It’s fair to say 2018 began on a particularly special note for the thousands of revellers who gathered in Beirut’s Place de l’Etoile. Known locally as Nejmeh Square, this space close to Lebanon’s parliament was once the best spot in Beirut to ring in the New Year, but for years it had stood empty, a result of the area being placed under lockdown. So the symbolism of its re-opening was not lost on the crowd, who enjoyed a lightshow, fireworks, DJs and even a surprise appearance by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But the night’s most popular attraction was to be found around the square’s famous 1930s clock tower, where stalls served a dizzying array of global street food from shawarma sandwiches and fresh-baked manakeesh to towering artisanal burgers and bulging fish tacos.
It was an appropriate way to begin what could be the year the Lebanese capital finally makes its comeback as an international foodie destination. Despite what you may see on the news, Lebanon is on the rebound. The economic climate is thawing, and in 2016 tourist arrivals hit their highest mark since 2011. That same year, Travel + Leisure ranked Beirut the world’s Best International City for Food, in recognition of the restaurants and bars again sprouting up across the city – especially in the hipster haunts of Mar Mikhael and Badaro, as well as the more luxe (and therefore somewhat recession-proof) Downtown.
“It’s a very good time to run a restaurant in Beirut,” says Liza Asseily who owns Liza, one of the city’s leading dining spots, together with her husband Ziad. “People in Beirut today are much more open, they are curious, they want to try different things. You can be fancy, you can be casual – you can have it all.”
As diners develop more diverse tastes, a new generation of local chefs is ready to fill the gaps in a marketplace still ruled by classic French and Lebanese cuisine – and they’re fast being joined by international big hitters such as Alain Ducasse, who recently announced plans to open a brasserie at the Le Gray hotel. Ducasse’s decision to return to Beirut despite the demise several years ago of his first, short-lived venture, Tamaris, sends a clear message: Beirut is back.
Industry insiders welcome the news. Anthony Rahayel, the man behind the Souk El Akel street food market which made a big splash at Beirut’s New Year celebrations, explains: “Having Alain Ducasse in Beirut is putting Lebanon back on the international culinary map, becoming a reference for travelling foodies and elevating the quality of fine food around the country.” Indeed, all signs are pointing towards a breakout year for Lebanon’s ever-innovative gastronomes.
Of course, food has always been taken seriously here. The country may be riding the zeitgeist of culinary trends but its relationship with dining is deeply rooted in local customs. “Hospitality is part of our history and our culture. We love to gather over food, to host and to take care of people, and we do it well,” says Jade George, founder of The Carton magazine and chair of the Middle East section of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Many Lebanese would consider excellent food a basic human right and as a people they are famed for living in the moment – perhaps a side-effect of their recent war-torn history. “We have no day of the week in Beirut. We go out any day. In other cities, people may wait for the weekend to do things but not here. If you’re not out, you’re at someone’s house,” explains George.
It is this bon vivant mentality that kept many of the city’s restaurants alive when its last gastronomic gold rush fizzled out in 2011, amid regional turmoil and local dysfunction. While international names including Mourad Mazouz, Yannick Alléno and Ducasse came and went, local restaurateurs simply weathered the storm.
“Five, six years ago, the region was not recommended for foreigners to come. So we discovered a new species called ‘the Lebanese customer’,” explains Kamal Mouzawak, the original innovator of Lebanon’s foodie movement who launched the Souk El Tayeb farmers’ market in 2004. Since then Mouzawak’s credo, “Make food, not war”, has given rise to a whole network of social enterprises.
Tawlet, the first of Mouzawak’s six restaurants – or farmers’ kitchens, as he calls them – opened in 2009, offering a unique experience for diners: every day, women from different areas of Lebanon share their stories and traditions through food. Women such as Ghada and Hayat from Jrebta, whose simple, beautiful dishes, including crunchy white tabbouleh and herby tomatoes in a tahini sauce, strike a perfect balance between homely and revelatory.
Indeed, Lebanese food is about so much more than simple nourishment: it tells the story of the Levant, influenced by a series of occupiers, most notably the Ottomans and the French, as well as by ingredients brought in on the ancient trade routes that converge here.
A traditional Lebanese meal can include more than a dozen dishes, starting with a selection of appetisers, called mezze, followed by grilled meats, vegetables or seafood, and capped off with fresh fruit, baklava and black coffee. National favourites include kibbeh (Lebanon’s take on the meatball), tabbouleh (parsley salad) and, of course, hummus (puréed chickpeas with sesame seed paste). Known for being healthy and versatile, Lebanese food lends itself well to the current penchant for raw, vegetarian and vegan diets.
It’s the healthy bent of Lebanese food that’s partly responsible for its international appeal, according to Asseily. It certainly helped her first restaurant, Liza Paris, which opened in 2005, to become one of the only Lebanese restaurants in the Michelin Guide. A natural-born host, Asseily’s culinary philosophy evolves around “high-end, healthy comfort food” – Lebanese food 2.0, if you will. From tahini-less hummus to arak-marinated shrimps, Liza’s contemporary reinterpretations of Lebanese classics have won her a loyal international following.
