BeirutWords Caroline Karim Kassar & Mourad Mazouz
Photography William Meppem
Half-Lebanese, record-label manager Caroline Karim Kassar has been visiting the city since childhood. She and her partner, the restaurateur Mourad Mazouz offer their insider's guide to the Eastern Med's party capital.
Beirut is almost my home town, but not quite – and maybe that’s why I love it so much. I’ve been going there since I was born. In this ‘play it by ear’ city, anything is possible.
In the day I am usually mesmerised by the light, and walking along the seafront or in the downtown area, I can turn my head and see the beautiful mountains dominating the Mediterranean waters. The city is small but there is always a lot of activity going on, and eating is a huge part of my day, since lunches tend to last three hours and require a good nap afterward.
Nighttime is a different story; it’s when this Paris of the Middle East actually wakes up (and this was even more the case during the Civil War in the late 1970s and 80s). The bars start filling up, my friends come out of their caves like bats, we all meet up and start with a few whiskies, then we go off to eat. After that I can’t really say. I know it involves dancing, drinking and the wee hours of the morning but I never know how, where or until when. The heat and Johnnie Walker Black Label will tend to do that to you.
I have been going to Lebanon since the Civil War ended in 1990. I love Beirut because it reminds me of my childhood in Algiers. I love the street merchants who sell obsolete things; the grandma on her balcony, smoking and monitoring the neighbourhood; the impromptu café set up in the middle of an abandoned square; the streets lined with bougainvillea…
It feels charmingly old fashioned, despite its perpetual motion. The young crowd are always up to date with what’s going on elsewhere, which makes the nightlife incredibly modern, yet honest and local. Cities like Beirut and Istanbul are my favourites because they have the most complex history, yet life is smooth, whatever the circumstances. People never stop living in the moment; tomorrow is another story.
Beirut is also special because of its chaos and cultural juxtaposition: a girl in a hijab walking next to her friend in tight jeans; the muezzin making the call to prayer from the mosque and the church bells competing on Fridays. It’s madness, it’s real, it’s full of heart and life.
CAFES & BARS
Balima Main Square, Saifi; +961 1 985295. This trendy French café on the main square in Saifi, the city’s fashionable shopping area, serves food and drink all day and has an extensive wine list. Enjoy croque monsieurs, salads, oysters and the daily specials. It’s now open at night and a terrace is planned. You can also buy locally designed furniture here.
Al-Raouda The Corniche, Manara, next to Lunapark; +961 1 743348. A great waterfront café. They don’t serve alcohol and it’s a bit run-down, but it has a wonderful atmosphere and is popular with families, as well as intellectuals and journalists. There’s a kids’ playground and great sea views.
Dragonfly Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh; +961 1 561112. Dragonfly attracts an older crowd and its mood is more loungy and subdued. It’s owned by Michel Saidah, a long-time kingpin of the Beirut nightlife scene.
Walimat Wardeh Makdissi Street, Hamra; +961 1 343128. Saturday nights here, in down-to-earth Hamra, are among the coolest in the city. The crowd is young, older, hip, trad… In the early part of the evening, Walimat is a restaurant and later on it turns into a little club and bar. Old movies are projected on the wall and you can even sneak a peek through the kitchen window and see the owner cashing up and making orders.
Torino Express Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh; +961 3 611101. Next door to Dragonfly, and a great hangout, day and night (no one knows quite when it closes), this legendary venue is a small space with vaulted ceilings and a beautiful wooden bar. A real stalwart, it’s the only watering hole that stayed open every day during the 2006 war.
Centrale Mar Maroun Street, Saifi; +961 1 575858. The restaurant here has a picturesque garden in summer, but the best place to spend your evenings is in the top floor bar, which is basically a tube on top of the building with a retractable roof, giving you great views over Old Beirut.
The Terrace at Hotel Albergo 137 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street; +961 1 339797. Another great place for views is this bar on top of the lovely, boutique Hotel Albergo, a converted mansion in Old Beirut. Surrounded by fragrant jasmine and dwarf fig trees, you can enjoy cocktails or light meals.
