BEIRUT: Inside a large blue shipping container in Mar Mikhael lies a secret world, where everything has a function but nothing does what it’s supposed to. After the surprise success in 2012 of pop-up restaurant Junkyard, the weird and wonderful bar and eatery is back, this time for good.Initially a short-term plan to use the land leased by restaurateur Mario Jr. Haddad while waiting for the permits to come through for an Italian restaurant, Junkyard was intended to be a transitory place. Thanks to the enthusiasm of Beirut foodies, 60 or 70 of whom a night began to swarm to the unorthodox pop-up in the summer months, Haddad has decided to make it a permanent fixture.
The restaurant re-opened Tuesday, this time featuring a permanent indoor dining area to be used year-round, an exterior seating for the summer months and a rooftop bar.
Bigger, bolder and more polished than the previous space, Junkyard is centered on the concept of recycling and much of the unique atmosphere of the place is down to the innovative, off-the-wall design of the structure, furniture and decor by Haddad’s cousin Ramy al-Khazen.
Before he began working on Junkyard last year, Khazen had no experience in design. The owner of an arak factory, he had always been interested in architecture and design, he explains, and when Haddad mentioned that he needed to create a temporary space on the cheap, Khazen leapt into the breach.
Using recycled materials and scavenged objects, he put together a scrap yard-themed spread, part industrial waste ground, part lush garden. This year, Khazen has surpassed his previous efforts, reusing elements from last year’s design to create a larger, more permanent space in which Victorian steampunk meets Alice in Wonderland.
The carcass of an ancient tractor, its headlights shining, serves as an unorthodox sculptural lamp, positioned next to an enormous outdoors island bar. The front of a police jeep bursts through the back wall of the garden area, and flotillas of mismatched tables, one made from an old wine barrel, another from the skeleton of a metal handcart, are strewn across the grass.
Colorful graffiti adorns the walls. Murals featuring sexy, semiclad woman, burly tattooed men and a skull wearing a gold crowd were executed by street artist Rami Mouallem, who based his work on Khazen’s sketches.
A line of raised booths provide semiprivate dining areas for small parties. One, created from the remains of an old army truck, features cushioned benches upholstered in camouflage print fabric, and a glass-topped table in which an enormous, rusty shell reposes. Shrapnel also serves as lampshades – two bulbs, suspended on lengths of piping, hang within metal shell-casings from which strips of metal have been artfully removed.
A booth made out of a Sukleen truck, headlights shining merrily, forms a raised room in which 12 people can be seated for a private party. In the center of the site, an enormous sculptural tree, made of recycled steel construction rods, dominates the garden. From its angular branches, light bulbs hang inside a collection of colorful, mismatched shades, made from old washing machine drums, dishwasher parts and gas canisters.
“I was really picky with the pieces I chose,” Khazen says. “I tried to look for pieces that actually have some life in them ... We even went all the way up to Nabatieh, to the borders of Israel to get the tractor. It’s a very special one. It’s a 1936 model.”
Haddad confides that in the end creating the handmade furniture from scratch cost more than bulk buying items new.
“Everything is made out of collected junk,” he emphasizes, “whether from the street or from other places that closed down, pieces that people didn’t want or were not using. Everything was collected as we went along. It took three years because it wasn’t preset. There were no plans ... It takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Although we didn’t pay for the junk itself, working with the junk itself costs more than buying stuff new.”
No longer a financial concern, the recycling theme has become more of a gimmick, a means of giving Junkyard a unique feel. Drinks are served in glasses made from cut-off Almaza bottles, napkins are taken from other restaurants that have closed down and are distributed haphazardly, mismatched logos and all. When patrons request the bill, the total is listed on old envelopes from Haddad’s offices.
Khazen has even reused the tools utilized when building the restaurant. In the entrance hall, paint tins striped with colorful smears hang from the ceiling and the wall is decorated using circular saw blades, painted in jaunty colors.
Inside the shipping container, a traditional Lebanese stone fountain clashes artfully with the ultra-contemporary steel walls. Close to the toilets is a “confession wall,” where patrons can anonymously write down a secret and drop it into a box, for staff to display once they’ve safely departed.
One day after opening, the wall was already peppered with secrets. “I believe I am adopted,” one read. “I am married and still in love with my first boyfriend,” another said.
The menu has also been revamped since last year. Last summer, chef Tomas Reger cooked up a new menu every day, but Junkyard’s permanent incarnation features a seasonal set menu of up-market street food – burgers, barbecued items and fish and chips.
“We went with that approach because we wanted to give that unpretentious feel to it,” Haddad says, “but we still went gourmet with the food. In line with the concept where everything is recycled, we’ve recycled the idea of street food into gourmet food. The burger is made out of a grass-fed Australian ribeye, so it’s $80 a kilo.”
He notes that Junkyard closes at 1 a.m., in deference to the neighbors, some of whom sit out on their balconies overseeing the festivities below. It attracts a crowd in the 30s and 40s, he says, who want somewhere where the music is not too loud and they can sit and chat with friends rather than getting drunk and stumbling home at 3 a.m.
It's not only the menu that's new. Haddad is also working with two new chefs this year, Lee Purcell from the U.K. and Italy's Walter Benanatti.
“It took me about three or four months to convince them to come to Lebanon and work here,” he says, “because it’s difficult getting someone to come to Beirut. When they saw the project ... that’s what convinced them. Ramy and I bought them here and took them around and they just fell in love with it.”
Junkyard is located just behind the United gas station in Mar Mikhael. It is open daily from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. To find out more, please visit www.facebook.com/junkyardbeirut.