BEIRUT: Many people recognize his places before his name – Uncle Sam’s, the Blue Note Café, Le Rouge, Bagatelle – but restaurateur Nabil Majdalani has long been a force in Lebanon’s hospitality industry, achieving success with a simple formula: quality and a personal touch.
While many an investor has dabbled in Beirut’s restaurant scene, few can claim the status of restaurateur, a badge of survival and – when played right – success. Majdalani, who recently opened the Mediterranean-style bistro Bagatelle in Ras Beirut, is one of the few.
“I’ve been in the business for ages, and I really mean ages,” says Majdalani, seated in the restored stone home now housing Bagatelle, his passion project. “I’m from the breed of old restaurateurs. I have gray hair and I’ve seen a lot.”
Falling into the business by chance as a 21-year-old, Majdalani made the rounds working in Beirut’s finest hotels – Saint Georges, Palm Beach, the Excelsior – and has since witnessed the evolution of Beirut’s tourism sector from the high-flying ’60s to the Civil War and through to the capital’s oft-proclaimed renewal.
“The golden era of Beirut – I lived it for a couple of years and then the war started,” he reminisces.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Majdalani moved to Cannes where he sunk his teeth into his first project, a Lebanese restaurant. He returned to Lebanon in 1980, opening the pub Uncle Sam’s just across from the AUB Main Gate.
“That was a great place. It was crazy and fantastic – maybe because of the war, because everybody was crazy and wanted the extravaganza,” he recalls.
Closing Uncle Sam’s in 1986, Majdalani moved on that same year with a group to open the Blue Note Café – a Beirut jazz institution now in its 25th year. Exiting that venture, he spent a brief period consulting and returned to the restaurant business with Le Rouge in 2004.
Located in a small, cozy space in Gemmayzeh, the casual French bistro proved popular and marked the beginning of the neighborhood’s restaurant and nightlife boom. Majdalani and his partners were spurred by the success to open a second location in Hamra in 2007, proving yet again to be a well-timed move as Hamra became a popular destination.
After selling his share of Le Rouge in 2010, Majdalani pursued a project he’d had in mind since stumbling upon a beautiful, crumbling home in Ras Beirut in 2006, perfect for a charming, upscale bistro – now Bagatelle.
“[The house] was in a terrible state and I tried to find the landlord but couldn’t. Six years later the real estate guy calls me and says, ‘You know this old house that you wanted? Still want it?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course I still want it.’ He had found the owners – they were in Ashrafieh. I had been told they were in Paris but they were right here!” Majdalani says, with a nod to the serendipity that guides his business as much as the hard work itself.
In French, bagatelle means “a short literary or musical piece light in style” – a fitting name given the eatery’s relaxed atmosphere and lack of pretensions.
Already benefiting from the buzz of satisfied diners, Bagatelle’s tables are booked most nights, serving up a range of fresh entree salads, filets, risotto and pasta with Mediterranean flair and organic ingredients. Among the most popular items so far, are the selection of “Les Cocottes,” tapas-like dishes including calamars plancha, crevettes provençales and chorizo.
With every element meticulously designed by Majdalani himself, guests can enjoy sitting in the large terrace or at the simple color-coordinated tables inside with a view of the partially, exposed old stones under archways of the house, which was built in 1927.
Majdalani acknowledges frankly, that he’s not always the easiest person to work with due to his unyielding vision. But he believes that this personal dedication has contributed to his success and the staying power of his projects in a city with a high turnover in nightlife and dining.
“The main problem is that the Lebanese investors, in general, are not looking for a long-term thing. They want to make a fast buck,” he explains.
“When I’ve left places, I’ve seen ex-partners try to squeeze out a little more money by cutting on the quality side. Once the quality goes down, it’s not the same anymore and people notice. If you want to do something, you have to start with quality,” he wholeheartedly maintains.
Ultimately, if investors are only interested in the money or turn over the operation to managers that come and go, the place does not succeed for long.
“I believe that when you do a place you have to put a bit of yourself in it, of your soul or I don’t know what – you’ve got to give, so that it gives back,” he says. “It’s like having a home and bringing a designer to pick your furniture. It’s not your taste, it’s someone else’s taste in your home. No matter how beautiful it might be, it’s not you. I put myself in the restaurant.”