With its charming decor, high-quality sandwiches, and warm hospitality, the 51-year-old Berge’s Sandwiches has become one of La Cañada Flintridge’s most beloved restaurants. That may not be saying much in this small suburban city of only 20,000 in the foothills north of Glendale, but the old-fashioned pastrami Reuben and extra-lean roast beef sandwiches at Berge’s would stand out almost anywhere in LA.
Owners Berge and Queeny Yeghiaian originally opened Berge’s Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Imported Groceries and Delicatessen store in 1972 on Foothill Boulevard, having moved to the United States by way of Libya and, before that, Israel. The couple worked side-by-side from the day they moved to Los Angeles, quickly becoming a familiar face in the always-sleepy, family-focused neighborhood. Queeny, in particular, became a stoic symbol of the lasting values that have kept Berge’s open, allowing her calm character to counteract her son John’s joyful and loud temperament at the shop.
That calm demeanor has seen Berge’s through its many trials and iterations, including the death of the namesake Berge Yeghiaian more than 25 years ago. The original store was a focused marketplace, selling daily goods in addition to rare items like Jordan almonds and chocolate-covered ants. When a Vons opened nearby, the Yeghiaians pivoted to serving sandwiches, a move that would help keep customers coming for decades.
The decision to pivot to sandwiches came quickly, Queeny Yeghiaian recalls. “We were carrying Armenian bread, so we just cut whatever meat people wanted,” she says. Berge Yeghiaian started to put together some basic ingredients — meats, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise — and arranging them in matnakash (an Armenian bread that’s become the most important ingredient in the shop), and a local sandwich icon was born. Without much hesitation, the grocery shelves began to leave one by one, replaced reached time with tables for dining in.
The family credits the bread they use in part for the shop’s enduring success. Matnakash is a wide, oval loaf made when bakers pull the dough with their fingers. Today the restaurant buys its bread from Glendale’s Royal Pizza and Bakery, going through roughly 60 loaves every week. The plush loaf has naturally designed corners that serve as packets to help contain ingredients and is best for the restaurant’s cold sandwiches. For others, like the popular reuben and barbecue roast beef, the shop uses French rolls and sourdough breads that can better withstand heat. “We didn’t do anything special to change the great American sandwich,” says son John, who is now the shop’s manager. “We’re just using good quality products in something made with love.”
That love has been reciprocated in kind by the tight-knit hillside community, particularly after the shop gained the attention of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory employees, who made it a daily lunch destination. Eventually, Berge Yeghiaian closed the market entirely, relocating down the block to become the standalone Berge’s Sandwiches storefront that it is today. Business nearly tripled overnight in this new location.
Over time the Yeghiaians have added other core items to the sandwich-focused menu, including a tomato bisque and Caesar salad. The soup — silky, strawberry-colored, and slightly sweet — has its own fanbase entirely, particularly when paired with a grilled Swiss cheese and cheddar sandwich. “It takes two days to make this soup, but I am not going to tell you the recipe,” says John.
One of the main reasons the shop can handle a large volume of customers is Julio Tobar, who has worked with the family for the past 35 years. Tobar developed a quick system in the tiny kitchen to prepare all 40 different kinds of sandwiches. On the busiest days, he can prepare four to five sandwiches a minute. His customized tuna melt with added grilled onions and avocado is one of his most famous creations, and the roast beef sandwich made with cream cheese and chopped olives has been the shop’s best-seller for the past two decades.
“Dad had made some meaningful changes right before he passed away,” says John. Even in his later years, Berge Yeghiaian was always busy thinking of ways to keep the customer happy. “He noticed that people are avoiding fat, and he switched to a leaner brisket. It’s got the same flavor with a lot less fat.”
“Dad had that amazing smile that brought in everyone,” says John, reminiscing. For loyal customers who grew up with Berge’s, the patriarch always made the restaurant feel like home, complete with cozy tables, music playing on an old radio, and fresh and generous sandwiches served with a chocolate mint on the side.
While the shop has some younger workers these days, Queeny, John, and Julio usually keep the place going. The elder Yeghiaian, who is now in her 80s, is still a calming presence in the dining room, showing (happily) just how slowly time can move in sleepy La Cañada. She takes orders on the phone and handles the books while posting up at a table filled with folders and other office supplies. From there, Queeny can survey the scene, settled nicely into a chair beneath a photo of her smiling husband.
Berge’s Sandwiches can be found at 1044 Foothill Boulevard, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011, keeping hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (5 p.m. on Saturdays), Tuesday through Saturday.