It is really hard to figure out where to start. Beirut looks nothing like I remember it. We lived there when I was born but we moved north in 1978 because of the war. A few places near our hotel in Hamra were familiar: Horseshoe, Café du Paris, Wimpy’s…a couple of bookstores... But Downtown? Here is what it looks like today:
This building, left un-renovated, on the former green line is more the way I remember things:
(If you look closely at the buildings in the renovated Downtown, you can still see the bullet-holes. )
There was a small but moving tribute to Hariri in Downtown:
The footsteps mark where Hariri walked…
...to the table where he spent the last hour of his life. Perhaps it is typically Lebanese that someone has already made off with a few of the metal prints. Ah well.
Okay, since this is a food site, I will stick to the fun stuff as much as possible. Downtown in the summer is overrun with rich gulf tourists. Still, it is a pleasant place to hang out, for lunch or in the early evening. Beirutis really don’t go out for dinner until at least around 9 o’clock, so you will probably have no problem finding a table before then. We tried Al-Balad for Arabic food (good, and if you want to see what the old currency looked like take a trip to the bathroom). La Posta does decent Italian (no hot-dogs on the pizza, Elie!) and Casper’s & Gambini does all kinds of currently hip sandwich type stuff. In the latter two places try to sit on the back terrace, there is a great view of hariri’s big mosque (under construction) and the roman ruins they found when they dug up the place.
For going out, Monot street is a good place to start. Don't bother before 10pm though. We ate late at a good (and packed!) Mexican place, Pacifico I think, and then caught an excellent indie/punkish band over a few Almazas (the local beer) at Shakespear’s, down the street. There is a bar, 1975, that has waiters in militia uniforms and sandbags instead of seats, but as my cousin said, we lived through the real thing, let’s leave this for the kids who didn’t... There was supposed to be a music festival that evening but that was the day the head of the communist party was assassinated, so it ended up being a fairly subdued night out. Under the circumstances we decided to skip Che Cafe, though I hear that's also a fun scene. I’ve been told Solea, 37 degrees and Lime are also hip with the kiddies. Basically, walk down the street and pop in wherever it looks interesting, okay?
For a slightly less college-kid crowd, head to nearby Gimayze. There is a cute little bar with a dragonfly theme (it might even be called dragonfly) housed in a very old shopfront. Godot is also a good one. I think Gimayze café showed up in the movie West Beirut, so it is worth stopping in just for that.
In Hamra, we made De Prague on Rue Makdissi our second home. I wish I could airlift the whole damn place with everyone in it to wherever I happen to be living at the moment. Great music, great crowd,great atmosphere. Chez Andre is also nearby, old school, very weird little place but very Beirut. And please, at least have an espresso or something at Café de Paris, if only for old time’s sake. That place has so much old Beirut soul. I really wish they would get a wireless connection, so they could get some of the crowd packing the Starbucks across the street.
As far as food, you are right at the university, so there's lots of cheap stuff. I really liked the “Le Sage” chain for great saj (sage?) toasted cheese sandwiches. I think the menu is only in Arabic, but you know, just ask a native – most younger people speak fluent English. Zaatar wa Zeit is also a good place to get variously topped man’ouch. There are probably fancier places to eat but at that point we really couldn't stand to look at anything more than a sandwich. Oh yeah, walk around the university. You just need to leave your ID with security at the front gate. Beautiful campus.
If you want to hang out on Raouche, Bay Rock was recommended to us by a friend. As with everyplace else, this joint didn’t start happening until around 10 pm, but they serve very decent mezze, very reasonably priced, especially if you consider the view: basically right over Pigeon Rock, looking out on the sea. One thing you can try here is the “sardine bizri” which are little inch-long sardines that are dredged in flour and fried. You squeeze a little lemon juice on them and eat them whole, like chips. Very good, but you get enough to feed a family of four for all of 8000LL. We also got hummus, mtabbal and that kind of stuff. After 10, the place filled up with packs of grannies smoking water pipes. Which, you know, is a good thing.
What else? This is not food, but do go to the National Musem. At the beginning of the war the curator built concrete walls around everything to prevent looting, so this was my first time seeing the stuff. Marvel at the freakishly realistic baby statues circa 500 BC from Echmoun’s temple. If you are feeling brave, walk up the green line towards Achrafieh for lunch. Then walk up to martyr square and say hi to the tent hippies. Then you could have an espresso in the cafe on top of the virgin megastore right across the street.
Edited by Behemoth, 10 July 2005 - 10:43 AM.