Strolling Down Memory Lane: Restaurant Closures in Beirut
The other day, I was scrolling through the extensive directory of restaurants published on my blog. By no means is this an exhaustive list of every eatery in Lebanon. It is merely a compilation of the places I’ve (1) visited and (2) felt utterly compelled to showcase. To be sure, the list counts hundreds of food institutions in and around Beirut.
But as I was skimming over the roster, I realized an update was in order, for a vast number of these joints have gone out of business. A reliable source in the food and beverage industry recently confided that 741 establishments shuttered in the past year alone. That number is at once record-breaking and crippling.
Indeed, the one constant in Lebanon is change, and more often than not, it’s anything but positive. Our dilapidated roads, the poor urban planning, telecom and mobile service, pollution of the environment, economic stagnation, unemployment, unreasonably low wages…the banes afflicting this nation are too numerous to recount here.
One of the beacons of light that we have typically sought out and flaunted to the world has been our F&B scene, a dynamic field that largely forms a focal point of Beirutista. It pains me more and more to see decent ventures struggling to survive, only to throw in the towel as they fall deeper and deeper in the red.
Here are a few restaurant closures that have left me distraught.
Bayrut Street Food (and Bayrut Street Food Bites)
Last summer, I was so happy to report my latest shawarma find. Sure, this is Lebanon, land of the shawarma, but for years, I couldn’t confidently recommend a good shawarma without reservation. There were so many I’d frequented since my move here, yet they’d all shuttered.
One fine day, as I was strolling through City Mall Dora, I stumbled upon Bayrut Street Food Bites, the fast casual counterpart to Bayrut Street Food in Gemmayze. I’ll never understand why they elected to spell ‘Bayrut’ the way they did, but I refrained from judging that book by its cover and was duly rewarded!
At the outset, a shawarma combo went for 13,000 LBP ($8.67): two substantial sandwiches plus a generous heaping of fries washed down with a Coke. No frills or fussy fixings: just chicken or beef or both. Months later, the price escalated to 15,000 LBP, but the shawarma spits looked scrawny and off-putting. The allure died, and now so did the restaurant.
|It may have been tasty, but that wasn't enough Bayrut Street Food afloat|
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated restaurant in Lebanon’s recent history, The Cheesecake Factory descended upon Verdun in December 2015. We had the rare privilege of dining with the Senior VP of Global Development Lisa McDowell at the red-carpet debut, an occasion I happily committed to memory.
But we were quizzical at the choice of location and communicated our uncertainty to McDowell. Downtown Beirut, and Zaitunay Bay as the outermost reach of it, forms the tip of the frontier for the majority of folks flocking from outside Beirut. Hamra is popular with students and young adults, but Verdun tends to be insular, attracting denizens from within its own area. For me, a trip to Verdun would have to be deliberated, as it’s distant from the epicenter of the capital and quite a trek given the ubiquitous traffic.
The fact that no parking structure was dedicated to guests of The Cheesecake Factory, whose occupancy is 343 persons, was also reason for anxiety. McDowell, however, seemed confident that the weight of The Cheesecake Factory name; its global renown as a hotspot for delicious, super-generous dishes; and its superior service would make it a destination for those near and far. Next time, they should hire me to do their strategic planning!
|At the red-carpet opening of The Cheesecake Factory in Verdun, Beirut (Photo courtesy of Beiruting.com, 2015)|
Back in 2016, I wrote about my thrill at discovering Frida had weathered the inclement F&B scene in Lebanon, what with restaurants opening and shuttering almost weekly in the capital. I remember first discovering it in 2011, when Frida was all the rage for its delicious Lebanese cuisine with spicy Southwestern American influences. That summer we frequented it more than half a dozen times.
But evolving routines and dining-out habits soon found us removed from the quartier in Achrafieh where Frida perches. Well, Frida certainly didn’t go down without a fight, but its demise is certain. I will never forget their cored cucumbers stuffed with labneh nor the welcome basket of warm markouk bread. Adios, Frida.
Here’s a restaurant that didn’t make it to celebrate its first birthday. RAW Café, sibling venture of the nightclub RAW, launched in October 2018. Though it necessarily boasted Lebanon’s favorite pastime, the hookah, their cuisine didn’t cut corners or make compromises on taste, quality, or aesthetics. Even the menu prices were an ode to affordable dining out, something the F&B industry is finally starting to promote in the wretched economy we live in.
A perfectly cooked beef tenderloin topped with molten Brie, a decadent peanut butter cookie baked in a cast-iron skillet, a zingy lemonade bursting with fresh ginger – these were just a few of the notable items that tickled our taste buds and had us looking forward to the next visit. Alas, that shall never be.
|Beef tenderloin blanketed in a cheesy mushroom sauce for a relatively affordable 25,000 LBP ($16.67) at Raw Cafe|
I’ll never forget the living olive tree standing tall in the center of Woodbees’ dining space, nor the nifty, compostable packaging that was no doubt ahead of its time for 2015. The brainchild of the folks behind wildly successful bread chain Wooden Bakery, Woodbees was a breath of fresh air in that it slammed the dullness and repetition we all too often see in restaurant menus around town. Salads were copious, sandwiches entirely original and meaty – anyone remember Woodbees’ Kebab in a whole-wheat wrap? It packed in halloumi and muhammara and, in a word, was mind-blowing! Even the architecture of the venue, shaped like a beehive, was quirky and refreshing. Too bad the Queen Bee has died.
|I wonder what they'll do with that olive tree now that Woodbees has closed shop|
What venues have rendered you disoriented over their disappearance?