If, like me, you’re a bit greedy, you might find it hard to leave breakfast at the Phoenicia Hotel. There’s fresh yoghurt, pizza-like flatbreads straight from the oven, all manner of herbs, fruit and vegetables and an omelette station as well as English and Continental breakfast stalwarts. You could spend weeks there and still not sample everything. The hotel’s hospitality is so on point that it would be very easy not to venture out at all but that would be a waste – Beirut is a food lover’s paradise. As Chairman of the Phoenicia, Mazen Salha, told me: “Food in Lebanon is about so much more than healthy nourishment. It’s a social culture.”
Lunch at Tawlet is the best way to experience that culture. Only open at lunchtime, it has a rotating crew of cooks who are villagers from the countryside rather than restaurant chefs. This is a rare opportunity to try proper home-cooked Lebanese food. The house speciality is freekeh, a green durum wheat cereal that’s made into a kind of pilau, but rest assured that everything here is delicious.
After experiencing an authentic taste of domestic life, it’s time to join Lebanon’s jet set. Prepare to dress up – everyone in Beirut looks immaculate and people will notice if your collar is frayed or your shoes are scuffed. The Beirutis are also ardent Francophiles as Lebanon was once a French Protectorate and French still functions as a lingua franca in the country, although English is starting to overtake. One of the best French restaurants is La Petite Maison, located close to the Phoenicia. It feels just like being in Paris, only the customers are far more glamorous. The food is classically French; the gratin dauphinoise is particularly amazing. Another French establishment worth trying is Goûtons Voir, famed for its frogs’ legs and confit duck. You’ll find it in Achrafieh, an area in the east of the city.
Also in Achrafieh is an architectural gem of a restaurant called Liza Beirut. Designed by Maria Ousseimi, it was opened by Parisian Lebanese restaurateur Liza Asseily in 2014. Built in a converted 19th-century palace, it’s a symphony of Moorish tiles and filigreed window partitions which give it an air of eating out at Alhambra in Granada. The food is traditional Lebanese executed with a very light touch.
Gilt is equally good looking. Tucked down the narrow streets and art galleries of Saifi Village, the architecture of the space is stunning, flaunting a long minimalist bar and high ceilings. The food is mainly Italian with some French influences, mixing in on-trend dishes like quinoa burgers. It’s very popular with Beirut’s younger crowd, who come for the drinks, the buzz and the music as much as the food.
Beirut is a great city to walk around. One place you mustn’t miss on your wanders is the Souk el Tayeb, a farmers’ market held every Saturday in the beautifully restored downtown area. It is here that you will begin to understand the full diversity of the country’s rich produce, from tiny aubergines that the Lebanese like to stuff with walnuts to pickles prepared by Armenian women and wines from the Bekaa valley.
Save space for dinner at Em Sherif on Rue Victor Hugo, where there is no menu, just an endless stream of mezze including kibbeh, which is like steak tartare but made with raw lamb instead of beef, soujouk – a cured spicy sausage – and tiny birds that are eaten whole. Just be careful not to fill up on hummus and flatbread at the beginning. Wash it all down with arak, an aniseed liqueur, drunk diluted over ice.
If you’re feeling really chi-chi, take a cab to B 018 (Dix Huit in French). Located in an underground bunker, this nightclub has been packed out for 20 years and is still the place to be seen in the city. If you’re feeling more sedate, then it’s back to the Phoenicia for a single malt on the terrace bar which overlooks the yacht club where you can sit back and drink in the view.