Before the civil war in Lebanon, Beirut nightclubs were a whir of fun and high fashion. But at least one young guitarist who played gigs at the staggeringly glamorous Phoenician and Beachcomber bothered to taste the food, and was so struck by the quality of Lebanese cookery that in a different time and country, he’d open a restaurant devoted to it.
In 1978, though, Vatche Meguerdichian had no plans to relocate from the stage to the kitchen. Meguerdichian was making good money at clubs and piano bars when he and wife took a vacation to visit her brother in Los Angeles.
“People just convinced me, saying ‘Lebanon is not stable, why are you going back?’ ” recalls Meguerdichian, now executive chef at Leyla, the newest culinary addition to King Street. “We decided to stay and good things happened, one thing following another.”
Although kismet may have boosted Meguerdichian’s musical career, the 59-year old is not the type to hitch his future to fate: Driven to excel, Meguerdichian takes a full-bore approach to whatever field he intends to dominate, booking flights back to Lebanon whenever he encounters a gap in his cooking knowledge. “I don’t want to be in the lower echelon,” he says firmly. “I’m not saying I’m the best, but I try to be the best. It’s a matter of personality and perseverance.”
It also doesn’t hurt to speak five languages. Meguerdichian is fluent in Arabic, French, English, Armenian (his ethnic language) and Turkish (his grandparents’ language). He can get by in Italian and Spanish.
He switches between them when he performs, serenading fellow homesick ex-pats from nations disrupted by war, economic collapse or political shenanigans. They want to hear the traditional standards, but Meguerdichian quickly became so popular that his fans wanted to hear his songs too: He estimates 20 percent of his repertoire is original.
Meguerdichian’s busiest touring years occurred before camera phones became ubiquitous, so there’s not much in the way of online concert footage.
Throughout the 1980s, Meguerdichian played Atlantic City casinos and southern California banquet halls, seemingly appearing at every significant Armenian-American gathering. But you can hear his renditions of Armenian holiday songs and old Greek ballads on YouTube. His voice is sweet and sentimental, invariably accompanied by an electronic keyboard.
In the 1990s, Meguerdichian opened a production studio. Staying near home started to seem more appealing than “singing here and there,” despite the global fame that had sprung from shows like the 1986 concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he was backed by an 11-man band and troupe of belly dancers. He recorded other artists, but concedes “from that point, music took a back seat.”
In 2000, Meguerdichian opened Alcazar in Encino, Calif. “There was no authentic Lebanese thing going on in L.A. until I came up with my restaurant,” he says. “It took off very well.”
L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold twice listed Alcazar on his list of 99 “essential” local restaurants, calling it “one of the finest Middle Eastern kitchens in Los Angeles.”
He liked the hummus, the sauteed chicken livers with fresh pomegranate seeds and the owner’s tendency to break into song on the weekends.
Initially, Meguerdichian hired a chef to oversee the food, freeing him to focus on the outdoor hookah patio and other ambient elements he considered indispensable to the authentic Lebanese experience.
“Eventually, I got involved,” Meguerdichian says. “These were cooks by experience, but there’s no measurement, no recipe. A pinch of this, a pinch of that. And I had to count on these people! So I got involved and started doing things systematically. Luckily, people trust my palate. What’s good to me is good to 99 percent of people.”
Recently, Meguerdichian sold Alcazar. So when Leyla’s owner, Dolly Awkar, who was a regular at the parties Meguerdichian played in the early 1970s, tracked him down on Facebook to ask for restaurant advice, he was able to offer it in person.
The plan called for Meguerdichian to spend two or three months in Charleston, devising recipes and training staff.
“Now that I’m here,” he says, “I love Charleston, I love the city. I love the people. At night, I’m going out, I can see the vibe. I can see people here love food.”
So for the foreseeable future, Meguerdichian is staying. His wife is still in Los Angeles, but Meguerdichian likens the experience to an adventure. “She visits me; we’re grown-ups,” he says.
Right now, his obligation is to the Awkars and the cuisine that captivated him decades ago. He’s intent on introducing South Carolinians to a proper kibbeh and the livers that made a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic swoon.
“I feel like I have a fiduciary responsibility to not let this down,” he says.
And once the restaurant’s running smoothly, Meguerdichian also may serve as the in-house entertainer. While he hasn’t recorded any songs since 2008, he’s not averse to the right opportunity: In 2005, he returned to Lebanon to share billing with Barry White.
“Why not, you know? After everything is on track, I’ll put on some performances here. It might work. It might be interesting to people. Before cooking, music was my blood.”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.