Mikaela Aitken
Writer, Editor & Strategist

Put on a spread

Beirut’s culinary scene has eschewed showy plates in favour of homespun tributes to its heritage and, with a new generation ready to reclaim their past, eating out in Lebanon’s capital is better than ever.

Writer: Mikaela Aitken
Photography: Anna Maria Nielsen

Eating well is a way of life in Lebanon. Despite decades of civil war then bouts of more recent political instability, neighbourhood bakeries, top tables and rooftop bars have been a constant and kept their doors resolutely open.This dogged resilience has helped the country bounce back and tempt tourists anew. And there’s perhaps no better beacon of the country’s optimism and get-on-with-it attitude than the capital’s array of food retailers, restaurants, markets and late-night shawarma stands.

Far from the clamour of the city’s car-clogged streets in the back alleys of Mar Mikhael is a neighbourhood that’s a chaotic tabbouleh of ingredients from arriviste restaurants to old printing shops. Here, under a leafy cluster of trees sits Dalia Jaffal and Andre Fadel’s café and roastery, Kalei Coffee Co.What started in 2015 as a market stall (and more broadly the duo’s pursuit of the best, ethically sourced coffee) has evolved into an inner- city mainstay selling top-quality beans. Kalei’s blends, silky espressos and toast topped high with zesty avocado are the bellwether of a wider movement of new restaurateurs breaking onto the Beirut dining scene. However, the pair’s obsession with quality and provenance is noth- ing new to the Lebanese culinary spread.

Just a few streets north of Kalei is Zawal. The team behind the shop pull together the work of some of the country’s most talented artisans and stock olive oil, oaps, mouth-blown recycled glass by Baal and a range of Levantine pantry products including fig jam and Zaatar herbs. The longstanding tradition of preserving vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers is known in Lebanon as mouneh.The shelves reveal riches from family-run organic farm Tata Marie in coastal Syria to the ancient olive grove Bassatin Baanoub near Sidon.

This return to tradition is something that has only been championed in the past decade, however. In the 20th century the country became an open door for many: Armenians escaping persecution at home; international spies, particularly during the Cold War, seeking protection; and Europeans whose imagination had been captured by the hedonism and liberalism of mid-century Lebanon. As the diasporas grew, the culinary landscape evolved and Beirutis looked for a while to food fads. Even as recent as the early 2000s, showy plates of sub-par sushi were still being served and savoured.

In 2004, writer and entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak founded the country’s first farmers’ market to champion an outstanding line-up of Lebanese food-makers and farmers. The Souk el Tayeb market flipped people’s gaze back inward to Lebanon’s natural food basket. Now each Saturday, Downtown’s open-air mall floods with vendors selling the country’s best organic produce.

But where to sample the finished product of this loyally Levantine food movement? Ticking the boxes of both proudly local and decadently inclined is extravagantly outfitted restaurant Em Sherif in the well-heeled Monot neighbourhood. This 33-dish set-menu affair sees chef and co-owner Mireille Hayek fill tables with outstanding basics of Levantine cooking such as hummus and mutta- bal (aubergine dip), as well as pastries from the in-house stone oven, melt-in-your-mouth grilled chicken and beef, and several variations of traditional desserts.The endless flow of plates, lazy smoke from hookah pipes and live Arabic music may seem puffed up for tourists but it’s the Beirutis who fill the tables night in and out.

Yet the acclaim is not limited to slap-up meals. Some of the best food in Beirut is found in the most unassuming places – such as neon-lit Barbar, which occupies an entire corner in Hamra to serve late-night shawarma (long-grilled mixed-meat wraps). Another hidden jewel is the kitchen inside guesthouse Villa Clara. Here husband-and-wife owners Olivier Gougeon and Marie- Hélène Moawad run a relaxed seven-bedder, decked out with art and antiques. In a previous life Gougeon was a pastry chef in Paris’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Grand Véfour, so naturally his Mediterranean break- fasts with a French kick are cracking.

Food is ingrained in Lebanon’s national identity and nowhere is this felt more than in Beirut. So while the scene may have faltered, entrepreneurs and chefs are returning to their culinary roots and a new generation are rising through the ranks to keep the restaurant doors open and the food flowing.