BEIRUT: Hidden in the shadows of the steel cranes towering over much of Lebanon are a handful of charming old houses that have been renovated into cozy eateries.
“It reminds me of old Beirut when I was young,” London-based Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou says of restaurants in old houses. “It fits in with my love for art and history, and the atmosphere of vaulted rooms and high windows are quite different from that of nondescript cubes.”
“There is a certain amount of mystery and of course a feeling of history that reinforces the pleasure, the more so for the systematic destruction of our architectural heritage,” she adds.
Most restaurant owners who undertake a complete renovation of an old house acknowledge that they could have saved money by tearing down the old decor or picking a different venue altogether. However, they say the cost of losing local history is far greater than the financial investment.
“This helps keep the spirit of Beirut. It needs to stay,” says Rhea Ayoub, marketing manager for the Albergo Hotel and Al Dente Italian restaurant in Monnot, which opened 17 years ago as Lebanon’s first boutique hotel and Italian restaurant. “If in 20 years all the buildings are destroyed, you’d come to Beirut, and you wouldn’t see the spirit.”
Walking into the carefully restored French-style art-deco building is like taking a trip back in time to an age when coziness met opulence, as formally dressed concierges warmly greet guests in the waiting room, lined with classic literature on shelves and historical paintings on the walls.
Also in Monnot is Stove, a restaurant opened just over a year ago that is as unassuming as its name, with a small unmarked front door that’s easy to miss. Once inside, the guest is taken aback by the spacious rooms, high ceilings and marble arches, as well as outdoor terraces, renovated at a cost of $750,000 in a minimalist fashion which allows the traditional architecture to shine.
A far more casual but just as traditional environment is Dardashat, a chain of coffee shops started three years ago, located on Beirut’s waterfront in the neighborhood of Ain al-Mreisseh as well as near the high-end shopping area of Verdun.
There, friends meet for coffee and to enjoy the old atmosphere. The idea came from the owners’ mother, who herself grew up in an old house and wanted to share her experience by opening a family cafe.
At Aliacci, a small Italian restaurant on Gemmayzeh’s Gouraud Street, Ali Shoukeir says what he spent on the renovation two years ago – $120,000 – is at least twice what he would have spent had he not taken the time to keep the old character. But for him, it’s worth the effort to preserve a small piece of Beirut history.
“I hope they don’t tear down the old buildings here, because then it will become like Downtown [Beirut],” he says as he looks up at the high Ottoman-era stone arch overhead. “Downtown used to be the most beautiful place in Lebanon. Do you remember it?”
Like Shoukeir’s restaurant, stepping into the bars and restaurants along the length of Gemmayzeh’s main street reveals the old stone arches of an Ottoman khan, but with most of the facades dating to the French mandate period. The area is one of the few in the capital, including Monnot, Abdel-Wahab and Pasteur streets, that has remained largely intact amid Beirut’s ongoing construction boom.
Sitting in the quiet garden of Amareddine restaurant on Abdel-Wahab Street, one might almost forget for a moment that Beirut is in the midst of a construction boom – until one looks up to see a large skyscraper towering overhead.
“I picked this place because it was the only garden we could find in Beirut,” says co-owner of Amareddine, Amine-Jules Iskandar, an architect who restored and renovated the spacious old house into a dining oasis, with orange and mango trees towering over the outdoor garden, a bubbling antique fountain and customers chatting at their tables under umbrellas.
“It looks like a Renoir painting,” he says as he looks across the courtyard at diners shaded by the awning of trees, eating a colorful assortment of mezze dishes on a bright white table cloth.
“People love it, even if they don’t say it. People talk about restaurants but not the old houses,” says Iskandar, who isn’t bothered that his detailed work is a backdrop rather than a centerpiece of the old house dining experience.
When he first started restoring old houses for restaurants 15 years ago, he hoped this would encourage people to preserve Beirut’s architectural heritage, but he has since seen most of his work destroyed after a new business came along.
He is hoping though that with good food reviews his restaurant, and therefore building restoration, will manage to survive, unlike many of his other projects over the past two decades.
“Our aim is to make this one survive forever,” he says.