Sure, you go to Lebanon for the history, to soak up the vistas of this beautiful jewel of a country along the Mediterranean, or to understand the complicated politics that underlie this region of the world. But really, you go to Lebanon for the food and Beirut is the food capital. Anthony Bourdain in his acclaimed Beirut Parts Unknown episode said of the city, “As soon as we’d landed and headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as pheromonic. The place just smelled good. Am I wrong to love this place?” No, Anthony, you indeed landed in the right place for food lovers. I’ve traveled to Beirut four times and while my best meals have always been in a friend’s home, what follows are x restaurants and a few street cafes where you can’t go wrong.
My Favorite Beirut Restaurants
Em Sharif Café is a chic restaurant located in the downtown area of Beirut. You’ll want to make reservations because this is a happening spot, reserved for celebrations. If the word “boite” exists in Arabic, this is a true trendy boite spot. And the plates match the trendiness, bold blue patterns with Arabic letters, cool lighting and a menu with a modern twist on Lebanese fare. The café is the junior version of their celebrated EmSharif Restaurant which is slightly more Chi-Chi with a fixed menu. At the café, they have a selective mezze menu, essentially putting their own modern twist on traditional dishes. Our Fattoush salad came more finely chopped (than a traditional fattoush) with sumac and pomegranate molasses. The pomegranate molasses theme continued with Ras asfour— translation bird’s head – but don’t worry, no baby birds were consumed in the making of this post. Ras Afour consists of small pieces of baby tenderloin soaked in a pomegranate molasses sauce. We also had delicious little white sausages stewed in lemon of all things. And, of course, their version of baba ghanoush is spectacular. This is the country where eggplants go to die and ascend to culinary heaven and EmSharif’s version is part of that tradition.
Tawlet — which means “Table” in Arabic — is a lunchtime eatery and this is a lunch date with Lebanon’s most amazing home chefs you won’t want to miss. Hidden down a dead-end lane in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood near downtown, the restaurant is as light, airy and simple as its name. Tawlet was the vision of Kamal Mouzawa, a wunderkind who is part culinary activist and part slow-food groupie. He started the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market as a project to highlight Lebanon’s organic food and to bring together fractured communities. Tawlet is an outgrowth of that. Every day, a different home chef from a different region of the country is selected to come to the restaurant and prepare a feast of her best dishes. It’s a buffet-style restaurant with large communal tables. We heaped our plates with mounds of tomatoes in tahini, zucchini with dried mint and garlic, Rabeh (a smoked eggplant dip) and a tender beef stew. Save room for dessert, in fact, don’t eat for at least a day before you come to Tawlet because this is a table full of food that highlights all Lebanon has to offer.
Breakfast at the Rooftop Bar at the Hotel Albergo. When we travel to Beirut, we usually stay at the Albergo, a hotel which is part of the Relais and Chateaux series (a collection of some of the best boutique hotels and restaurants worldwide). Located in the Achrafieh neighborhood, you’ll know you’re at the Albergo when you see an ochre-colored ancient villa, a large gilded cast iron gate, draped in trailing greenery and hear the chirp of the resident courtyard birds. Don’t be deterred by the tiny, ancient elevator that takes you to the rooftop bar. Honestly, I’d have any meal (and especially) recommend sunset cocktails at the Albergo’s rooftop bar, but breakfast really is divine. Choose an outdoor table or sit at one of the comfy upholstered wicker armchairs and soak up the scent of fig and orange trees. Order the authentic Lebanese breakfast and be prepared for a table bedecked with a host of pretty plates and baskets featuring labneh, eggs cooked in a clay pot, local wild oak honey, cucumber, tomatoes and petite doughy zaatar manoushes. Suggestion: plan this on a day when you intend to skip lunch.
Lunch at Le Gray hotel. The Le Gray in downtown Beirut offers a rooftop bar experience completely different but equally as enticing as The Albergo. This hotels is as chic and modern as the Albergo is old and charming. If you’re going there, save time for a quick trip to the oh-so-instagrammable I ❤️ Beirut sign just down the street. Le Gray is where you go for a leisurely lunch, preferably with a glass of local rosé . Head to Indigo on the Roof and ask to sit outside. You’ll get one of the best views of both downtown’s minarets as well as it’s cathedral spires. And if you crane your neck, you can see the blackened shell of the bombed out National Cinema (affectionately known as “The Egg”) which has been kept as a stark memento of the long civil war. The menu changes often but I had the most exquisite plate of grilled calamari with artichokes. My lunch mate raved over the crispy duck salad made with pickled beetroot and caramelized pumpkin seed.
