Looking for Beirut restaurants? Here are our favourite restaurants and hotels in the Lebanese capital, plus where to get the best ‘blonde’ falafels, pomegranate sorbet and saffron cake.
Falafel Aboulziz – best street food
Just off the main drag in the shop and café-lined Hamra neighbourhood, this small falafel joint is known for its crunchy little ‘blonde’ falafel; they’re paler than standard falafels because they have a different spice mix to the standard ones. Although the blend of eight different spices is a closely guarded secret, it’s safe to assume the rest of the recipe includes beans, chickpeas, cumin and parsley.
Most people buy to take-away, either as a plate of falafel drizzled with a punchy tahini, garlic and lemon sauce, or with the falafel stuffed into a wrap along with parsley, mint, tomatoes and radishes, but there’s a small counter with stools if you want to eat in. Either way, six falafel or a wrap will set you back only about £1.50.
Oslo Ice Cream – best ice cream parlour
This ultra-modern ice cream brand has two branches in Beirut, one in Verdun and one in Mar Mikhael. Though it also stocks a range of prettily packaged, bite-sized biscuits (tiny brownies, chocolate halva sablés, mini meringues) the pricey but heavenly ice cream is the must-buy. Go for one of the Middle Eastern-influenced flavours such as pistachio, pomegranate sorbet or, best of all, rose loukoum – rosewater ice cream peppered with little chunks of rose Turkish delight.
Tawlet – best lunch restaurant
Tawlet opened in Mar Mikhael a decade ago as a spin-off to an ethically-driven farmer’s market, Souk El Tayeb (see below), and is part of an initiative that now includes five other projects across Lebanon, from markets to restaurants to guest houses. A homely, human take on building bridges between Christians and Muslims (albeit a stylishly designed one), the idea was to celebrate common ground, the shared territory in this case being food.
Operating under the motto Make Food Not War, the recipe at Tawlet is a simple one: every day a home cook from a different region of Lebanon is invited to cook a buffet lunch. It’s a two-way win: the cook (always a woman, always a home cook) gets a rare opportunity to earn some income and an often equally rare sense of being valued (some of the chefs are from refugee communities) while the diners get to try the humble but delicious regional Lebanese dishes that are normally only rustled up behind closed doors. Founder, Kamal Mouzawak, explains that cooking is done by men in many Lebanese restaurants and is often seen as a performance. “Home cooks don’t care about that,” he says. “They want to take care of people by feeding them, not performing for them.”
“In 2007, having already run the farmers’ market for three years, we set up a food and feast festival. We’d take people to, say, a cherry festival as a day out and think we’d better give them lunch but we didn’t want to serve generic tabbouleh, hummus and barbecue. We wanted to eat what the locals were eating, the dishes that were special to that particular area. Women are the guardians of these traditions so we put the word out to find the good cooks in each village. There would, perhaps, be someone who was known for her beans with tomato, another who was known for her baking and so on. They would come together and cook one dish each that they’d learnt from their mothers and grandmothers.”
Two years later, that same approach was taken with the setting up of Tawlet in Beirut. On the day we visited the kitchen was being led by Fadia, a farmer from Tripoli, with help from the site’s permanent staff. After sitting down to a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, homemade grenadine juice or Lebanese wine, we filled our plates from a vast rainbow of salads, stews and pastries set out on the buffet counter. Stand-outs included a gently spiced cauliflower salad with lemon juice and yoghurt, little bite-sized beef pastries flecked with pine nuts and cinnamon, spicy little bullet-like sausages, rice garlanded with lentils and fried onions, a deep pink beetroot and tahini salad, velvety Lebanese okra cooked with garlic, onion, tomatoes and pomegranate molasses, freekeh laced with roast veg and herbs, and a meatball-like kibbeh doused in a rich, tomato sauce.
There were desserts, too: an almost equally vast array of pistachio and lemon cake; crème caramel; halabiya (milk pudding swirled with rosewater, sugar and pistachios); fresh pomelo dotted with pomegranate seeds; semolina cake soaked in sugar syrup; sweet little pancakes that looked like wobbly cream horns stuffed with orange blossom ashta; and pistachio karabeej served with natef, a ‘cream’ made with soapwort, sugar syrup and rosewater.
It was delicious, educational and the most sure-fire way to get an insight into Lebanese food culture on a whistlestop visit to the city. As Kamal summed up, “Politics, traffic… these things un-nurture you but this kitchen (I’m not going to say restaurant) nurtures you. Yes it looks good, too, but it’s not about aesthetics. It’s about creating a nurturing space.”
Sip coffee – best coffee shop
Beirut isn’t short on artisan-brewed coffee (other recommended places for a cuppa include Aaliya’s Bookshop, also in Gemmayzeh, and Kalei Coffee in Mar Mikhael) but newish Sip hits the spot with a short but sweet food menu of salads (mixed greens with avocado, sesame seeds, lemon oil and parmesan), all-day breakfast options (halloumi bagels, flatbread and labneh with olives, cucumbers and tomatoes…), a range of cakes freshly made by a local baker, seasonal juices and ice creams.
Décor is minimalist but leafy with a plaster pink and sage colour scheme and pretty tiled floor and the coffee is as hipster-friendly as the surroundings. Single origin, small-batch, freshly roasted coffees are the name of the game, with drip, cold-brew and iced lattes on offer alongside flat whites, espressos, macchiatos and more, and a choice of almond and coconut milks for non-dairy drinkers.
Liza – best for fine Lebanese dining
If you’re in Beirut for a special occasion make sure you book in for dinner at this fairytale Ashrafieh restaurant. Set within an Ottoman-style palace with ornately fretted arched windows, handsomely patterned floor tiles, a dolls house-like series of different rooms and a shimmering atmosphere helped by flickering candles, pendant lighting and mirrored panels, it’s a showstopper.
