This description of eating out in Beirut was written before the recent tragic events in Lebanon. It is to be sincerely hoped that the good life, including fine restaurants and local delicacies, will soon return to what was once the gastronomic capital of the Middle East.
Not long ago, a Beirut businessman and his guest from California met before dinner in the glass-walled lounge atop the Hotel Le Vendôme. As they munched pistachio nuts and sipped their drinks, sunset turned the mountains a deep rose and flecked the sea with gold. Darkness fell and lights came on aboard the ships at anchor and in the villages, sprinkling the harbor and hillsides with a starry sparkle. The men talked of other lovely views, of Rio and Hong Kong, and the visitor's travel fatigue gently slipped away. "I'm hungry as a bear," he said. "If we were in San Francisco, I'd say let's go to Chinatown for some spareribs and dim sum ."
"Nothing easier," the host replied. "We'll go around the corner to the Pagoda." Within minutes the hungry San Franciscan was happily clacking his chopsticks, choosing "Two from List A, One from List B."
The same scenario could easily have been adjusted to cheer a visitor from Paris, London, Madrid, Bucharest, Tokyo, Rome or Riyadh. Fortunate Beirutis! They can dine around the world without leaving home. Few cities are endowed with the range of authentic national cuisines to be found in the restaurants of the Lebanese capital.
There is nothing accidental about Beirut's eclectic gastronomy. Historically, Lebanon has been a crossroads of cultures. Climatically, its range from temperate to near-tropical permits cultivation of an astonishing variety of foods. Economically, it not only caters to an international clientele but also, for lack of other resources, must make the most of service industries and tourism.
Lebanon, like the rest of the Levant, has from earliest times served as a cross-fertilization point between East and West, a fact that is reflected as much in its eating habits as in its great social diversity. The basic culinary legacy of this past is the spectrum of dishes common throughout the former Ottoman Empire, especially the array of various appetizers called mezeh , the skewered meats grilled over charcoal and the honey-drenched pastries. The French mandate between the two World Wars firmly established the cuisine of Paris, while the postwar emergence of Beirut as a Middle East headquarters for international banking and trade has added influences from every continent.
One cannot overstate, however, the importance of Lebanon's fresh produce. When asked the secret of his success, French three-star chef Paul Bocuse once replied, "I do not prepare a meal according to a recipe, but according to what is best on the market on the particular day." The suqs of Beirut are a chef's paradise. Lebanon's Mediterranean coastline, Bekaa Valley and the cultivated terraces that ridge the steep contours of Mount Lebanon amount to an agricultural phenomenon. Apples and bananas grow within a few miles of each other. Freshness is a fetish: heads of lettuce are "alive" in the markets, their roots still packed in clumps of moist earth. In season the colorful Beirut suq offers almost any vegetable you can name, from artichokes to zucchini. Covered lanes, each with a specialty, are crammed with fruits, nuts, berries, herbs, spices, seafood, poultry, meat, game, cheeses and confectionery. The abundance of these top-quality ingredients (tough beef, unfattened and fresh-killed, is the exception) forms the solid foundation of Beirut's reputation as the culinary capital of the Middle East.
The best food in Beirut, of course, is Lebanese (or Lebanon's special version of Middle East cookery), and its finest form is the mezeh. A mezeh can be anything from half a dozen saucers of appetizers to a spread of 50 dishes, a veritable banquet. A basic selection will include crunchy raw carrot sticks, radishes, lettuce hearts, cucumber and green pepper slices, salted nuts, olives, crumbly goat's cheese, green onions, sprigs of mint and mountain thyme, pickled turnips and peppers, strained yogurt (labneh) topped with golden olive oil, and the national specialties: hummus bi tahini, baba ghannouj, and tabbouleh . In the center, in reach of all, will be a stack of the puffy hollow rounds of flat Arab bread or sheets of the paper-thin mountain bread. Bread is torn to make scoops for the dips and to enwrap tidbits of meat and vegetables. It can also serve as a plate, table cloth and napkin.
A word about those specialties. Hummus is a paste of chick peas flavored with sesame seed oil, lemon juice, and garlic. Baba ghannouj is a smoky dip of eggplant that has been charred over a flame and whipped with the same flavorings to a fluffy consistency. Tabbouleh is a salad composed of quantities of chopped parsley, onions, tomatoes and mint leaves mixed with softened cracked wheat kernels (burghul ) and dressed with lemon juice and a little oil. These dips are attractively served, swirled into a saucer and garnished with whole chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, a sprinkling of paprika or sprigs of cress or mint.
Nutritionally speaking, mezeh followed by a dessert of Lebanon's exquisite clementines adds up to a perfect balanced diet. When you're dining out in Beirut, however, it's just for openers. The mezeh can be extended almost indefinitely with stuffed vine leaves, flaky bourik and sambousik (meat-filled pastries), "cigars" of pastry with cheese inside, kibbeh (macerated lamb and burghul ) served raw with garnishes as a Lebanese steak tartare, or shaped into balls or pie wedges stuffed with lamb mincemeat and pinenuts and baked, and tiny roast "fig-pecking" bird you eat bones and all.
