Image: Frank Huster
February 05 2011
Mark C O’Flaherty
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Lebanon several times on assignments in recent months, and the highlight of each trip has been a very local kind of lunch. Beirut has one of the most capricious dining scenes in the world, with trend-obsessed locals selecting restaurants based on whatever the “hot new place” is, but for many there’s just one restaurant that matters: Tawlet.
Tawlet is an offshoot of charismatic organic foodie ambassador Kamal Mouzawak’s twice-weekly farmers’ market, Souk el Tayeb. It’s only open during the day, Monday to Saturday, and each weekday a different producer or cook prepares a buffet (L£40,000/£17) that reflects their regional specialities (with a more standard, set “souk brunch” on Saturdays).
As most Lebanese regulars will tell you, this is home cooking that is almost impossible to find outside private homes. Many of the cooks at Tawlet have slavish followings for certain dishes (a raw goat kibbeh, which is one of the best things I’ve tasted anywhere, is a much-loved rarity, while the fatoush is often the best in the city). The website lists in advance who is cooking, and tables for certain afternoons are booked solid with a crowd of foodies, fashion types (who have set up shop in the area), politicos and businessmen. It’s become quite the eclectic community hang-out.
The space itself is a breezy, modern café – lots of wood, glass, light and chalkboards – and it’s absolutely not on the tourist trail. Tawlet is a half-hour walk or a short (when it’s not gridlocked) cab ride from downtown, in an unremarkable side street in the up-and-coming district of Mar Mikahel. You won’t just stumble upon it. Oh, and one of the biggest draws for me is that Tawlet is just about the only no-smoking dining room in Beirut, which, in a city that sees tobacco as a symbol of freedom rather than a toxic annoyance, is a real breath of fresh air.