Restaurants: Past & Present

Dining out has never been so popular in Lebanon as it is today. New restaurants open every week, striving to differentiate their service or cuisine with a unique flair (does "Lebanese with a twist" ring a bell?). But with competition so fierce, many are finding themselves in the red, unable to make ends meet, and they're closing their doors to diners.

Strangely enough, since I moved here nearly 20 months ago, several hamburger joints have gone out of business. Anyone remember Burger N Booze, the tiny burger shack on a street corner along Monot that resembled an outdoor sports bar? Their rib eye burgers were truly some of the juiciest and tastiest I've sunk my teeth into, both here and abroad. The prices were a bargain too, at about 15,000LL ($10) per burger. But B&B rarely had volume--underdogs don't stand a chance against hyped up eateries in Lebanon--and the last time I was there earlier this year, I could sense that the quality of the food had severely deteriorated. Sure enough, a few months later, B&B bid Beirut farewell.

There are several others I foresaw closing that indeed did:
  • Mrs. Robinson's location in the An Nahar building. During their weekday happy hours from 4 to 7 PM, appetizers, drinks, and dessert could be had at a steal (where else could you indulge on a bresaola and parmesan rocca salad for 3,750LL [$2.50]?). But it always seemed that Mrs. Robinson had enough employees to staff an army, and they'd cordon off their upstairs dining area as a crash pad for workers on break.
  • Roomers in Achrafieh. While the food, ambiance, and service were superb, the restaurant had trouble drawing out a crowd in the cramped up Furn el Hayek area. Parking can often make or break a business.
  • Le Bar a Thym in Sofil. This was the only creperie in Lebanon to produce proper Breton buckwheat galettes, but again, parking and location are the name of the game.
  • Don Edwardo's rent in Martyr's Square downtown must have been through the roof, and though the restaurant purported to be a steakhouse, sushi lounge, and salad bar all in one, everyone knows that specialization beats generalization when it comes to food.
Others like Cristobal Colon in a vibrant pub alley and Burger Nation along the main Hamra drag I could never have predicted going bankrupt, but alas, new strongholds stole the show. State 11, a self-professed New York style eatery in Tabaris, never really took off, and Chocolate Lounge on Independence Street in Sodeco was perhaps too nonconformist for the Lebanese palate with its marriage of the savory and sweet. Wok Box, one of a scanty few Chinese fast food joints, also collapsed.

If I were to guess what other restaurants are headed down the grim path of failure, I'd say La Fiesta, a Mexican cantina along the Dbayeh freeway which doesn't appear to have easy car access; and Tarator in Sassine, whose measly and overpriced falafel and shawerma wraps are certainly nothing to talk about.

There are yet others like Brgr Co., that are opening a second branch to my great bewilderment. Anyone who's ventured inside Brgr Co. driven by raw hunger for a burger has probably had to fake an emergency phone call as an escape from their outrageously high prices. But the restaurant is opening its second location in the sky-high rental park that is Beirut Souks. Go figure.

A multitude of Lebanese chains seems to have gotten too comfortable with their followings and graduated their prices to a class or grade to which they lay no claim. Casper & Gambini is one such phony, whose glass of house wine at 11,500LL ($8) is the most expensive I've seen anywhere! Julia's, a fine-dining intimate affair in the heart of Achrafieh's Abdel Wahab Street, offers wine at 8,500LL ($6). Casper is no longer a hallmark of the casual and reasonable, and Chase is treading those waters, too, with indistinctive nosh commanding disproportionate price tags.

So what are my favorites? Where will you find my taste buds in raptures? Eric Kayser is a classic, with its rustic breads, tantalizing tartines, and fresh and filling salads, though I wish it weren't tucked inside the boring confines of a mall. For a cozier atmosphere over reliably good salads, pizzas, pastas, and platters, I go to Provincial in Kaslik or its sister seafood restaurant Provincial Sur Mer in Maameltein. The service, quality of food, and price to value rapport is the best I've had anywhere in Lebanon. Mondo's salad bar in the Phoenicia still takes the cake when it comes to more refined fare, and Peninsula's outdoor terrace is the perfect setting for Italian vino and insalata caprese. I'm praying Braai's South African steakhouse in Sofil doesn't close its doors, because while its steaks are easily the most mouthwatering in all of Beirut, the restaurant seems yet undiscovered.

Readers and eaters, do chime in with your favorites!

Comments

  1. Hi Danielle.

    Great article, astounding writing, and may I add how much I enjoyed the topic, most especially that my personal dining experiences have passed through those same outlets mentioned in your article.

    As I was reading through the lines, one question came to mind. Why do some restaurants fail while others prosper? Is it really about the food? While one would expect that better quality food or a better pricing scheme should lead to success in the restaurant industry, unfortunately our personal experiences have proven otherwise. The truth is, a restaurant is a business, and just like any other type of business, creating the product is not the key to success. A restaurant owner has to determine how he wants to portray his restaurant. Is it luxurious or casual? Who are his main clients? How will he cater his clients? What prices will he charge? How will he serve his product? What is his sales strategy? How will he target his main clients? What image will the restaurant have? How will I keep the product quality and taste consistent through time? These are but a few questions that one must ask before entering into such a venture. Now looking back at the places that closed their doors, how many of them seemed to have answered the questions before opening. My personal reasoning leads to say, none of them. Then there is no wonder they never stood a chance against those others businesses whose success and expansion seem effortless.

    "Every battle is won before it is ever fought."- Sun Tzu

    Thanks

    ReplyDelete

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