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.
Newsmakers and celebrities with Chicago ties who died in 2017.
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 to do."
The next stepping stone was the first Sayat Nova, on North Sheridan Road. Terzian said he designed the restaurant, and he, Demerdjian and his brother built out the space with plywood, drywall and lighting, including raised panels commemorating the poet.
Lease and landlord issues eventually led the brothers to close that location and move downtown, opening their second Sayat Nova around 1970. The restaurant is still operated by Arsen Demirdjian's son.
Levon Demerdjian eventually decided to open his own Sayat Nova restaurant and in 1977 he began the Des Plaines operation, continuing it until retiring in 1999.
Newsmakers and celebrities who died in 2017.
Terzian said Demerdjian was a storyteller who sometimes drifted into telling jokes and was always smiling. "Very personable," Terzian said. "If you got to know him, you would love him."
John Tilkian, who knew Demerdjian from when both were teenagers in Lebanon, said his friend was proud of the Armenian cuisine his restaurant featured and was meticulous about ingredients and preparation. The restaurant, he said, included a number of regulars, including some characters, many of whom contributed material for Demerdjian's stories.
Seitz said the respect his customers had for Demerdjian was apparent. "Everybody who knew him respected him because he was such a fair guy. He had an impact on many lives."
Seitz said Demerdjian set an example in his openness to the people he met and worked with. "I've wondered, 'how do I become more like that,'" Seitz said. "Just one of those rare individuals who stood out."
In addition to his son, Demerdjian is survived by daughters Tania, Nadia and Tamara ; a granddaughter; and a brother, Dr. Armen Demerdjian.
His wife, Marjorie, died in 2014.
There were no services.
Megan is a freelance reporter.
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