Best Of Beirut
Beirut is a food destination to savour: in her hometown, Jade George takes in the eateries where tradition, creativity and the best falafel are on display.
There’s nothing orderly about Beirut. The traffic is chaotic, the music loud, the architecture piecemeal, bearing the decorative flourishes of 23 years of French rule – then the wounds of 15 years of civil war and, more recently, the growing pains of breakneck development.
This beachside city is my hometown. It’s also the capital of a country of six million people, nearly a quarter of whom are refugees and migrant workers.
Despite the occasional difficulties of living here – against a backdrop of explosive regional geopolitics and entrenched domestic political divisions – so many of us Beirutis couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
In Beirut, your next-door neighbour might spend an inordinate amount of time prying into your personal business, yet never fails to send you a box of apples from her family’s orchard at the start of each harvest.
A cabbie will throw the book at you if your car breaks down and blocks his way, and another will stop his day’s service to help you fix it.
It’s a city of raw energy, where old-fashioned hospitality is deeply ingrained, where creativity in the arts, research and music thrives. And where all debates are conducted over shared plates of raw fava beans, mixed nuts and arak.
Here’s a handful of my favourite places to visit in Beirut, where Lebanon’s food traditions and the capital’s special brand of hospitality are a way of life.
Jade George's Top 8 Beirut Essentials
I met Athanasios Kargatzidis, known to all as Tommy, a decade ago. The Greek-born chef had moved temporarily – or so he thought – from a job in China to work for a restaurant group in Beirut. But then
he married a Lebanese and stayed.
In 2016, he and local business partner Etienne Sabbagh opened Baron, an unassuming restaurant in the fashionably boho neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, with the aim of celebrating distinctive Lebanese produce – such as daily catches from Tripoli’s fishing boats, sea salt from Anfeh and wine from Zahlé – in a relaxed space that harmonises with the eclectic, creative character of the area.
Choice seats are at the bar, close enough to eyeball the Baron kitchen team at work, as well as out on the back terrace.
At least half the menu is focussed on vegetables and seafood, and all of it is perfect for sharing. My standard order is the spiced butter cauliflower, baked whole then topped with crushed walnut, pomegranate seeds and rose petals, and drizzled with tahini yoghurt. Or soujouk sausage and dates wrapped in pancetta, dressed with roasted tomato sauce and pomegranate molasses and sprinkled with pistachio nuts and herbs.
The kitchen smarts and an extensive list of Lebanese wine by the glass make Baron a great place to introduce visitors to Beirut dining.
2. Hanna Mitri
Widely regarded as one of the city’s finest booza parlours, this tiny family-run shop in Mar Mitr has been making its mastic-based ice cream since 1949. Commonly referred to by locals as ‘booza arabiye’, or Arabic ice cream, the sticky, elastic texture is created by adding mastic resin and salep to milk and sugar.
One of Hanna Mitri’s most popular ice cream flavours is ‘milk’, which simply adds rosewater to the milk-sugar base. Other favourites, served in a cup or wafer cone, are classic pistachio studded with crushed roasted nuts; almond croquant loaded with a crumble of dried caramel and homemade ground almond praline; and amareddine, based on apricot fruit leather and topped with crunchy, cold pine nuts.
The most photographed detail in the shop isn’t the ice cream, but the impressive 1960s gas oven in which the praline is baked. Don't miss it!
3. Kalei Coffee Co
When master roaster and barista Dalia Jaffal returned to her hometown after a stint working in agricultural sustainability in Africa, she wanted to make great coffee and support farmers in the most direct way possible. In 2016, she opened her specialist roastery and café in an abandoned 1950s house in a backstreet in Mar Mikhael, and has succeeded on both fronts.
In my view, Jaffal and barista Shant Ghazar make the finest coffee in Beirut, buying beans direct from growers around the world and selling their roasts online as well as in the Kalei Coffee Co café.
They have also added a bar offering local craft beer, a list of small-batch Lebanese wines, and signature cocktails made with freshly brewed coffee. The simple menu includes playful takes on popular farmhouse dishes, such as awarma – a lamb confit – and ambariz – rolled balls of fermented goat’s cheese.
I met Jaffal in 2015 when she was scouting locations for her café and roastery and I was looking for a place to open The Carton Shop, a retail extension of The Carton. Now we share space; The Carton Shop’s range of small-production Lebanese wines, our own arak and olive oil soap, and limited-edition prints fill what was the original kitchen.
A second branch of Kalei opened earlier this year in the western suburb of Ras Beirut, in a distinctive 1920s mansion. Above it is our first guesthouse, The Carton Townhouse, overlooking Beirut’s old lighthouse.