You can enjoy this extended meal in many different settings. At Al-Ajami a venerable restaurant open twenty four hours a day in the cloth suq district of old Beirut, you can go into the kitchen to make your selection—and a restaurant with an open kitchen has got to be good. At Le Grenier on Phoenicia Street you are served in summer in a lanternlit garden, at Yildizlar in a grand salon overlooking the Ras Beirut head land, at Al-Barmaki in an agreeable oriental setting one flight above the bustle of Hamra Street. At the Sultan Ibrahim on the beach, south of the city you buy your fish or shrimps by the pound on the way to your table. All of these establishments have good mezeh and excellent grilled lamb, poultry or seafood. To single them out is only to suggest five different settings; the city abounds with first-rate practitioners of Arab cuisine.
And this is only the top, as the farmer said when he gazed for the first time on the sea. The time comes when the expatriate from Tokyo craves his sushi, the Parisian his escargots, the Milanese his osso bucco , and when it comes Beirut is ready.
There are four Japanese restaurants in Beirut. The Tokyo, under the Ras Beirut lighthouse, has an enthusiastic following of Japanese businessmen who always seem to be eating something special not on the menu. Michiko in a hotel on the Avenue de Paris has Japanese decor and a clientele that includes western women who take Michiko's cooking lessons.
French traditions pervade both public and private cuisine in Lebanon's capital. They range from the formal elegance of Le Vendome Hotel's La Reserve and the spectacular setting of Lucullus on a penthouse overlooking the port to the red-checked tablecloths and bistrot atmosphere of Le Relais de Normandie. Diplomats, politicians and business executives like to lunch at Le Vendôme, Lucullus, the Hotel Saint Georges' terrace or the Bristol Hotel. They can afford it. They'll get oysters and mussels flown twice a week from France, Charolais beef and Scotch salmon (smoked and fresh), imported milk-fed veal and Belgian endive. At Chez Temporel white arches set off the blue sea beyond and the brightly colored fashions of a more swinging crowd, but none the less demanding when it comes to the steak au poivre vert or the salad of Syrian truffles. Chez Jean Pierre is for intimate dinners by the fireside surrounded by the patron's collection of antique firearms. Two generations of the family maintain a reputation for a classical approach to such delicacies as partridge, trout and gratin de fruits de mer .
Italian restaurants rank among the city's finest. Quo Vadis on Phoenicia Street imports its beef, veal and clams for vongole sauce and uses Italian pasta for its fettucine al Alfredo and other delights. Romano's, up the street, has excellent scampi and spaghetti alla carbonara .
If there weren't other good reasons, the United Nations, which has many regional offices of its agencies in Beirut, might have selected the city for the international flavor of its dining rooms. Want a runny fondue laced with kirsch? Try the Swiss Cellar or La Taverne Suisse. Hanker for a slab of Kansas City rib roast? Head for the Hotel Phoenicia's top floor. Can't live without paella and sangria? La Taberna Espanola has the real thing. One of the capital's most attractive restaurants is the venerable Dimitri's, where the Greek proprietor-chef inspects you behind a locked door before deciding whether to admit you to his fireplace room or garden. Eccentric and well worth it. Hungarian delicacies and gypsy music are a night time innovation at the Saint Georges. Russian piroshki and shashlik are featured at Kalinka. Armenian friends can lead you astray after midnight to try tripe stew in the boisterous kitchens of little places in Bourj Hammoud.
At the moment "British" pubs are in vogue in Beirut (as in New York and even Paris) so one does not have to go far for a Scotch egg, steak-and-kidney pie or fish-and-chips. The Rose and Crown and The Green are among the better rivals for the dartboard set. Rumanians relish their mititei (a spiced meatball) at the Bucarest Devotees of German sausages, North African couscous, Danish open-faced sandwiches and herring, Mexican tacos and Brazilian feijoada all have outlets for their passion in Beirut. The curries and tandoori chicken of India and Pakistan already a favorite of Arabs in the Gulf, are well established at the Serena Restaurant and the Taj Mahal in the Manara district.
Parallel to this serious dedication to the pleasures of the table, is the more or less continuous munching that goes on in the streets and offices of Beirut. Ladies interrupt shopping to nibble pastries; secretaries have a second breakfast of buns or manouche, an herb-filled, puffed and toasted bread; merchants duck out of their shops for a quick shawarma sandwich between deals, and after the movies, everyone has a snack at one of the hamburger joints or ice cream booths nearby.
The ancient Lebanese role of cultural exchange is still at work. Menus may be printed in three languages—Arabic, English, French—while diners chatter in a dozen tongues. East meets West; hummus meets hot dog. And in anybody's gastronomic guide Beirut rates three stars.
Donald Aspinwall Allan was an editor of The Reporter and has written about food in the Middle East for Gourmet Magazine.