We walk down the dimly lit hallway, following the hostess who let us in, past a series of closed doors through which we hear shuffling feet, muffled voices and occasional laughter. Apart from that, it’s quiet. A mix of smoke and grilled meat lingers in the cool air. Another hostess with dyed blonde hair and dark, thick make-up passes us. I look behind to see her open a door and quickly slip inside.

We move on, passing another door, slightly ajar, with smoke seeping through the gap. Through the haze I catch a glimpse of the scene inside. Four serious-looking, middle-aged men sit around a small, square table staring at the chess pieces set out in front of them. They are deep in concentration, smoking cigars as they plot their next move.

The dimly-lit hallway

Our hostess stops at the last door, and pushes it open. She gestures for us to go inside. I can’t shake off the strange sensation that I have time-travelled into Soviet Russia. I glance over at my comrades and note equal fascination on their faces.

As I enter the room, my eyes adjust to the harsh light shining on the bare yellow walls. An old brown leather couch is positioned in front of a TV, and behind it stands a large, square dining table adorned with two empty ashtrays. Eight chairs, two on each side, line its perimeter.

The hostess leaves the room, closing the door behind her. We take off our jackets and hang them in the wardrobe by the door. The four of us take a seat at the table, one side each.

My boyfriend and I glance at each other, smiling. We look over at his parents, who are equally amused.

This is our second time in one of these places. The first, only a couple of days ago, was an equally suggestive affair. But we shake off our uneasiness and embrace this next private dining experience.

My comrades are part of the Armenian diaspora and have been to the homeland a handful of times. Coming from Canada, they too are relatively new to the art of private dining, and like me, enjoy the strangeness of it all.

Our thoughts quickly turn to food.

As is the custom at any Armenian meal, we argue over what meat to order, discuss who will be drinking vodka, place bets on how big the plate of pickles is, and wonder whether it will all be enough. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought we were in their own dining room.

I am quickly brought back when the hostess, our waitress for the evening, returns and takes our long order without noting anything down. She disappears again.

The chess players enjoy their space

I look around the room again, aware of the silence generally associated with an empty restaurant.

However, the room serves a purpose.

In Soviet Armenia, during an era of communal housing, families could enjoy time together in places like this. Their homes, often shared with other families, were not always large enough to accommodate all of their relatives. After all, Armenian families can be quite big. Here, there’s enough space for a whole family to sit down, gossip and eat while the children watch TV.

My thoughts return to the chess players I had seen earlier, enjoying the freedom, space and privacy to play, dine and drink — all under someone else’s roof.

Our waitress re-emerges with the drinks, sets them on the table and leaves.

We busy ourselves by sifting through the TV channels to find interesting Armenian soap operas, but eventually give up.

The waitress appears, balancing several plates. She spreads them across the table, leaving a gap in the middle: a looming indication of the size of our meat dish.

And sure enough, a minute later she returns, embracing an enormous rack of lamb, still sizzling from the grill.

She closes the gap on the table, wishes us “Bari ahorjak”, and leaves us to our feast.

We are glad of the large table as we survey all the plates that have been delivered. Furthest from me, is a mammoth dish filled with what looks like thick pasta, but is in fact reshte, Persian noodles. Next to it sits a plate of grilled eggplant. All around the lamb lie various salads and a plate piled with herbs and radishes — something that I had always seen as a garnish, but here constitutes its own dish.

The plate of garnishes

Finally, dangerously close to where I am sitting, is the basket of bread, with stacks of lavash — a contender for the best bread I have ever eaten in my life. It is perfect for dipping, spreading, wrapping or just eating on its own. I would happily make the trip to Armenia again just to have another taste of its thin, soft dough.

The plates empty, our bellies fill. In turn, we each lean back in our chair. The dirtied serviettes lie crumpled on the table, signalling the end of the meal.

I look across the table at the impressive progress we have made. I notice a button on the table, with a slightly worn-out symbol of a slim lady in heels holding a tray of Martini glasses.

“Is that to summon the waitress?” I ask.

We test it out, pressing the Martini lady down into the table. A moment later, the waitress returns and clears the dishes.

It seems so.

We pay the bill, thank the waitress, retrieve our jackets from the wardrobe and walk back down the hallway. The same hallway that had seemed so alien and uninviting is now an indication of life and family gatherings that take place behind the closed doors.

How much longer will these places still exist? I wonder.

Armenians, the older generation especially, are still living under shadow of the Soviet era. They had to learn Russian at school, conform to Soviet ways of life, and even adopt a collectivist mind-set.

It has been only 27 years since Armenia became independent, and much of the country is still adjusting to its new status. Armenians are finding their roots again, and are in the process of building their own identity as an independent nation, a task proving difficult with such a widespread diaspora.

Since the Velvet Revolution in April 2018, there is a burgeoning confidence in a more modern Armenia, and Armenians seem eager to move forward. Still, the Soviet era is a big part of their long history, and for now, they continue to hold onto it, while we enjoy a private taste of Armenia.

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