BRINGING THE MIDDLE EAST TO EAST NASHVILLE
Hrant Arakelian and Liz Endicott bring deep Nashville roots and Middle Eastern flavors to Lyra
Lyra isn’t the first Middle Eastern restaurant in Nashville, or even in East Nashville. But the elegant, rustic-modern restaurant led by hospitality vets Hrant Arakelian and Liz Endicott may be the most Nashville Middle Eastern restaurant in Nashville.
A quick check of the couple’s background reads like a Music City must-dine list, past and present. The Arakelian family moved to Nashville in 1986, and Hrant grew up in Green Hills. He worked in restaurants while attending college at UT Knoxville, and after moving back to Nashville, he did stints at Sunset Grill, Midtown Cafe, Flyte, Zola’s, Rumours East, Adele’s, Holland House, and others. Endicott opened Blackstone Brewery and worked in a smattering of corporate restaurants before moving on to gigs at Midtown Cafe, F. Scott’s, and Lockeland Table.
“All we’ve ever done is work in restaurants,” says Endicott. “Hrant’s food is so amazing. Finding someone to showcase what he did was virtually impossible. It is so unique. Opening a restaurant was the only way to let him shine.”
The two recall their earliest dating days when the idea for Lyra was first taking shape. Arakelian and Endicott would drive by the pre-Holland House building at the intersection of West Eastland and McFerrin Avenues, and peer inside the darkened windows, dreaming. But it was still too soon then, just a month or two into the relationship that eventually led to marriage.
They opened Lyra in that post-Holland House space in June, spotlighting their deep local roots alongside Arakelian’s Middle Eastern heritage through both the decor and menu.
Endicott, who grew up in Hermitage, painted the interior herself. She and Arakelian made the dining room tables. And the teal chairs were a bargain from the set of the now-cancelled TV show Nashville.
At the bar, Endicott developed a creative menu of cocktails that reflects her impressive resume in Nashville’s bar scene. Executive chef Arakelian crafted the food menu, reflecting the food he grew up eating: the cuisine of his father’s Armenian homeland.
Arakelian and his sister were born in Lebanon — the country in the Middle East, not the city just east of Nashville. They lived there for a few years, and cooking became the language that bonded Arakelian’s mother, who hails from East Tennessee, and his paternal grandmother.
“My mom just took to the cuisine really well and learned how to cook all this stuff from my grandmother,” Arakelian says. “At the time [my mother] didn’t speak Armenian and Arabic, and my grandmother didn’t speak English. All they could do was just kind of cook together, and they learned a lot of stuff that way.”
Although they draw heavily on various Middle Eastern regions for their flavor-profile inspiration, Arakelian and Endicott aren’t necessarily going by the book. While the Middle East is predominantly Muslim, for instance, their drink program definitely includes alcohol.
“Muslims don’t necessarily drink alcohol, but they are very creative in making different types of nonalcoholic drinks — lemonades and many different things,” Endicott says. “So, I took a lot of different drink recipes that we’ve found and then incorporated alcohol into that.” Her bartending background also lends itself to the creation of mocktails. One example: a mint shrub with a Persian syrup that doubles as both a happy-hour cocktail and a tasty, nonalcoholic drink.
The food doesn’t skew to any one particular region, Arakelian says. “For the most part it’s very fresh tasting, very vegetable-heavy and grain-heavy — legumes, hummus — things like that. But then there are also the spices, a really nice combo of earthy and savory and sweet and pungent and aromatic.”
Their sources range from local farmers, for things like microgreens and mushrooms, to Michigan, which, with its large Middle Eastern population provides sources for specialty items like a za’atar spice blend or date molasses.“People have been generally super happy,” Endicott says of the response to their young restaurant.
Arakelian adds, “We’ve already got a really good core group of regulars, mostly from the neighborhood. A lot of them walk here. We see the same families come in with their babies and strollers for happy hour.”
Arakelian and Endicott take Sundays off to enjoy time with Emin, their 3-year-old son (his name means “honest” in Armenian). They’re excited about being part of a new East Nashville restaurant group that’s formed, and are making plans for another East Nashville Restaurant Week, and other events.
Even though there’s more competition than ever in Nashville’s dining scene, and even though crime in the area has been a concern as of late, the two are confident their timing is right.
“We have really good — good local support,” Arakelian says. “We always thought this could be a cool place for a restaurant. I love the building, I love this corner, and I think East Nashville is very receptive to different and unique things. And that fits us.”