A popular brunch spot that often resonates with live music, Liza was also one of the first of Beirut’s new wave of restaurants to embrace leisurely luxury in lieu of red carpet-worthy dress codes and valet parking. Many of the new up-market eateries take an almost anti-establishment stance, espousing less formal, less predictable dining experiences.
As a result many more international influences – especially Peruvian, Vietnamese and Japanese flavours – are appearing on menus across town. While chefs can often bristle at the word “fusion”, you don’t have to venture far to find yuzu, miso or tamarind – among other ingredients – being used to add new dimensions to familiar dishes.
“Right now, restaurants are trying to push people’s palates to experience more without having to travel,” says George. “But casual doesn’t mean the food isn’t of the utmost quality and served with quite a bit of creativity.”
Case in point: Baron, a neighbourhood restaurant nestled among the traffic-clogged backstreets of Mar Mikhael, opened by chef Athanasios Kargatzidis and his business partner Etienne Sabbagh in 2016. The guiding principle of such chef-owners could be summed up as small and soulful.
“We wanted to open the kind of restaurant that we would want to eat and hang out in,” says Kargatzidis. “People always say, ‘Oh, you should treat it as a business,’ but it’s really darn personal, if you ask me.”
The restaurant, designed by local firm FaR Architects, has a lively, rakish air. At its heart lies an open kitchen where one of the region’s only Josper charcoal ovens permanently emanates enticing aromas, including those from the slow-roasted beef short rib for Baron’s irresistible Vietnamese-inspired buns. Taking a cue from some of the world’s leading chefs, Kargatzidis adopts a back-to-basics approach: rather than becoming caught up in molecular cuisine, he prefers to cook on the open fire and assigns celebrity status to humble ingredients such as cauliflower. Served whole with walnut salsa, it’s one of Baron’s top-selling items, leading to a weekly requirement of 350 heads of cauliflower.
Sourcing top-quality ingredients on such a scale can be a struggle, Kargatzidis admits. Reem Azoury, executive chef of another buzzing new dining spot, Skirt, is known for her use of on-trend ingredients such as samphire (a British sea vegetable), Job’s tears (an ancient grass) or siyez (the world’s oldest grain), so supply is also a constant worry for her: “You can’t imagine how much hardship we go through to get good potatoes!”
Luckily for Skirt, where rare cuts of meat take centre stage, owner Karim Arakji is not only a hardcore carnivore but also Lebanon’s leading gourmet food supplier. As a result, the availability of Skirt’s unique range of dry-aged, organic, grass-fed beef, flown in twice weekly from the UK, can always be relied on.
In a country where the majority of ingredients come from abroad, chefs have turned ethical and ultra-personal sourcing into an art form. “I’m always looking for small, local producers. I go to see them and I work with them. Of course, this is more work but that’s always been my philosophy,” says Youssef Akiki, the endlessly creative head chef at Burgundy, one of Beirut’s most ambitious kitchens, who is also behind the menu at Paname, a new upscale brasserie in Saifi Village.
Today, the vanguard of Beirut’s chefs seek to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the latest gastronomic trends and technologies, and on the other the timelessness of traditional ingredients and methods. Azoury, for instance, may have spent time working with Benoît Violier but hails the simplicity of traditional Palestinian bread, Iranian rice and Syrian ice cream. Such seemingly opposing culinary forces are producing mouth-watering results.
The young chefs at Skirt, for example, put passion and pride into every plate that emerges from the tiny kitchen of this intimate, open-plan setting centred around a single communal table. At one point Azoury, a no-nonsense culinary professional with exacting expectations, interrupts the conversation to exclaim: “Look how beautiful our sausages are!”
Skirt is certainly not the only meat-lovers’ paradise in town. The Grill, at the Four Seasons, is a firm favourite thanks to its free-ranging menu, impeccable service and expansive views of Zaitunay Bay. It also boasts one of the most comprehensive selections of local wines the city has to offer.
So when it comes to food, Lebanon has cultivated an almost endearing way of sticking to its (culinary) guns. As for any outside trend it does decide to embrace, you can rely on local entrepreneurs to bring a unique local flavour to it – not to mention their own design sensibility. At Kaléo, a French-inspired bistro around the corner from the Four Seasons, the food may be cosmopolitan but the décor is 100 per cent homegrown. Shortlisted as one of the world’s best new restaurant interiors by Wallpaper* magazine, the whimsical, 1960s-inflected design by Beirut duo David & Nicholas takes inspiration from the churches of Byblos.
What, then, is the secret to success in Beirut’s resurgent food scene? As numerous restaurateurs have learned the hard way, this city’s consumer psychology can be as fickle as its political landscape. Only one thing seems certain: people here are easily bored and always hungry – not just for food, but also for company and new experiences.
Sampling a dish of the Lebanese delicacy assafir (small grilled birds), George ponders: “People talk about New York as the city that never sleeps, but it definitely does sleep and people don’t have time for each other. It’s not like here. I can’t imagine anywhere else that’s this alive.”