Hidden culinary gems are commonplace in cities like London or New York. In the vast landscape of streets and avenues, it’s easy to stumble on a restaurant you’ve never heard of and be amazed by its unexpected menu. However, in Beirut, being a city that could probably fit into a neighborhood in any of the world’s biggest cities, finding those little out-of-the-way restaurants that delight as much as they surprise is that much more difficult. Onno is one of those hideaways. Although the restaurant has been around for nearly 30 years, the secret of its Armenian-Lebanese delicacies is finally out.
The little restaurant located in Bourj Hammoud is quaint and inviting. Restaurants in general now focus on the importance of looks and the outer appeal to reel in customers but forget that in order to not only bring in customers but to keep them starts from the inside. Getting carried away with shiny new décor and impossible to get reservations disguises the true quality of the food we receive. However, the way through almost anyone’s heart is through their stomach, and Onno is one of the few who have grasped this concept.
Not only is Karnigue Nigolian the owner of Onno, he is the chef as well. The charming name, Onno, is derived from Karnigue’s nickname given to him by a very close friend. He opened in 1986 with no culinary experience other than the love of food, which triggered it all. When he first opened shop, he started off with a few basic dishes and some of his own creations, expanding his menu over time. With the help of no one other than his own two hands, he built his little culinary empire.
When we arrived to Onno, the small restaurant vibe met our expectations, but we weren’t expecting such an inviting charm; the cozy ambiance instantly made us feel like we were at home. Looking at the menu, our eyes widened and our stomachs growled at the wide choice of so many different dishes. The first round of plates then began to arrive: Batta Harra, Itch, also known as Armenian Tabouleh, and Zeytov Dolma which is stuffed baby eggplants. Before we could even put down our forks and knives more plates just kept coming creating our second round of a food coma: Havgitov Basterma (Basterma topped with fried quail eggs), Fattoush, and lastly, the highly anticipated Souberg, layers of dough sheets and cheese. In the midst of our never ending “ooohs and ahhhs” in walked in the man of the hour. Mr. Nigolian explained that he is unwilling to serve anything to his customers that he wouldn’t serve his family at home. He doesn’t depend on suppliers when it comes to choosing his ingredients; he goes and hand picks each and every one, making his dishes that much more irresistible. Quality is his main priority and no matter what will always be. Even though Mr. Nigolian is all about culture and grasping the true meaning of a cozy atmosphere, he has currently joined forces with his business partner, Saadi Hamady, to work on their new concept of a Lebanese Bistro. On cue, in walked Mr. Hamady – a few seconds later he was followed by a plate of Manti, baked over roasted meat mixed with laban. We could tell just by his smile he is in love with the restaurant as much as Karnigue. With the recent opening of a branch in Badaro, they are in the midst of opening a third branch in Hamra with the new concept of a bistro type vibe. Mr. Hamady explained, “the hard part isn’t expanding, but ensuring that each restaurant gives the same taste and satisfaction to its customers as the original restaurant – because not every restaurant can achieve that.” After being involved in this restaurant for so many years we needed to know what was the most rewarding part of the job Mr. Nigolian’s response was: I love seeing non-Armenian people enjoying the food – it makes me feel like an accomplished chef and restaurant owner.”
In the midst of a conversation we found ourselves stopped mid-sentence as two mouth-watering
dishes landed on our table. They happen to also be one of the most popular dishes, Ras Asfour Karaz (pan fried beef cubes with wild cherry sauce) and Fishna Kabab (grilled kabab with wild cherry sauce). WOW was the only reaction we were able to give with our mouths full. As soon as our taste buds were through the roof we picked up where we left off. We wanted to know the secret behind running such a successful business and the answer isn’t something all of Lebanese people are used to in today’s society. Saadi explained that honesty, between your customers, your employees, and your business partner is the secret of getting ahead. Once that barrier is set, nothing is impossible. We couldn’t bare the thought of Onno ever shutting down in the future and to our pleasure, Onno will live on! The daughter of Mr. Nigolian even though still young – is extremely interested in the business and is slowly learning the ropes in hopes to take over one day.
The only thing Mr. Nigolian asks of his customers is to ask about each plate before you judge it. He puts his heart and soul into these dishes and hates it when anyone comes into his restaurant and cringes at the sight of something they’ve never heard of. If it’s one thing we can vouch for, it is that there was not a single cringe given on our table!
Onno is located in Bourj Hammoud on Rue Aghabios and on Badaro Street, Al Thani Building.
Stay tuned for the upcoming opening on Hamra Street.
If you’d like to experience Onno for yourself, call 03 801 476 for the Bourj Hammoud branch or 70 383203 for Badaro