BEIRUT: Flighty as ever, Beirut’s social butterflies have migrated yet again. This time it’s to Uruguay Street, Downtown’s new nightlife corridor, which has recently experienced a meteoric rise in popularity.
Just a few months ago, Uruguay was just another ill-frequented corner in Downtown – lavish, but languishing.
“ Uruguay Street wasn’t interesting before. It wasn’t interesting like six months ago,” says Rony Abu Saab, CEO of nightlife management company Concepts in Motion.
With the recent openings of several new bars, however, Uruguay Street has gone from a relative backwater to a bustling, bacchanalian block, beloved by Beirut’s see-and-be-seensters.
Virtually car-free (with the exception of a valet car park), the small area is a pedestrian haven where conversation is never interrupted by revving engines or passing motorcycles.
Parallel strings of gastropubs and mixology bars serve upmarket libations from beneath idyllic arcades.
Everything, from the street’s uniform stone arches to the soft (but not too soft) street lighting, has been carefully calculated by the discerning developers at Solidere.
Uruguay Street opened in 2011 and is part of the Solidere’s Downtown reconstruction project which also includes the Beirut Souks, a stretch along the waterfront and Zaitunay Bay.
Birds of a certain feather, many of whom frequented Mar Mikhael and Hamra but a few months ago, now prefer the glossy confines of Uruguay Street. “I think it’s less ... crowded,” said a regular after pausing to think for a moment.
“It’s classier,” her friend chipped in.
“In Hamra it’s a bit like, khallas, high school,” Sarah al-Shaalan said.
The Uruguay Street crowd, she added, is generally “more mature.”
American University of Beirut student Riad al-Soufi agreed.
“It’s basically the new Alleyway. People are bored of the Alleyway here in Hamra,” he drawled. “It’s a whole new scene.”
“It’s more classy,” added a nearby female friend.
Abu Saab explained outright what the young revelers seemed too shy to admit: “It’s more expensive, and you see a different quality of people.”
“In Hamra,” he said, “you can’t stop people from crossing the road from here to there, and they’re from whatever class, because it’s a pedestrian street.”
By contrast, Uruguay Street provides patrons with an exclusive and debonair atmosphere, free from the rabble and ruckus of the more popular areas.
That said, insiders say the clientele of Uruguay Street has changed subtly over the past two years.
Alain Harb, a partner at Uruguay’s Bronx Bar, says his business used to cater to the largely foreign-based jet set, “like the creme de la creme, the highest social class,” he explained.
But political unrest has largely driven this group out of Lebanon. “Now we’re focusing on locals,” Harb said.
While the solid-gold clique may have abandoned Lebanon for the moment, Uruguay still draws a gilded crowd.
On any given night, hundreds of well-heeled Beirutis descend upon Uruguay Street. Young men in polo shirts survey the scene as girls rummage through Louis Vuitton bags, their stilettos clicking across the polished cobblestones.
Any pretense of urban grit or bohemianism has been jettisoned as groups install themselves on meticulously arranged terraces outside buildings where the smell of newly installed drywall is still discernable above the scents of top-shelf spirits.
International-themed bars give the young professional crowd the sense they’re enjoying a minibreak rather than another humdrum pub night.
At Gatsby, an American prohibition-themed establishment, the most commonly ordered drink is the Moscow Mule, a bartender said.
The formula has clearly proven successful, with new ventures continuing to open on the street despite the country’s uncertain economic outlook.
Abu Saab and his company Concepts in Motion are launching a German-themed venue called Checkpoint Charlies on Uruguay.
While keeping mum on the project details, Abu Saab said he drew inspiration from a recent trip to Berlin.
Meanwhile, Mokbel holdings, which manages Uruguay’s massively popular Bronx bar, will be opening a Japanese restaurant on the street.
“People are coming because you can find many concepts, many identities,” Harb explained.
The unlikely mosaic of cultures, however, is not a draw for everyone.
“I used to come to Iris, but now I come here,” said Mohammad, a young reveler enjoying bottle service at Bronx bar on a Saturday night.
“It’s class,” he added, repeating the refrain while bobbing his head to the latest Avicii hit. It’s the music, he says, that draws him back to Uruguay Street every weekend.
Attracted by the foreign-sounding drinks, the fine gastropub fare, the crowd-pleasing soundtrack and above all the “class,” the throngs show little sign of abating on Uruguay Street.
So much so, that Harb triumphantly declared: “Gemmayzeh is over, Monot is over.”