BEIRUT: Before the 15-year Civil War ravaged Beirut, Badaro was an epicenter of the swinging ’60s scene in the Switzerland of the Middle East.
Now, in a much different capital with a much different nightlife scene, it is looking to reclaim the title it lost as an effect of its proximity to the Green Line with a slew of new cafe-bars open throughout the day as well as in the evening.
Wandering along the wide avenue that the neighborhood’s sleepy residential streets branch off from, it is easy to imagine the chic restaurants and bars the area was once known for, especially as the shells of some still remain, long ago abandoned but with stylized signs and hints of past grandeur lingering.
“Walking down this street, it’s like you’re walking back into the ’60s. The architecture hasn’t changed,” said Rudy Mechleb, who recently opened a bakery and sandwich shop that he and his business partner hope will cater to the crowds of young people expected to sweep back through Badaro this summer.
While Don Baker is only open until 10 p.m., Mechleb said he hoped that would change with the 10 or so new cafes and bars set to open over the next two months in the area.
“We hope the business will turn more serious. There are no longer any shops for rent in Badaro, they are all becoming pubs,” he said.
Yet, not everyone is happy that the roving center of Beirut’s young nightlife scene may soon shift south from it’s current base in the eastern neighborhood of Mar Mikhael to Badaro’s tree-shaded streets, nestled between the National Museum, the Military Hospital, Horsh Beirut and the Justice Ministry.
Many residents and business owners worry about what the new ventures will bring to the neighborhood, which is already plagued by traffic in the mornings due to its proximity to government offices. They cite the ongoing battle for dominance between valet companies on Mar Mikhael’s busy Armenia Street as chief among their concerns for what could happen in Badaro.
Roy Fares, who opened his appropriately named cafe Roy’s off Badaro’s main road over a year ago and can thus claim the title of the first new spot to open in the area, is concerned about something different, however.
“I’m a bit worried about the lifespan of the street. I expected other bars would come, but I didn’t expect it would happen this fast,” Fares told The Daily Star. With so many other spots due to open, he fears Badaro will go the way of other trendy areas in Beirut such as Monnot and Gemmayzeh, with many new bars opening to accommodate a fleeting clientele only to close a few years later once the neighborhood’s popularity reaches its expiration date.
It took Fares, who had previously worked as a bartender at Demo in Gemmayzeh, over a year to find the storefront space that houses Roy’s. Now, branches of the popular Hamra bar Dany’s and Uruguay’s Wall St. are set to open just across the small side street in two months. Roy’s has a reasonably sized interior that is much used during the winter months, but what draws its customers back, especially in the summer, is the ample room for outdoor seating.
Many of the older commercial spaces in Badaro are tucked back from the street, with the overhanging apartments above creating natural shade that is perfect for enjoying a drink under. Taking advantage of this, many of the new ventures are a combination of cafe and bar, serving light fare and coffee during the day and shifting to focus on artisanal cocktails at night.
“This area was made for the restaurant business. There’s plenty of space, there’s a straight, central street,” said Yves Khoury, one of three behind cafe-bar Kissproof.
His business partner Micky Abou Merhy, who launched Oscar Wilde in Hamra as well as Vyvyan’s and The Happy Prince in Mar Mikhael, added that unlike with his past ventures, the nightlife scene wasn’t the main focus at Kissproof.
“We wanted it to be a neighborhood coffee bar. We have amazing sandwiches and the best coffee in town, in addition to a selection of local beers on tap and foreign beers.”
Still, they both admitted it had been difficult in the first five months to get Beirutis to move past the belief that Badaro is “far away.”
Abou Merhy was confident, however, that just like when he first opened Vyvyan’s, one of the first bars along the now-infamous strip of Armenia Street, his clientele would overcome the distance and soon follow.
“The history, the vibes, the reputation,” he said, before Khoury finished his thought: “It brings people.”
Of the concerns for the residential character of Badaro, the partners said they had spoken with many in the neighborhood who were happy for the business.
“The valet could be the only issue, but we are working with other bar owners to sort this out before it becomes a problem,” he said.
“They’re happy the real estate market is picking up, with rates now three to four times higher, and they’re happy business is picking up, but there are concerns about noise,” Khoury added.
Both said they had been working with other businesses in the area to integrate their new venture into the neighborhood, agreeing not to play music outside in the evenings. In addition, all the partners are members of the Badaro Traders’ Committee.
The newest kid on the block, Fouad Madhoun, whose cafe-bar 27 is in its soft opening stage ahead of its formal opening on May 27, is also a member of the association.
“They have been very welcoming. They help with government issues and to ease tension with residents.”
“In addition to this, we have set up our own bar owners’ association of sorts. We talk about problems, like what to do when the valets come. And I go to Roy’s all the time,” he said.
Madhoun, unlike some of the others setting up shop, has lived in the area for years and thinks the neighborhood’s atmosphere is well-suited to the string of coffeeshop-like bars that are making their homes Badaro.
“The clientele that was already here is helping change the traditional bar culture in Lebanon. It’s more calm, more chill.”