BEIRUT: Tucked away behind a flight of steps parallel to one of the capital’s trendiest areas lies an inlet of three restaurants cozily clustered behind the main street, an area customers say feels like being in Europe without leaving Lebanon.
A passer-by could easily miss the stairs that lead up to it.
“It feels like a small village,” says restaurant manager Dany Mansour of Studio 43, one of three restaurants in the alcove located behind the Tartine Bakery on Mar Mikhael’s main street.
The view from Studio 43 faces a French-style home with sky-blue shutters and a red-tiled roof, while the interior of the restaurant is full of another scarce resource in the capital: plants. “It’s meant to be relaxing, like you’re sitting inside Beirut, but away from the traffic and congestion,” Mansour says.
Chawki Yazbeck, the owner of another restaurant in the cluster, family-owned Sud, recounts how his son first discovered the area when it was just a pile of rubble.
“Michel discovered it and worked on it for two years to bring back the old architecture of Mar Mikhael as it was,” Yazbeck says.
The Yazbecks cleaned the area, and then, working with a local architect, re-established and renovated the old edifices that were once there.
“It was an old Lebanese home built with sandstone,” Yazbeck says of the building, which dates back to the 1840s, that now houses the restaurant.
Studio 43 is distinguished by its open mezze concept and 24-item casual Lebanese menu.
“We have traditional items, that is our strong point,” Mansour says, adding that these are items Lebanese like to eat but, with hectic city life, can never muster the time to prepare themselves.
For Rima, enjoying a summer salad outside the neighboring Bar Tartine, the area is a godsend: “I had no idea it existed until a few weeks ago. I come here with friends and I come here alone sometimes to take my lunch.”
The typical afternoon crowd at Bar Tartine is varied, including businessmen, fashionable ladies and some teenagers, all coming to savor the mixed French and American menu.
Similar to the Paul’s bakery-cafe concept, Bar Tartine is distinguished by its funky interiors and open-air dining area. The back wall inside the cafe also has an especially endearing cartoon layout, with a message that reads: “Bread and salt are symbols of conviviality”
Indeed, Bar Tartine is known for its wide array of French breads, freshly baked twice a day for lunch and dinner, by a specially trained French chef. The cafe also has a bakery out front, so customers can nab an artisan baguette or croissant to go.
Sud is right across from Tartine, and offers a Mediterranean menu paired with interiors that are somehow both eccentric and decorous. Geometric shapes line its chairs, and solid dark hues are placating and simple.
Perched on top of the restaurant is a rooftop cocktail bar – perfect for people-watching.
Taking off from the notion that Lebanon is a Mediterranean country, Sud’s menu includes dishes inspired by southern Spain and Italy, as well as local favorites.
Yet it’s the details that imbue this corner of Mar Mikhael with a unique, European-inspired charm: the fixed street lamps; the paved, earthen-colored floor; the smell of fresh bread; the old character of the surrounding buildings; and the hushed chatter of several conversations at once.