By Rose Roll
May 11, 2009 marked the 30th anniversary of La Mediterranee, a neighborhood gem tucked into a cozy space at 2210 Fillmore Street, near Sacramento.
Compared to the average restaurant lifespan — less than five years — it’s impressive, though not particularly surprising to those who know the place.
La Med, as the locals fondly refer to it, is a perennial favorite that serves up flavorful, reasonably priced Mediterranean fare in a lively and inviting atmosphere.
“It was a different neighborhood then,” when the restaurant opened in 1979, owner Lavon Der Bedrossian remembers. “Maybe one in 10 people knew what hummus was. I frequently had couples walk in who had never eaten Middle Eastern food before. I would tell them, ‘Let me bring something out, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.’ ”
He would present platters of meza, or Mediterranean tapas — delicacies such as dolmas, hummus, baba ghanoush and tabuleh — and the next night, those same couples would be back, bringing their friends with them.
The food at La Med is all homemade and reflects the French, Armenian and Lebanese background of its founder. In addition to the traditional Middle Eastern kebabs, hummus and fillo dough rolls, the menu features Armenian potato salad and French quiche.With no formal culinary education, Der Bedrossian has been heavily influenced by his family’s traditional recipes. In the small village in Lebanon where he spent his childhood, he remembers helping prepare dinner every evening.
“I can still recall the smells when my grandmother was cooking in the kitchen — the garlic and the spices,” he says. “I couldn’t wait for the food to be ready.” Many decades later, the same smells and flavors greet diners as they enter La Med’s narrow doorway.
When Der Bedrossian decided to open his own restaurant, he had an image of what he wanted: a small, cozy space that could function as a casual bistro or cafe. “The French call it decontracter — to relax. I wanted a relaxing spot where I could serve good food,” he says.
A longtime resident of Pacific Heights, he looked for space in the neighborhood.
“I saw that this spot was available in the Chronicle,” he recalls. “It used to be the Full Belly Deli. I would have their pastrami sandwiches all the time. Little did I know that I would own it one day. When I walked in, I knew it would be perfect for what I wanted.”
News about La Med spread by word of mouth at first. Then, seven months after opening, it received a favorable review in the San Francisco Business Journal. “The night after the article came out — it was a Wednesday – the place was a zoo,” Der Bedrossian recalls. “I ran out of food by 9:30.”
After that, he knew he had the makings of a success. “I went out the next day and hired more people,” he says. “A year after opening, I had eight employees. I had started with three.” He later opened two more La Meds, on Noe Street and in Berkeley.
Now, 30 years later, Der Bedrossian remains as hands-on as ever. He invents all the recipes and trains the chefs at all three locations. “I work seven days a week,” he says. “In the restaurant business, you have to be passionate. If I didn’t love it, I would have had a heart attack and quit years ago.”