Bagatelle is a restaurant owned by our journalist friend, Tima Khamil. It’s a true bistro that just so happens to be located in an ancient villa in the Hamra district. Sit outside, relax, but don’t expect traditional Lebanese food. Do expect phenomenal ambiance, a relaxed evening under the stars and if you’re lucky a visit by the intensely dramatic, gorgeous, fascinating Tima. The menu has a French-American-Italian Mediterranean vibe, so there’s something for every taste bud. They’re known for their tartars, but don’t ask for the details because the mix is secretive. I personally loved (and devoured) the ceviche which was soaked in a soy, rice wine vinegar, red pepper concoction.
Best Beirut Cafe’s and Bars
Khalifeh Truth? Most Americans do not wander into this part of Beirut because it’s smack dab in the middle of the Beirut’s southern suburb, Dahiye, which is where Hezbollah bases its non-military operations. Hezbollah is designated a terrorist organization by the US and European governments but that’s not necessarily how all Lebanese view them. With many elected MP’s in the Parliament, schools, hospitals and the like, Hezbollah is seen by Lebanese Shiites and some others as a legitimate entity. And – like the rest of Lebanon – food is taken just as seriously in their neck of the woods as anywhere else in the country.
We were in Dahiye because we were heading into Sabra and Shatilla, the long-suffering Palestinian refugee camp that’s nearby. We’d been several times before and wanted to see how it had changed since our last visit. (It has, now there are Syrian refugees living there side by side with the Palestinians). We didn’t have time to dine at our usual Dahiye destination, the lovely As-Saha, a restaurant and complex built by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the recently deceased spiritual; leader of the Shiites in Lebanon.
So, needing a quick bite we opted for fast-ish food. At Khalifeh, you can get a delicious smoothie, a great Lebanese version of a sandwich or a fine falafel. The place is not fancy with its linoleum tables and bright green laminate chairs, but it’s clean and tasty. We had the chicken shawarma sandwich which came with pickles, parsley, onions, tahini sauce, and surprise, French fries wrapped right in the sandwich! The garlic sauce you find at every meal in Lebanon was particularly tasty here.
Falafel Sahyoun is not one but two restaurants. Turns out the war in downtown Beirut is still going on and it’s among these falafel establishments. Two hole-in-the-wall shops sit side by side in Ashrafieh near Beirut, on Damascus Road, not far from “Green Line” that marked the epicenter of fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year long civil war. Two brothers inherited the original Sahyoun shop from their father and one broke away and started his own identical shop, right next door. The brothers don’t talk but create nearly identical falafel sandwiches, one comes in a blue paper bag, the other in white. Locals and tourists alike line up outside the shops for this typical street food “sandwich’ of ground fava beans, chickpeas, and spices wrapped in pita. I’ve never been a fan of the American version because it lands like a dull thud in the base of my stomach. Then I tried both Sahyoun versions and realized falafel can be delicious.
By the way, if you want to learn more about the brothers and the feud, the UN reporter for the New York Times wrote a story about it.
Ichkhanian Bakery. When in Lebanon, eat Armenian. Armenian food is like a first cousin to Lebanese food, just as delicious but with a smokier aroma. The Ichkhanian Bakery is a true hanger-on small little hole in the wall spot in West Beirut. It’s been here since 1946. Pre-civil war, this entire part of town was dotted with Armenian establishments and residents. During the civil war, most of the Armenians got the heck out of Dodge and moved to the Eastern (Christian) side of town. The owners of Ichkhanian refused to leave and bake their trademark lahme beajine to this day. Don’t plan to sit down at this restaurant, but the good news is you don’t have to. Lahme beajine is kind of like pizza (only way better), a thin crispy dough houses a thin layer of ground, spicy meat with a hint of lemon and lots of spices.
Oslo Ice Cream I rarely eat dessert in Lebanon. How can you, when everyone prides themselves on over-stuffing you at every meal? However, when I heard from my friend Moustafa Fahs, who leads the Alternative Walking Tours of Beirut that Oslo has the best Pistachio ice cream on the planet, I was intrigued. Pistachios are a national past-time in Lebanon – an offering you get before you start every meal. Pistachio ice cream is a particular favorite of mine. Is it the surprise factor of this pea green substance that has the most aromatic, woody, taste? The founder of Oslo is a Lebanese woman Nayla Audi who got her dessert chops working at the Michelin starred Patina Restaurant in LA. She came back to Beirut and opened Oslo where you can also imbibe other aromatic flavors like Earl Grey and Ginger or get drunkenly adventurous with Campari sorbet.
The Demo Bar in Gemayze is a small spot, but true hipster heaven. We went there with Moustafa to top up day one of our two-day alternative walking tour of Beirut. (Note to gastronomic self. Walking tour in Beirut is a very good idea to counteract all the eating you will be doing!) My hunch is this place really starts to see activity around 9 or 10 pm every night, presumably when the DJ shows up. Part bar, part way-station – they serve basic grub like hamburgers. But it’s not about the food, you come here for the camaraderie. Whatever time of day you show up, ask Tarek the bartender to make you a “Green gin” a refreshing combination of mint, cucumber, lime and you guessed it, gin.