Earlier this year, Paul and I slipped away from the kids to spend the weekend exploring Beirut. We had always wanted to visit together, but when we watched Anthony Bourdain become trapped in his hotel as the war began in 2006, we were left with great sadness. We had just gotten married and I’d just graduated from design school and landed my first job at an architecture firm. Paul was developing and selling commercial real estate. Our lives together had just begun and although we didn’t know exactly where we were headed now that our trajectory had forever become entwined, we did always know that it would include travel. We also knew we simply had to get to Beirut one day, even after that tragic episode.
Our whole experience here living in the Middle East has been a homecoming of sorts for Paul. I share his excitement at uncovering questions, flavors and small Arabic phrases from his childhood. His grandfather arrived to the United States from Lebanon as a child and his grandmother was a first generation American born to Lebanese parents in Boston. Certainly bits and pieces of life here in Jordan have been small awakenings for him, but we knew going back to Lebanon itself would be a very cool pilgrimage.
Our lives changed dramatically in 2008 when Paul lost his job as the market crashed and we made a very difficult, but very intrepid decision to accept an offer to travel the world when Paul accepted a job with the State Department. I’d already quit, what turned out to be a horrible first experience in the world of interior design, but wrapped up neatly as “A great opportunity to get your foot in the door!” We never looked back. We packed up a brand new baby and a toddler, waved goodbye to our families as set off to make our dreams of traveling the world together, come true. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In government shut downs and well you get the idea.
It’s hard to imagine places at war, becoming tourist destinations again. Harder for no one than the people of that country, I am certain. But, places with as much heart as Beirut find their way home. I don’t however, pretend to assume it will even be quite the same as it once was or to deny that struggles remain.
“And yet I’d already fallen in love with Beirut. We all had—everyone on my crew. As soon as we’d landed, headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as pheromonic: The place just smelled good. Like a place we were going to love.” ~Anthony Bourdain
As we flew into Beirut (which is just slightly less than an hour flight from our current home here in Amman) I knew instantly that we were in for a culinary treat among other things, the promise of the flavors that result only when mountains roll gently downhill to greet the ocean. Passing over wineries and farms and eventually watching the waves of the Mediterranean crash on to the rocky cliffs of the seashore, I was already dreaming up recipes rich with all the tradition we’d come to love about the Middle East plus recipes handed down to me from Paul’s Sitti’s kitchen scrawled on tattering note cards.
Beirut delivered on all those early promises and while we didn’t get a chance to venture out of the city to the village that Paul’s family was from in our short weekend get away, we did fall in love with the city by staying in a boutique hotel, in a residential neighborhood that allowed us to experience the city more intimately, instead of as guests in a huge hotel. We greeted shopkeepers in the morning as they set up and walked absolutely everywhere getting to know the streets and alleys in our neighborhood. I need so much more time in Beirut. A sign in and of itself that the city stole my heart.
Stay // Villa Clara
A beautiful 1920’s era Lebanese home, converted into a chic seven suite boutique hotel. Located in the heart of one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city, Mar Mikael, this love child of Chef Olivier & Marie Helene, will make you feel more like you are a guest in their home and a part of the city, than just any guest in town. Each room was exquisitely and uniquely decorated and breakfast on the terrace outside was the work of fairy garden magic. My only regret is not having dinner at the hotel restaurant one night.
Mar Mikael, Beirut
Eat // Tawlet
Just reminiscing about this lunch spot makes me excited. If every restaurant in the world could be this RIGHT and this GOOD, the world would be in better shape. Tawlet was birthed by the the father of the culinary rebirth in Lebanon, Kamal Mouzawak. Creator of the first farmer’s market in the city, Souk El Tayeb, eventually Mouzawak opened Tawlet and began to invite a chef, farmer or foodies from around Lebanon and now, the world, to cook weekly. The family style lunch is served just beside the open kitchen and the treasured guest cook stands just behind their spread to greet guests, answer questions and serve the food they’ve prepared. Mouzawak himself (as we later learned) greeted us as we got settled in our seats, by simply offering us “Lemonade or arak?” Music to to our ears. We feasted on purslane salad, speckled with pomegranate seeds and the airiest vinaigrette, giant Lebanese cous cous served in an earthy chicken stock, white fish terrine, eggplant moussaka and a host of other farm fresh vegetables and sweets to finish.
Sip // Dragonfly
Longtime bartender cum owner and host, “Nino” dressed in a smart white lab coat, greeted us with the world’s best bar snacks (no joke you guys, I nearly ruined dinner) and lovingly made us his signature rosemary whisky sour and the self named “Nino” concocted of rosemary, ginger, lime and vodka. A drink that our bar neighbors would tell us they actually live for after long days at a local design company.
+961 71 127 773
Eat // Liza
We walked from our hotel through the dynamic streets of Beirut and wound up the hill, peering in shop windows along our way until we arrived at a dimly lit 19th century palace. Upon entering the understated entry the elevator opened up to one of the most magnificent spaces I’ve ever seen. I learned while researching for this spot, that it had been named one of the “World’s Most Beautiful Restaurants,” by Conde Naste Traveler. The joy of Liza however, is not only the design, but the respectful innovation of traditional dishes of Lebanon. We ran into Mouzawak here, too, which just added to the feeling that we really had entered a thriving culinary community.
Eat // Taco de Madre
Maybe eating tacos in Lebanon isn’t everyone’s first thought, but Paul and I wish to eat tacos in every place in the world, so this one checked a box and checked it well I might add. With fist-fulls of cold local Almaza pilsner, we toasted beneath the “Make Tacos Not War” sign and awaited our crispy fish and falafel tacos with radish, mint and spiked sesame sauce.
Mar Mikael, Beirut
Shop // Pink Henna
My favorite shops to discover in a new city are always a marriage of the city’s history and culture and style. Pink Henna was no exception. It is a cabinet of curiosities from then and now displayed in and on refurbished pieces of furniture. Like I always do, I bought a small treasure to add to our home, this time a blue hamsa mosaic made with glimmering bits of blue tile and an eye at the center of the palm.
+961 71 127 773
Wander About // Sursock Museum
Feast your Eye Upon // Rock of Raouché
Also known as Pigeon Rock, this natural landmark stands just off of the upscale neighborhood of al Dalieh. It attracts swimmers, boaters and sunset seekers alike.
Shop // Souk el Tayeb
Catalyst and fore-bearer of Tawlet. The first open-air, farmers market of its kind in Beirut is held on each Saturday in downtown Beirut. After a year in the lovely, but ever so arid desert of Jordan, I am still not altogether sure the heavens didn’t open up once more and a choir of angels began singing as we sauntered the streets of the market that morning, shining their tiny angelic light upon each tendril of artichoke and each fuzzy headed fresh almond. I was so drunk on its finery: jams, honey, recycled glass carafes and the scents of homemade bread roasting beside me, that I even managed to purchase Mouzawak’s cookbook all in French. Although, it is too gorgeous and too full of familiar family names, like Hanna and Chalhoub for me to even care.
Downtown Beirut at the Beirut Souks, Trablos Street from 9am to 2pm