Had you wanted to spend a gastronomic weekend in Beirut 25 years ago, you would probably have had to hitch a lift in a Hercules; now, a five-hour BMI flight from Heathrow will suffice. And, should the city’s traffic allow, you could be installed in the rooftop bar of Le Gray, Beirut’s smartest hotel, or its restaurant, Indigo on the Roof, within an hour of touchdown.
Looking out over Martyrs’ Square, the devastating scars inflicted by 15 years of civil war are obvious, but so, too, are signs of regeneration. The downtown area has seen a boom in recent years: the old souks are now a high-end shopping mall, and much else has either been rebuilt or is a work in progress. This is a deeply diverse city, but it has a tenacious spirit.
Two of the greatest champions of the new Beirut may be familiar to London diners, and neither is Lebanese. The first is Gordon Campbell-Gray, Le Gray’s proprietor: he set up London’s One Aldwych hotel and Antigua’s Carlisle Bay before turning his attention to Beirut, with spectacular results.
The other is Mourad Mazouz, owner of both Momo and Sketch in London. His new Beirut restaurant and bar, Momo at the Souks, is already one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, serving an esoteric mix of North African and French dishes, while the bar is packed every night with the young, see-and-be-seen beau monde, partying as if there were no tomorrow.
This devil-take-the-hindmost approach to life is one of the city’s defining characteristics, as I discovered when Mazouz – an evangelist for all things Lebanese – took me on a tour of his favourite restaurants and bars. Al Halabi, a short drive from the centre, serves the sort of Lebanese food with which we are familiar in London, but better: perky tabbouleh with a mere sprinkling of cracked wheat; raw liver dipped in sumac, cumin and salt; fabulous kibbeh (raw lamb, pounded to a paste and gently spiced); silk-smooth hummus. Nothing disappointed, and I defy anyone to leave the place hungry.
The high-ceilinged, white-tiled Tawlet, on Naher Street, offers something very different: owned by the indefatigable Kamal Mouzawak, it showcases Lebanese home cooking. A different person from the surrounding villages cooks lunch every day, and the resultant buffet costs $23, including limitless arak, although you might prefer to choose from the fine selection of Lebanese wines. I particularly enjoyed the wines of Château Marsyas, from the Bekaa Valley.
These two restaurants are reason enough to visit Beirut, but I have hardly scratched the surface: the street food, for example, is not only delicious, but a great way to grapple with the city’s myriad districts and cultures. Beirut is a gourmet’s paradise: it is a city – and a subject – to which I will definitely return.