Da Giovanni Georges Haddad Street, Saifi; +961 1 571572. This is the most refined Italian restaurant In Beirut. Giovanni is a chef from Naples and has been in Beirut for the past decade. The restaurant’s surroundings, though quite usual for Beirut, are bizarre: there is a petrol station, a construction site and a major road. But inside, you enter rococo land and can eat the best spaghetti alla bottarga (with dried, salted tuna roe) you will ever have outside Italy.
Casablanca Ain el Mreisseh Street; + 961 1 369334. Owned and designed by Johnny Farah (see Shops) and his wife Sin, it overlooks the promenade and is a classic Beirut hangout. The bartender, Elie, keeps the sake martinis going all night. The food is Asian-inspired with fresh summer rolls, sashimi and sushi, and noodles. All the vegetables are organic and grown in Johnny and Sin’s garden. Sunday brunch is great but packed, and the bar attracts the hip crowd.
Lamb House Hotel Mediterranée, Charles de Gaulle Avenue, Chouranes; +961 1 741701. Lamb House will provide you with one of the greatest Lebanese meals you’ll have in Beirut, though the décor is kitsch.
Balthus Ghandour Building, Minaa El Hosn (next to the Starco building); +961 3 511611. In the heart of downtown Beirut, this is the most exclusive, high-end brasserie in the city. Serving steak-frîtes, rabbit and foie gras, it has a classical atmosphere with pleasingly old-fashioned service. Businessmen, bankers and politicians love to come here for lunch – you’ll need to dress up.
Chez Sami Jounieh Old Road, Keserwan; +961 9 910520. In summer at this great fish restaurant 20km from Beirut, they have tables outside, above the sea. You choose your fresh fish from the display and decide how you would like it cooked. They also have a fish meze with superb dishes including a warm salad of squid and fish kibbeh.
Basement Port Road, Saifi; +961 7 095 9698. Edgy, underground club with electronic music, some live acts and beautiful people. There’s a great atmosphere, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.
B 018 Lot 371, near the Forum, La Quarantaine; +961 1 800018. This legendary club, designed by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, is a nocturnal survivor. It has changed over the years and the crowd is younger these days, but the space is dark and sexy, with a roof that opens over the course of the evening. It still has a certain degree of magic, and it bangs out electronic music way into the early hours of the morning.
Johnny Farah Said Akl Street, Saifi; +961 1 974808. Johnny Farah designs cool leather bags, belts, shoes, brass items and more for his trendy shop, whose design was inspired by Danish architecture. He and his wife, Sin, also have a new flagship store, If, in the Ballout Building in downtown Beirut.
Milia M 1051 Bloc D, Saifi; +961 1 990336. Milia M is one of the first female Lebanese fashion designers. She opened her shop a few years ago and sells her creations in the US, Japan and Dubai. Stop by if you’re after sexy tops, beautiful yet whimsical dresses or structured trousers.
Orient 499 Hammoud Building, 499 Omar Daouk Street, Minaa el Hosn; +961 1 369499. Set behind the notorious, bullet-ridden Holiday Inn hotel, this shop sells cool Lebanese handicrafts. It has modern designer furniture, antiques, and wonderful tableware, jewellery and clothing. If you want to take a piece of Beirut back home, this is the place to buy it. It might be on the expensive side but it will be something to treasure.
XXe Siècle Immeuble Hanna Residential, Makdessi St; +961 1 742020. In a sunny two-storey gallery in the middle of the Hamra district, pioneering young dealer Souheil Hanna showcases mint-condition furniture and lighting from the 1940s and 50s. He also represents the leading designers of contemporary Lebanese furniture.
LEISURE & ART
Sporting Club Swimming Center At the tip of Raouche, next to Lunapark; +961 1 742481. The summer destination in Beirut. A 70s-style beach club completely created from concrete – there’s sea but no sand. It’s very eccentric, very old-school Beirut. There are three restaurants, huge swimming pools, a mixed crowd and a great atmosphere.
Beirut Art Center Building 13, Street 97, Jisr El Wati, off Corniche an Nahr, Zone 66 Adlieh; +961 1 397018. In a beautiful, simple building in an industrial zone, the BAC is the first contemporary art centre in Beirut. Since opening in January this year, there have been changing exhibitions, concerts and performances, and a café is due to open in time for summer.
Mourad Mazouz is owner of London restaurants Sketch and Momo.