We should have seen the warning signs. As we walked through the door of the American Dream bar in West Beirut, a group of youngsters were simultaneously backing out of it, smiling nervously as the owner advanced upon them with a bottle of Kahlúa and a handful of shot glasses. Foolishly, though, we took a seat at the bar and were swiftly furnished with cheek-implodingly salty snacks to accompany our Almaza beers – and complimentary TGV (tequila, gin, vodka) chasers. It was 9pm on a Friday night in the Hamra district – tourist central, supposedly – and despite the best efforts of owner Henry, the joint was far from kicking.
“Before the war, everybody came here – now not so much,” says Henry, reminiscing about the time when the Lebanese capital was a hedonistic playground of casinos and bars for oil-rich Arabs – the Paris of the Middle East. When the Civil War broke out in the mid-’70s, the people of Hamra were forced to abandon their homes and businesses and evacuate. Now that peace has returned, so has Henry, but the cool crowd has moved on.
He explains that most young people don’t remember the pre-war nightlife scene, and to them West Beirut is just full of people who disapprove of them drinking and going out at night. So they go elsewhere. “Everyone goes to Monot, on the border – go to Monot,” advises Henry, cheerfully doing himself out of business and telling us not to pay more than 5000 Lebanese pounds for the taxi there as he waves us out of the door. “Once you’ve been there, you won’t come back here!”
To members of a generation for whom a night out in Lebanon would once have been the equivalent of a modern-day city break to Fallujah, the fact that Beirut’s nightlife now exists to the point of being discriminating can come as a surprise. Yet this is a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times, in a country whose history stretches back 4000 years: reinvention is what it does best. Downtown, young families and groups of friends fill the cafés and restaurants around the Place d’Etoile in Beirut Central District (BCD), a meticulously reconstructed setting.
The true epicentre of Beirut’s new cool, though, is still a work in progress – bullet-pocked derelict houses, bombed-out theatres and towerblocks with shell-holes the size of wrecking balls hopefully await restoration along rue Monot, once part of the Green Line which, during 15 years of civil war, formed the frontline of hostilities between Muslims and Christians.
Tonight, however, Monot is less of a history lesson than a crash course in Lebanese cruise culture. Gleaming top-of-the-range Mercedes and BMWs inch along the strip in a consciously engineered traffic jam. For the crowd of late teens and twentysomethings, the name of the game is ‘see and be seen’ – dressed, groomed and made-up to the nines, these beautiful people are disgorged from their chariots to spend the next few hours slinking from one achingly modern bar or nightclub to the next. The only sandbags in sight are those piled behind the bar in a military-themed karaoke joint.
Seriously outglammed, we’re forced to take refuge in the Hole in the Wall, an expat haunt run by Brit Keith Ray. When he first set up, the street outside was a mud track. Now this comfortably no-frills boozer is an anomaly surrounded by upmarket cocktail bars and exclusive nightclubs. Beirut is a buzzing place, but budget-friendly it ain’t.
Even so, Henry’s prophecy was right: despite the free drinks on offer, we don’t return to the American Dream. Beirut has moved on and we’ve got to keep up.
Sink your teeth into
Despite the encroachment of American fast food culture, Lebanese cuisine remains one of the finest in the Middle East. For the dedicated and extremely hungry visitor, here’s how to cram it all into a day:
• An early morning stroll along the Corniche should work up your appetite for a hearty breakfast of foul (warm stew of beans, lemon juice, oil) and labneh (savoury scrambled eggs with tender lamb morsels) served with iced onions, radishes and gherkins for those without too delicate a constitution.
• Mingle with the students in the leafy surrounds of the American University and you’re in place for your second breakfast of the day: head to rue Bliss for syrup-drenched pastries, a mid-morning sugar hit.
• After a day of sightseeing, soak up the sunset at Pigeon Rocks, impressive cliffs with offshore rock arches that are Beirut’s most famous (and only) natural attraction. Pull up a sundae-shaped plastic stool and refresh yourself with some rose-flavoured ice-cream.
• For your evening meal, head out of the city centre to feast like a local at Burj Al-Hamaam. Specialities you should try include fattoush (salad of tomatoes, onions, mint, toasted pitta and sumac, a tangy powder of dried berries) and kibbe nayeh (finely ground lamb served raw – don’t be such a chicken – with cracked bulghur wheat, olive oil and pine nuts). Wash down with a bottle or two of Ksara wine from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
• Catch a cab back downtown and join the throng at one of the pavement cafés around Place d’Etoile. After-dinner conversation over coffee and apple-flavoured hookah pipe is such a civilised way to end the evening (although you aren’t far from Monot, if you’ve the energy for clubbing). If you’re drawn in by the dizzying array of sweet delights at Rafaat Hallab & Sons, be warned: accept a free taster and you’ll be hooked. Scarily, they also ship worldwide.”