Relocated to Lebanon in 2011 after a lifetime in the US (California and Texas). I have on occasion encountered puzzled reactions from locals followed by the query “why are you here?” stated with a frown and the obvious message that something must be wrong with me to leave paradise (the US) for Lebanon (hell). The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
Here is my answer: Life in Lebanon is endlessly entertaining; it is an emotional and sensual rollercoaster; things and people can be utterly delightful and beautiful or ghastly and depressing.
Since this piece is about food and hospitality, I should start out by stating that anyone who labels him or herself a food “expert” is just full of themselves. Food (or art or literature or music) appreciation is totally subjective. Every person responds uniquely to certain stimuli or tastes and no value judgment should ever be affixed to this, following the old adage de gustious et coloribus non est disputandum.
Personally, I never patronize a restaurant solely for the food. I respond first and foremost to the atmosphere and the people (restaurant staff and clientele) and my own mood that day. Take, for instance, Café Rawda (aka Chatila in Manara), the oldest café/ restaurant in Beirut (circa 1936). It is not fancy, it overlooks an unkempt public beach and has a large outdoor courtyard landscaped with laurels, pebble pavements and a rusting children’s playground. An elderly bearded man sits there for hours with his shoeshining gear, waiting for a patron. Veiled women of all ages meet in groups of five or more, smoke hookah and chat calmly as if time is never an issue. Intellectuals and single people of both sexes sit alone with their laptop or books, smoking and drinking a rakweh (Turkish coffee). The food? Adequate, but nothing to write HOME about. I love it because it feels retro (the decor has not been updated in decades), totally old Beirut, and I can stare at the beach or observe people and while away a few hours; I do not feel pressured to constantly order something, as the waiting staff are courteous but unobtrusive.
If I am in the mood for direct human interaction, I will head on over to Abu Farouk, the self-proclaimed best barista in Beirut. Abu Farouk is a small (very small) business owner and his shop was erected with two pieces of plywood and some sheet metal as a makeshift roof. To complete the decor, three cages with his beloved birds, which he will gladly introduce, explaining how they like to drink banana smoothies (fixed lovingly by him), and even read along (and understand) the Qur’an. Abu Farouk will gladly recount his many former careers, how he manned the neighborhood during the war, how he started his business, and other stories on various topics from photography to politics embroidered with juicy details and delivered with disarming emotion. He can be found at his shop from 6am to 10pm (or longer) every day, always sporting his red beret and thick mustache.
If I am hungry, I can walk to Mar Elias and head for Al Soussi. One immediately recognizes a pro, as Kibbeh himself tells the story of how his father and grandfather before him were both fawwal in downtown Beirut all their lives, and he has carried on the tradition for going on 60 years now. The fact that CNN named his restaurant one of the Best Breakfast Spots in the World did not alter the genuine warmth of the owner and his staff. Plastic chairs and tables have remained and he still seasons his fatteh and ful himself, one plate at a time. The immense pleasure of eating perfectly seasoned traditional fare, coupled with the practical advantage of economy, and the bonus of a genuine welcome by smiling, friendly folks, tops the list of choice food experiences in Beirut.
There is always a time during the day when I yearn for fresh fruits. But picking good ones, washing them, peeling them, cutting them, sounds too time- consuming. The answer? To make my way to Al Antabli in the souks, where some special folks there actually seem to enjoy their job. I know I will order a large cup of fruit cocktail with at least a dozen chunks of fresh fruits (including banana, peach, pear, apple, pineapple, kiwi, mango, papaya, strawberry and grape), a dollop of thick ashta and a drizzle of honey. The bonus is to watch the main fruit man cut fruits as if in some speed race, artfully setting on top a large cut strawberry garnished with a few blanched pistachios and almonds. Or to watch the children licking clean their bowl of ashtaliyeh or rice pudding at tables nearby. It’s truly a moment of hedonistic pleasure for everyone around. Service is also impeccable and your table gets wiped within minutes.
The list is not exhaustive, of course, and anyone who lives in Beirut would probably share their own finds. After six years in Lebanon, I still feel as if I have barely scratched the surface and still have much to discover!
For more info: www.tasteofbeirut.com
Article by: Joumana Accad