Living

A rinse and a scrub: Gemmayzeh’s Le Chef stripped of grime, but not character

BEIRUT: For the first time in over half a century, Le Chef, Gemmayzeh’s most down-to-earth eatery, closed its doors this summer and allowed the builders in. To little fanfare, the establishment described in Lonely Planet guides to Beirut as a “workers’ cafe” has just reopened. Freshly painted walls, new counters, tables and chairs, and the gleam of a sparkling stainless steel kitchen now greet customers. But does the place retain its charm?

In recent times the more than 50-year-old eatery has largely become the domain of backpacker tourists and expats seeking something more authentic on Gemmayzeh’s main drag of ever-rotating bars, chic restaurants and hip cafes.

Le Chef appealed to cash-strapped experience seekers, with its traditional dishes, handwritten menus, cheap alcohol and healthy layer of age-testifying grime. Fading postcards from around the world peeled on the walls as young waiters in food-smeared uniforms sped between the tightly packed plastic-covered tables.

If judged on appearances alone, the Le Chef of yore wasn’t for the faint of heart: The kitchens, a hive of banging and scraping, seemed almost to spill into the restaurant, and diners could feel the heat of the gas burners as they squeezed past sweating cooks to reach the restrooms – a tiny, grungy setup with tempestuous plumbing.

Today, the washroom requires none of the breath-holding, don’t-let-my-skin-touch-anything anxiety of before, and while still close to the kitchen, its entrance has been separated from the food prep area by a right-angled screen.

At first glance perhaps, the made-over Le Chef appears to have lost its character. With its new wine fridge and blank walls, it’s too pristine. But once seated at one of its tables – new but arranged in exactly the same formation as before – the old establishment begins to reappear.

The menu – unchanged but for some prices rectified in blue pen – still comes flying across the table, delivered unceremoniously as the server intones the day’s specials. A bottle of water promptly follows, with small glasses thumped down before startled diners. Then comes the plate of sliced radishes and mint. Followed by the return of the server, who if you don’t order quickly enough will whisk the menus away and leave you struggling to retrieve his attention.

Charbel Bassil runs the lunchtime and evening shifts. His female relatives direct the morning show.

Bassil, whose father and uncles opened Le Chef, is a familiar figure on Gouraud Street. The absence of his “welcome,” intoned to hungry-looking passersby from the doorway of his premises was noted this summer.

Fortunately now it’s back, and if Bassil happens to know your nationality, it’ll be accompanied by a cursory greeting in your native tongue. If he’s familiar with your usual order, he’ll also recite it to you as added enticement.

Inside Le Chef Thursday, Bassil told The Daily Star that the renovation was purely intended “for cleaning and to improve materials in the kitchen as well as the plumbing and electricity.”

“Our mentality was not to make the renovation for decoration,” he said. “We still have the same spirit.”

He points to a mural running the length of the dining area’s left side. “We didn’t touch it,” he said. The image has, he added, been there since before he was born.

Bassil also added the timing could not have been better, given that there were “no tourists” this summer.

Asked what had become of all the curling postcards and clippings that once adorned the walls, Bassil assured that he’d kept everything. He is preparing to put them all back up, on a notice board on the restaurant’s back wall.

With flocks of diners breaking the new interior in, it seems Le Chef will be back to its old self in no time – except for, one hopes, the restrooms.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 27, 2013, on page 2.

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