Although Beirutis seem to be able to communicate with each other simply through their car horns and incoherent concoctions of Frenglishabic phrases, the diverse cultures and communities are most strongly united by the cuisine. With its exotic, healthy ingredients and a culture where each dish is born out of passion and love, Lebanese cooking has long been influencing and enhancing recipes around the world. Positioned between east and west, Beirut is a real culinary and cultural crossroads and its cuisine is steeped in a rich history and civilization, reflecting its time as the former Paris of the Middle East pre-1975, through the ravaging, 15 year civil war and its ongoing reconstruction.
I found that eating out in Beirut is a journey of discovery, best experienced in a variety of different languages, settings and company. The words yiii shou tayyeb! (Oh how delicious!) should be regularly exclaimed in Arabic, French and English to express gratitude and excitement at the parade of colourful plates put in front of you. The presentation and heritage of each dish reflects the country’s longstanding customs of welcoming hospitality and warm-hearted generosity. When you’re with locals, be prepared to fight over the bill, as you will never be allowed to pay.
The Phoenicia Hotel in the heart of Beirut is a landmark and should be your first port of call for Lebanese delicacies and people-spotting. Try the delicious mankoushe bi za’atar (Lebanese pizza with thyme) and lahm bi ajin (Lebanese pizza with lamb) at the Mosaic restaurant – it’s all prepared by a grinning lady tossing paper thin saaj bread onto a convex griddle and piling it on the unsuspecting guest’s plate. A seat by the window offers a breathtaking view of the Corniche and marina at Zaitunay Bay, along with the spot where former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in an enormous explosion almost 10 years ago. With its $50 million refurbishment last year to celebrate 50 successful years, rooms in the hotel’s two historical towers are king size, comfortably luxurious and certainly worth a stay.
Head to La Plage, a local favourite for an ‘early’ lunch (around 3pm) of classic Lebanese mezze (hummus, stuffed vine leaves, fattoush and tabbouleh) and grilled seafood. The sayadieh (fish and rice with caramelised onions and spices) is particularly tasty and the atmosphere is relaxed and primarily outdoors – even in winter. In summer, it becomes an outpost of the Cote D’Azur, as glamorous Lebanese women with oversized Céline totes gather on the pier’s tanning ledge to soak up the rays and be seen.
A stop at Sydney’s, Le Vendome Hotel’s much-loved romantic rooftop retreat at sunset is a must for panoramic views of the city and impeccable service. It is the only hotel restaurant in Beirut to open 24 hours a day, but don’t go casual as it’s the trendiest place in town – even after hours. Highlights from its modern menu include pan-friend red mullet and zucchini with garlic and lobster bisque. Its more traditional breakfast serves deliciously creamy labne (deliciously thick strained yoghurt drizzled with olive oil and a garnish of mint) and foul mudammas (broad beans with olive oil, lemon and cumin). Le Vendome is Beirut’s original boutique hotel and has long been home to royalty, dignitaries and stars from the world of music, fashion, art and film such as Aznavour and Pavarotti.
It’s well-known that Beirutis party night and day and eating is always at the centre of all social engagements, regardless of your appetite. An evening visit to the newly rebuilt Beirut Souks at the commercial heart of the city offers a feast of fast-food hotspots and café culture. A quick peek into the nightclub at Momo’s at the Souks reveals hardcore partygoers rocking out to Rihanna while tucking into a supper of crunchy vegetable couscous, scallops on a bed of spicy mouttabal (aubergine and tahini dip) and their speciality, wood pigeon pastilla. The latter resembles the traditional Arabic kibbeh bi laban in taste and texture (beef with bulgur wheat and onions accompanied by a refreshing yoghurt and cucumber dip).
For the perfect breezy drink, Le Gray’s chic Cigar Lounge and sixth floor outdoor terrace overlooking the famous Al Amine mosque is a tranquil getaway from bustling street life. Although the menu claims only to serve straight drinks, which is a challenge for those less hardened, my request for a passion fruit martini was instantly delivered and by far the best I’ve had. The hotel’s Indigo on the Roof restaurant boasts a mouth-watering Chocolate Assiette for Two which should only be enjoyed on an empty stomach. Although Executive Chef, Abdallah Khodor’s signature dish is a delicious Thai baked sea bass in banana leaf, he prefers the simple, home-cooked fatayer (spinach pie) and sambousek (cheese pie) and highlights the importance of local spices, olive oil and garlic in most traditional Lebanese dishes.
I later came across a music video of up-and-coming Egyptian/Lebanese/Italian pop star Lara Scandar and friends in one of Le Gray’s lavish suites preparing for a casual night out at Classic Burger Joint and in Downtown’s trendy bars where girls dance on tabletops. It’s got a cool, catchy and carefree vibe, much like the rest of Beirut‘s new, young social scene, who are living every minute through turbulent times, never knowing what tomorrow will bring.
Although the phrase ‘order recklessly, cry later’ seems the perfect way to describe the Lebanese experience of eating out, you’ll cry with joy in a state of stomach-popping induced happiness. Beirutis may not share the same religious or political beliefs, but sharing food and tables is something on which are unanimous. Oh and how to ask for the bill? Fatura please.
Need to Know…
RIH stayed at The Phoenicia. Call +961 1 369 100 or visit phoeniciabeirut.com for more information. For more on Le Gray call + 961 1 971 111 or visit campbellgrayhotels.com. British Airways flies daily to Beirut from £410 return. See ba.com for more information and to book.