BEIRUT: By the time we paid the bill and rose to leave Bandakji, a nargileh lounge at the end of Hamra street, the vast open-air seating area had begun to bustle with all sorts. Young people in tank tops and backpacks; a table of conservatively dressed women smoking shisha; a crowd of lipsticked and well-coiffed young professionals; a young Syrian family having a late dinner.
“It’s always full of foreigners here, Iraqis, Syrians, even many Europeans, different Lebanese,” said Ahmad Awamleh, a manager at Bandakji.
It opened in July, mid-Ramadan, and turned a garbage-strewn parking lot on the corner of Sadat and Hamra streets into an open-air restaurant nearly overnight.
The resto-nargileh spot plays on 1930s Damascene nostalgia. Patrons enter through a massive, ornamented wooden doorway that leads into the roofless dining space set for more than 200. A large stone fountain bubbles at its center, one of the many details plucked from the traditional Damascene homes of the early 20th century.
Petit Group, which operates several eateries, including Petit Cafe in Raouche and Amore Italian restaurant in Verdun, borrowed much of Bandakji’s ambiance from the beloved Syrian soap opera “Bab al-Hara,” which translates as Gate of the Neighborhood.
The grand portal is a near-perfect replica of the door to the fictional neighborhood. The hallway of air-conditioned indoor seating is filled with mother of pearl-inlaid coffee tables and deep Oriental sofas. The building has an artificial stone facade dotted with lantern-style glass windows.
But the picture is completed not by the period uniforms – sherwal and tarboush designed by the very same costume designer from “Bab al-Hara” – but by the staff themselves, 90 percent of whom are from Syria.
Bandakji’s menu of traditional Shami food is basic but expertly executed by a team of Syrian chefs that used to cook for top hotels there, Awamleh said.
For example, shawarma is marinated with a hint of cardamom; a plate of stuffed grape leaves is accompanied by a mixture of stuffed carrots and zucchini; bread is baked fresh and puffed; the fattoush is sour with just a hint of sweet pomegranate molasses; and the batata harra is very lemony.
The food is exactly what you would expect. No frills but delicious. The specialty is traditional fatteh and of course nargileh, as well as a whole station devoted to fresh juices.
Bandakji’s management has taken an open approach to the restaurant concept by making decisions in response to customer feedback.
For now, Bandakji is not selling alcohol, and is open 24 hours a day. Awamleh said the open dining room would be covered with a temporary tent structure come winter.
“For now, we’re focusing on raising the standards.”