Lebanon: Brave New Beirut

  • Twilight over Achrafieh, an old hilltop quarter in eastern Beirut.

    Twilight over Achrafieh, an old hilltop quarter in eastern Beirut.

  • The city’s rebuilt downtown souk.

    The city’s rebuilt downtown souk.

  • the small but impressive collection at the National Museum of Beirut includes ancient Egyptian statuary.

    the small but impressive collection at the National Museum of Beirut includes ancient Egyptian statuary.

  • Ottoman and French Mandate–era buildings line downtown Beirut’s Allenby Street.

    Ottoman and French Mandate–era buildings line downtown Beirut’s Allenby Street.

  • the sixth-floor foyer at Le Gray, British hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray’s new boutique property in downtown Beirut.

    the sixth-floor foyer at Le Gray, British hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray’s new boutique property in downtown Beirut.

  • a study in contrasts.

    a study in contrasts.

  • the Mediterranean beach clubs around Byblos, a historic port town up the coast from the Lebanese capital, are a summertime playground for Beirut’s party set.

    the Mediterranean beach clubs around Byblos, a historic port town up the coast from the Lebanese capital, are a summertime playground for Beirut’s party set.

  • Roger Eddé, owner of the Eddé Sands, a beach resort on the outskirts of Byblos

    Roger Eddé, owner of the Eddé Sands, a beach resort on the outskirts of Byblos

  • Inside the centuries-old Omari Mosque.

    Inside the centuries-old Omari Mosque.

  • Lebanese-style quiche at Souk el Tayeb, the weekly farmers’ market founded by Kamal Mouzawak

    Lebanese-style quiche at Souk el Tayeb, the weekly farmers’ market founded by Kamal Mouzawak

  • an interior-design shop in Mar Mikhael.

    an interior-design shop in Mar Mikhael.

  • Kamal Mouzawak.

    Kamal Mouzawak.

  • Locally sourced cottage cheese and fruit at Tawlet.

    Locally sourced cottage cheese and fruit at Tawlet.

  • The kitchen at Tawlet.

    The kitchen at Tawlet.

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It is these wildly different ways of life that give Beirut its edge. As they rub up against each other, sparks fly, adding effervescence to everyday encounters. Combine this with the city’s luminous light, beautiful people, fantastic food, Mediterranean lifestyle, and its constant state of physical and psychological flux, and you have a place so seductive that you feel compelled to stick around, if only to see what will happen next.

I speak from experience. I had never thought about visiting Beirut until I found myself at the Syrian-Lebanese frontier in 1998, on a meandering overland trip to China. After spending a few weeks in Damascus, I’d decided to hop across the border for a change of pace. Three days, I told myself: Beirut, Byblos, Baalbak, and then back.

Beirut was love at first sight, a city so improbable (given its geopolitical location and turbulent history) and so charmingly contradictory that I knew I’d have a hard time leaving. Twelve years later, I’m still here.

Back in 1998, most Lebanese I met appreciated my enthusiasm, even if they were slightly puzzled by it. Although Lebanon was at peace, it was also in pieces. That, thankfully, is no longer the case, and today, foreign professions of love for this unlikely place are greeted with a gracious smile, not a raised eyebrow. True, it’s only been four years since the disastrous 34-day war between the Islamist militia Hezbollah and Israel, which devastated large swaths of the country and briefly took it back to the darkest days of its troubled past. But Lebanon is used to turning on a dime, and Beirutis don’t need anyone to tell them that their city is magical.

And yet, everyone seems to be doing just that: Beirut has emerged as the hottest travel destination of the year. Barely a week goes by without a glowing tribute in the New York Times or a Beirut restaurant review in Le Figaro. With tourists pouring in from all over, the only skirmishes in the city today involve getting past the velvet rope at Skybar, snagging a rooftop reservation at White, or landing yourself a corner suite at Le Gray, British hotelier Gordon Campbell-Gray’s sumptuous new boutique property, right in the heart of the newly restored downtown area.

“I’m not sure what I think of all the fuss,” Maria Hibri tells me. She’s part owner of Bokja, a chic design studio specializing in reupholstering vintage furniture in dramatic embroidered fabrics from Central Asia and beyond. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s fantastic that so many people want to come to Beirut. I’m glad we’re getting rid of our scary reputation. I just hope we’ll still be as popular when the magazines decide somewhere else has become the hip, new destination.”

Barring any surprises—something that Beirut cannot guarantee—the city’s future looks bright. While Le Gray, with its deft blend of 1950s Beirut and worldly 21st-century elegance (not to mention a dazzling rooftop restaurant and pool deck that overlook the French Mandate–era buildings of the city center and the Byzantine remains of old Berytus), may have become the face of Brave New Beirut, it’s hardly the city’s sole source of glamour. After years of stagnation, the Lebanese capital, recently stable and enjoying the fruits of a financial boom, is awash not only with tourists, but also with cash and hundreds of new projects.

The old downtown souks, destroyed during the series of civil and external wars that ended in 1991, reopened last year after a decade of delays. Reimagined and rationalized by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, the new markets, with their modern lines, broad lanes, and smart, glassed-in storefronts, are stunning. They don’t, admittedly, look or feel anything like the organic jumble of winding alleys and cramped stores that preceded them. And yet their reopening seems to have had a galvanizing effect on the surrounding area. For the first time since I’ve been living here, the city feels like it has a center.

The restaurant scene—a major part of life in a place with such a rich and varied culinary tradition—has also begun to evolve. Newcomers like Kamal Mouzawak, whose contemporary, canteenlike Tawlet in Mar Mikhael showcases regional specialties by village cooks, and Joe Barza, one of the country’s most creative chefs, have kick-started a revolution in Lebanese cuisine by subtly reworking recipes that go back a millennia or more. (Mouzawak was also the force behind the city’s first farmers’ market, Souk el Tayeb, which opened six years ago.) Higher up the food chain, chef Antoine Westermann of Strasbourg’s Michelin-starred Beurehiesel and London-based restaurateur-to-the-stars Mourad “Momo” Mazouz are both slated to open outposts here by the end of the year, with a host of other culinary heavyweights—Joël Robuchon and Yannick Alléno among them—not far behind. Hotels, too, are flooding in. Beirut has suffered chronic seasonal shortages of hotel beds for the last three years, but after the massive success of the long-delayed and eagerly anticipated Le Gray, other hoteliers, foreign and local, are rushing to join the fray. The Four Seasons opened in June overlooking Beirut Marina, while farther along the seafront, a Grand Hyatt and a Hilton are nearing completion. A slew of smaller hotels is also in the offing, including one crafted by renowned Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, which will occupy the upper levels of the space-age department store she’s designing for Beirut’s answer to Barneys, Aishti.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above from left: Kamal Mouzawak; a study in contrasts; locally sourced cottage cheese and fruit at Tawlet; an interior-design shop in Mar Mikhael.

Then, of course, there’s the nightlife. On rooftops, in basements, in ancient, vaulted sandstone chambers, in brand new glass-and-steel cubes—bars, clubs, and lounges are everywhere. The most exclusive, like White or SkyBar, require reservations a month in advance (unless you know the doorman or the manager). But as the best nights out in Beirut involve a constant migration from bar to bar, who really wants to sit in one place anyway? This is why the buzz in Gemmayze, a once quiet neighborhood on the eastern side of Beirut, is so intense.

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