Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Beirut has been on my list of places to visit for longer than I can remember. The city’s deep and often troubled history, its famous restaurant scene, and its legendary nightlife all lured me to Lebanon. With just over a month left to complete my 90 under 30 Travel Project, I added the country to the list and took off on Friday to travel to Beirut for the weekend.
I arrived on Friday afternoon and was picked up at the airport by a car from the Phoenicia, my hotel for the night. After a quick drive from the airport, I checked into my suite, which the hotel had offered me for the night. It was one of the largest suites I’ve stayed in on my travels, what with the spacious living room, grand bedroom, and two bathrooms. The views over the yacht-studded harbor weren’t bad, either.
After getting settled in, I explored the hotel. First there was the large spa with its indoor and outdoor pools and fitness center. Then came the beautiful lobby lounge and restaurant, which were followed by the chic rooftop club and lounge. The hotel was everything Beirut’s grand dame should be.
So was the breakfast buffet. It was without a doubt the largest spread I’ve seen, complete with an omelette bar, a crepe station, a pastry section, a juice stand, a salad area, and a huge selection of local breakfast foods that I didn’t hesitate to try.
My night at the Phoenicia was followed by two more at the Four Seasons. The hotel, which had offered me a room, was a two-minute walk away. It was set in a shiny new skyscraper with a stunning rooftop pool and terrace that turned into one of Beirut’s best nightclubs on warm summer evenings.
My suite was on the 10th floor and had sweeping views over the harbor and across the city to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The rest of the hotel had an intimate feel, with an airy lobby lounge, a beautiful spa, a sumptuous bar done in deep reds, and a fine dining restaurant.
I started my first morning there at The Grill, where I had a hot breakfast of Lebanese eggs with peppers, tomatoes, and onions, as well as several plates of local cheeses, vegetables, and breads. I also made a round at the buffet, where I found fresh fruit, croissants, and other tempting options.
That night I returned to the sumptuous dining room for dinner. I enjoyed a starter of tuna tartar with avocado and caviar, a main of red mullet with prawns, calamari, and grilled vegetables, and dessert of glazed pear with ice cream and yogurt. The Chateau Ksara Rouge 2007 went down so smoothly that it was hard to resist ordering more. I have always liked Lebanese wine, but this one truly won me over.
Outside of the hotels, I was equally food focused during my two-and-a-half days in Beirut. I didn’t hesitate to ask the concierges for recommendations, and they provided great suggestions for where I could get my fix.
The first restaurant, Abdel Wahab, was a traditional one on a small street packed with everything from Asian fusion places to my favorite stop for steak frites in Paris, Relais de L’Entrecote. There I tucked into a feast of warm hummus, tabouleh, chicken taouk with garlic sauce, and foul medames, a dish made with fava beans that I fell in love with on my second trip to Jordan. The food was excellent, and the Ksara Reserve du Couvent that went with it was the perfect accompaniment.
The next day I continued to explore Beirut’s restaurant scene with a trip to a place that came highly recommended: Tawlet Souk el Tayeb. The small, casual restaurant was well off the beaten path, and walking there helped me work up an appetite for what turned out to be one of the largest meals I’ve eaten in a long time. The buffet lunch featured a wide variety of Lebanese dishes made with fresh local ingredients.
I piled my plate with roasted potatoes with chili, marinated mushrooms, eggplant with peppers, steamed vegetables, chicken, beans, and pita bread. The feast that ensued was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, and by the end of lunch I knew why so many people had recommended the restaurant to me.
That evening I had dinner at Zaytunay Bay, a new development in the yacht harbor with all kinds of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a place that seemed to cater to tourists, but my sea bass at Amarres was surprisingly good, if a bit pricey.
The dinners in Beirut were followed by trips to the well-known Gemayzeh area to explore the city’s nightlife. On the first night I found myself at a bar on the main street, Rue Gouraud. It was packed with people out enjoying their Friday night to the sounds of a DJ, and I felt like I could be at any number of chic bars in London. Outside, the street was packed with cars, many of which were blasting music to create their own personal soundtrack for the night.
The following evening I veered off Rue Gouraud to go to a great bar that was located halfway up a wide set of steps called the St. Nicholas Stairs. The buzzing Alcazar had a more casual atmosphere than the place I went to the night before, what with its historic interior and chilled out crowd. As I sipped a vodka soda, a projector beamed footage onto a screen to the beat of the music.
When I wasn’t enjoying Beirut’s hotels, restaurants and nightlife, I was exploring the city itself. Beirut has a long, rich history, what with everyone from the Phoenicians to the Romans, Ottomans, French, and Syrians having had their influence over the city at some point during the last few thousand years. Such a long history deserves a post of its own, though, so for now I will nurse my Lebanese food coma and write the rest tomorrow.