nest. El Rawi seems to prepare most everything during the day, then heats it up for your dinner.

Tabouli (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
Shrimp ceviche with vegetable purée and Tostito scoops (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

"My Armenian dishes are strictly my family's dishes," El Rawi told Hell Gate. "People are going to say, 'Well, the tabouli should be like this' or whatever, but this is what I know. My parents were Armenian immigrants who escaped the genocide and grew up in Iraq, and then years later moved to Minnesota. So this is the food we made in my family, and this is what I'm making for you."

Baklava and bird's nest (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

What he also made for us is this incredible dining room which, although cold enough to keep your coat on during last week's frigid weather, is nonetheless a charmer. El Rawi has lived a life and a half, and he's got the memorabilia to show for it, from his years spent in "the bubble of Paisley Park" as the driver for Prince's drummer Michael Bland, to his boxing days ("I used to be pretty," he said, "until they punched my face."), to the time he met Miles Davis, a story he tells with a dead-on impersonation of the raspy jazz genius.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

El Rawi's passion for pop culture, from the Simpsons to the Ramones, is also very much in evidence. The incongruously fastidious (and unnecessarily numerous) tableware will either delight or make you feel claustrophobic, depending on your feeling about elbow room. And the fresh coats of paint, decking the place out in Armenian yellow, blue, and red, bring new life to what is, undeniably, a battered old room.         

"I wanted to open in Bed-Stuy but the rents were way too high," El Rawi said. "It's tough to run a restaurant! When I walked into this place in Greenpoint there were holes in the ceiling, and all this exposed pipe, and my friend said, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'It's a Charlie Brown Christmas.' They brought that wonky little tree, put a blanket underneath it, gave it some love and it became beautiful. This place is the same thing."

Little Armenia Cafe is located at 1035 Manhattan Avenue, between Green and Freeman Streets. Hours vary, but when we went last Friday he opened at 6:15 p.m. for dinner.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)
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