If you’re looking for the real East-meets-West so talked about in the Middle East, you need look no further than Beirut. Fast-paced, fashion-conscious and overwhelmingly friendly, it’s not a relaxing city to spend time in – it’s too crowded, polluted and chaotic for that – but its magnificent array of museums, restaurants, bars and clubs make it an essential stop on every Lebanese itinerary. In fact, the country is so small, and day trips to every city and major site so easy, that most travellers tend to base themselves here for their entire visit.
And is there anything more distinctly Lebanese than a greasy late-night kebab? Perhaps not. But while Beirut may have built its culinary reputation on a lamb grill or falafel wrap, the city’s restaurant critics are nowadays more likely to extol the virtues of Chinese dim sum or Californian sushi. The cafe owners and restaurateurs that fled for Europe and the Gulf states during the decade-long, 1980s civil war have returned in droves, bringing tastes and flavours from around the world. Nowadays, the city’s motto is make lunch, not war.
Walk in any direction, from an early breakfast to a late Lebanese dinner, and it is hard not to be wowed by the city’s epicurean charms. Take the temperature of the city’s eat-fast, party-hard attitude at Momo at the Souks, the latest venture from celebrated Algerian restaurateur Mourad Mazouz, who already made his mark in London, Paris and Dubai with his hip mix of North African cuisine and New York-style cocktails. Part of the gargantuan Beirut Souks, a multi-brand shopping complex in downtown Beirut, Momo has to be seen to be believed — its exotic Yves Saint Laurent-inspired fine-dining room is a mash up of surreal mirrors, antique furniture and one-off Cubist couches. Do not miss the Moroccan pastille (meat pie) with wood pigeon, washed down with a house-signature vodka mojito. In the same complex, check out La Cave de Joël Robuchon a wine cellar from the world-renowned French chef and Michelin star restaurateur.
Nearby is Le Gray Hotel, owned by Scottish hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray. More famous for hosting five-star soirees at his luxury escape Carlisle Bay in Antigua, he surprised everyone by opening his second hotel in downtown Beirut. The art gallery-styled lobby is the entry point for a number of restaurants and bars, including Indigo on the Roof, a 360-degree panorama restaurant that has some of the best-trained bartenders in Lebanon. What is really getting Beirutis excited though is the arrival of high-end Japanese eaterie Zuma. With outlets already in Miami, Hong Kong and Istanbul, it is expected to open in Beirut at the end of the year.
It is not all fine dining though. The city’s food and drink scene can be low-key, and in certain parts of the Gemmayze and Hamra neighbourhoods, it literally spills onto the streets. In Hamra, the Alleyway is the latest in-the-know backstreet, with a number of new bars are popping up. Check out Big Shot (The Alleyway; 961-01-34-2140), the country’s first dedicated R&B and hip-hop bar, and February 30 (The Alleyway; 961-01-73-6683), a topsy-turvy bar with tables and chairs on the ceiling, upside down street lamps and bar stools made from mannequin legs. Its off-kilter decor would be the perfect backdrop for Lewis Carroll and Salvador Dalí to share a beer against, most likely one chosen from Beirut’s in vogue micro-brewery 961, the only one thus far in the Middle East.
Students at the nearby American University of Beirut are also embracing the latest craze for New York-style hot dogs, with dozens of all-night mobile stands are dotted across the city. The best of these is Charlie’s in Gemmayze, serving up various toppings like sweetcorn, fried eggs, crunchy onions and pickles. If you are tempted to stay out later, the big open-air nightclubs White, Sky-Bar and BO-18 will make you feel like you are in Ibiza, Spain.
Of course, this all sits alongside what made Beirut great in the first place – classic mezze restaurants, like La Tabkha and Mayrig, and the Lebanese’s love of having a good time, made famous in the 1950s and 1960s by regular visits from Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando. This is evident in the Achrafieh district in east Beirut, where Al Falamanki’s (Damascus Street; 961-132-3456) leafy sheesha garden has drawn in a mixed Lebanese and ex-pat crowd for its mezze for decades. From here, it is only a five-minute taxi ride to the achingly hip suburb of Gemmazyeh, once a focal point for the civil war troubles. The area is now jammed with cafes and bars. Alcazar (Saint Nicholas Stairs; 961-144-8141), a three floor meat and seafood mezze specialist, is still scarred with bullet holes.
While Beirut’s culinary scene has great diversity, there is something equally satisfying about not having to choose. So for something with a local yet modern twist, visit Beirut’s take on the seasonal food movement, Tawlet Souk el Tayeb. Set up by Kamal Mouzawak, the man behind the city’s first farmer’s market, Tawlet is an open kitchen, where every day a different Lebanese cook prepares a seasonal dish from their hometown. Its menu changes daily, but popular choices include kibbeh nayeh, the Lebanese speciality of spiced, finely ground meat, and there are salads aplenty. It is bringing local Lebanese cuisine back to the table, without a greasy kebab in sight.
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