If you’re an aspiring actor trying to get discovered by a film director, Molo, in the recently gentrified district of Badaro, is the place to be. The venue’s terrace, reasonable prices and fusion soundtrack
of modern and classical Arabic music and jazz attract an arty, creative crowd.
The owners – musician and artist Raed Yassin, scriptwriter and film director Bassem Breche and his partner Sarah Nohra, who runs Metro al Madina, an entertainment venue on Hamra Street – hire new migrants, and the staff create a neighbourhood bar full of character. (Molo is the name of one of the bar’s long-standing employees, who comes from Ethiopia.)
There’s a large collection of gins and single-malt whiskies, and a pizza menu on which Italian sausage is replaced by merguez, oregano by za’atar and hot sauce by pomegranate molasses.
Anise in Mar Mikhael is the long-lost Lebanese brother of a New Orleans speakeasy, and I often come here for the textbook Vieux Carré cocktail. But, as the name suggests, the house specialty is arak – in this case, craft arak from all over Lebanon.
‘This one is from Zahlé, that’s from Jezzine. The one next to it is from Bhamdoun,’ says one of the bartenders, Avo, running through an impressive collection lined up behind the wood-panelled bar inset with a smoky old mirror.
Dapper in black ties and waistcoats, the staff remember patrons’ names and what kind of gin they prefer in the bar’s signature cocktail, the Last Word.
Anise is also known for its range of absinthe and, not for the faint-hearted, its own moonshine.
Happy ‘hour’ runs nightly from 6-9pm, and the bar closes at 1.30am. Night owls and regulars, meanwhile, stay for the single dish on the menu: kibbe stuffed with labneh.
6. Falafel Al Nawwar
Never discuss politics or falafel with a Beiruti – raising either of these topics will spark hours of heated debate. I’ll add fuel to the fire by naming my current favourite falafel shop: Falafel Al Nawwar, a modest shopfront barely large enough for half a dozen customers to stand in, with charming white and blue tiles wrapped around the prep counter.
It’s one of about 50 in the city serving variations on the falafel sandwich: hot falafel balls, chopped parsley, sliced tomatoes and red radish, turnip pickles and tarator (the essential tahini, lemon and garlic sauce) all wrapped in pita baked that morning.
The family-run shop in Ain El Remmaneh may be small, but the balance of crispness, tang and punch makes its falafel sandwich just right.
Kamal Mouzawak founded Beirut’s first farmers’ market, Souk El Tayeb, in 2004. The farmer’s son and former TV host wanted to support producers and preserve food traditions in a city that had largely lost its celebrated bazaars during French rule and civil war.
The market was the first step in a slow-food movement that is still gathering pace, and Mouzawak now oversees a network of markets, lunchrooms, guesthouses and community projects around Lebanon.
Among his most popular initiatives is Tawlet, a canteen off busy Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael that aims to bring authentic homecooked meals to city dwellers.
Home cooks from villages around Lebanon prepare dishes that express their heritage, on a roster that changes weekly.
The generous buffet includes a bottomless glass of homemade lemonade, arak or house sharab, and a range of savoury and sweet dishes like mjaddara, a southern dish of lentils and bulgur topped with fried onions, or kibbe Zghertewiyye from the northern village of Zgharta, the minced lamb and bulgur patty stuffed with a lump of fat, which melts during frying and oozes out at the first slice.
Branches of Tawlet have since opened in Ammiq in the Bekaa Valley, the historic city of Saida in the south, and Deir El Qamar in the Chouf mountains.
There’s also a summer pop-up version at the organic farm Biomass in the hills of Batroun in northern Lebanon. Most of these regional canteens have a guesthouse attached to them.
Last year, Mouzawak’s team opened Beit El Tawlet, a stylish guesthouse of five rooms on the fifth floor above the original Tawlet.
His next project? To revive the dekkeneh, Lebanon’s traditional neighbourhood grocery store.
Some of the best day trips from Beirut are to regional wineries – the revival of the industry in the past few decades has spawned more than 30 in Lebanon.
My favourite wine destination is the biodynamic vineyard and winery Sept in the Batroun Mountains north of Beirut.
Its winemaker, Maher Harb, works with vintners around the country to celebrate the diverse terroir of Lebanon, using Viognier grapes grown in Riyaq, the indigenous grape Obeideh grown in Zahlé, Cabernet Franc from Ain Treiz and Tempranillo from Deir El Qamar. With his own winery’s Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the hills of Nehla, Harb is making some of Lebanon’s most interesting wines.
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