BEIRUT: Beneath a pall of post-Christmas gloom and midwinter blues, January and February can be bleak at the best of times. Add to that the duo of downers cast by the conflict in Syria and a floundering tourism sector, and Lebanon’s once resurgent, vibrant capital of New York Times’ 2009 top destination glory, may now seem about as exciting as listening to service drivers honk at pedestrians.
Daily news of restaurants, hotels and bars shutting up shop does justifiably create the impression that Beirut is a city of diminishing venues for socializing outside the home, but even in the midst of economic downturn the capital is far from stale.
With the vigor of wildflowers in springtime, new additions to the Lebanese capital’s wining and dining scene continue to bloom.
Gemmayzeh is a neighborhood in constant flux, but while its atmosphere has evolved over the past few years – shifting from a nightlife hotspot to an increasingly cafe culture – Gouraud Street certainly hasn’t withered.
The latest arrivals to the fray may be said to homogenize the street somewhat, but the new branches of Zaatar w Zeit and Dunkin’ Donuts, which recently opened opposite each other, certainly provide wrap and coffee-seeking frequenters of the area with two familiar and reliable, if different, options.
The former, a modernized Lebanese mankoushe joint, is easily spotted, with its readily identifiable signage and recognizable wooden interior decor.
The latter, however, has thankfully chosen not to impose its ghastly orange and pink theme on the historic building it’s taken up residence in. Opting for a subtle red-brick motif inside, the American donut and coffee chain has plumped for only a small sign on the building’s frontage to identify itself.
Nightlife, of course, has not forsaken the east Beirut neighborhood altogether, with The Mansion just off Gouraud Street catapulting onto the club scene in December.
Although the venue celebrated its one-month anniversary on Jan. 19 – so that for regular clubbers it’s not entirely new hat – for those feeling jaded with the after-dark offerings elsewhere in town, the much-talked-about chandelier at The Mansion may add just the required sparkle.
Good European cuisine – particularly that of the French and Italian variety – is never problematic to come by in Beirut. Yet, excluding the surfeit of sushi joints in town, dining options for those craving food from Asia are much rarer. Therefore, Le Hanoi, a recently opened Vietnamese restaurant at the bottom of Accaoui Street, thus offers some welcome diversity for diners whose palettes have become bored.
That said, early reports from those who’ve ventured to this establishment have been mixed. Sampling Vietnamese cuisine may be a novel experience for Beirutis, but the pricey menu and occasionally comic service (if you’re in the mood to see it thus) may erode some of the experience’s charm.
It isn’t just especially adventurous diners who can pronounce a city’s offerings tiresome; those with more stalwart tastes may also seek a little variety. For such customers, the new lunchtime menu at The Phoenicia’s Eau de Vie rooftop venue may be just the thing.
With three formulas – which must be forgiven for their irritatingly cliched titles – ranging from LL22,000 to LL57,000, the new menu offers an affordable and flexible lunchtime option in a tranquil setting with expansive views over the Mediterranean Sea.
“The Fashion Way,” clearly designed for those rounding up a morning’s shopping in Downtown, includes either wine or a cocktail, soup, salad and dessert. “The Healthy Way,” doubtless conceived for diners on diets, offers a long list of surprisingly appetizing salads, while “The Business Way” is a three-course feast of salad, meat and sweet.
In the upmarket Downtown area, restaurateurs grow increasingly anxious. Not everyone in this once thriving locale has weathered the economic downturn well.
Nonetheless, not too far from the Phoenicia, there is a new face among the familiar crowd: The Cavalli Caffe, an outlet of the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli’s signature cafe-lounges, which opened its doors in early January.
The high-end luxury eatery has a menu packed with Italian delights, from risottos and pizzas to raviolis and pastas, as well as animal print interior design sure to satisfy avid followers of Cavalli’s fashion house.
Finally, the fail-safe option for a bored Beiruti is Mar Mikhael.
In utter contradiction of almost all one would expect in a struggling economy, this is one of the most rapidly blooming areas in Beirut. Indeed, the neighborhood seems to present a new eatery or bar almost on a monthly, if not fortnightly, basis.
Among the latest additions are the Blackrock Steak Lounge, which serves juicy hunks of beef on volcanic rocks, and Quartier Latin, a tucked-away French-style bistro bar.