The prices are as grand as the surroundings but, fortunately, the food warrants the expense and, as with most culinary experiences in Beirut, portions are huge. There’s nothing especially inventive about the menu of Lebanese classics but they’re served with precision and panache. Order from a long list of mezze items, grills, main dishes and desserts or, if there are four or more of you, avoid any dithering by choosing one of the restaurant’s set menus.
Highlights of our meal included grilled halloumi with a membrillo-like tomato ‘jam’, pinkie-sized sausages spiked with cinnamon and served with a sumac and pomegranate molasses dipping sauce, a spinach-like creamed chicory salad topped with slivers of fried saj bread and onions, an exemplary tabbouleh (made, as is the norm in Lebanon, with very little bulgur but lots of parsley), perfectly grilled chicken kebabs marinated in garlic and lemon, and a smoky, slow-cooked rendition of baba ghanoush.
The usual dessert suspects are all on offer too, from saffron cake to milk puddings, karabeej to ice creams and sorbets made in-house with local ingredients (pistachio, rose, lemon, strawberry). The most interesting (to me – it can be a bit of a Marmite dish) was Liza’s take on meghli, a Lebanese rice flour pudding made with star anise, cinnamon and caraway and topped with nuts. Normally served to celebrate a child’s birth, it was fresh, slightly grainy and fruity, a refreshing rather than cloying way to end a meal.
If dinner is out of your price range, go for brunch instead. Served on Sundays from noon to 4pm, Liza’s beautifully presented buffet is a popular item on the city’s weekly food calendar but you can order à la carte as well.
Ixsir winery – best vineyard tour
A small winery in Batroun that’s winning a growing following for its high-end, sustainably produced wines, Ixsir is around an hours’ drive north of Beirut (allow 90 minutes at busier times). A good day trip in combination with a visit to the archaeological remains at nearby Byblos, the winery has taken a 400 year-old stone house and blended it with a hi-tech winery, underground art gallery and minimalist, almost Nordic-chic, restaurant.
Cultivating vines in a range of terroirs (sites at different altitudes with varying climates) across Lebanon, the company only produced its first bottle in 2008 but now turns out 450,000 per year – three reds, three whites and two rosés. All are temptingly easily drinkable but we particularly liked the dry Altitudes Rosé, with its complex, spicy flavours, the buttery Grande Reserve white and the Grande Reserve red with its tobacco and dark chocolate notes.
For the full experience, stay on for lunch at the winery’s restaurant. Operated by Nicolas Audi, a well-known Lebanese restaurateur, the setting is magical (especially on a sunny day, when you can eat outside beneath mulberry trees, on a terrace overlooking the surrounding vines). All the Lebanese classics are in attendance here – from tomato and walnut salads dressed with pomegranate molasses to a herby tabbouleh, silky hummus and juicy marinated skewers of chicken and beef, grilled over charcoal – but they’re given a lighter, modern touch. Don’t miss dessert; hits on the day we visited included a fruit salad scattered with almonds and pistachios and drizzled with homemade peach syrup and orange blossom water; maamoul made with honey and rosemary; and a twist on sahlab and halawet el jeben that involved rosewater ‘ice cream’ (actually made with egg white and mastic) sprinkled with pistachios and a little cloud of sesame candy floss.
Taste Lebanon – best foodie walking tour
A tour company with a foodie slant, Taste Lebanon offers a range of trips from intensive five-day food tours taking in six different regions across the country (and, among other highlights, the chance to try baking saj bread, harvest wild herbs to make za’atar, visit olive oil presses and vineyards and learn how to make the nation’s famed kebbeh, a dish of minced lamb and bulgur) to seven-hour culinary walking tours of Beirut.
Traversing the city on foot promises the best way to get a feel for its cultural make-up, and the startling contrasts that co-inhabit its space – French-speakers and Arabic-speakers, ancient cathedrals and grand modern mosques, wealthy partygoers in ballgowns and impoverished refugee families living all in one room. Having a local to guide you along the way is also a likely method of subverting one of the more obvious of these contrasts, the gap between public and private. To visit Beirut and experience only its hotels, restaurants, museums and shops would be to miss what makes it special: the joyful gatherings of family and friends – be that a weekday dinner around a shared table or a wild, all-generations night out at the city’s Music Hall cabaret night – that hold this war-ravaged city together. Along the way, of course, you’ll get a more tangible flavour of the city via stops at Beirut’s best falafel outlets, Armenian bistros, mezze restaurants and much more.
Central Station – best bar
It would be easy to walk past this bar, in the heart of Mar Mikhael, but that would be an error. In this party neighbourhood the streets are saturated with a glammed-up, good time-seeking, self-possessed crowd most evenings and, from the outside, Central Station is much less striking than the beautiful people milling around it. Duck inside, however, and the vibe is a compelling combination of upbeat yet mellow, with a DJ sensitive to whoever happens to be present at the time and a slightly older, easy-going, less ostentatiously showy clientele.
What they come for is the cocktails, an expertly mixed, regularly changing selection with some seriously innovative options. Among them is the Reconstructed Falafel, a refreshing, herbal concoction made with vodka distilled with falafel spices – think coriander, basil, mastic, lemon and parsley mint oil rather than anything more earthy – and the Reconstructed Baklava (rum, baklava syrup, lemon and honey). They’re delicious, clever and not as gimmicky as they sound.
Souk El Tayeb – best farmers’ market
The market that kicked off the Tawlet phenomenon (see above), Souk El Tayeb has been running since 2004 and now operates at Beirut Souks, in the Downtown district, twice a week. A smaller market takes place on Wednesdays but Saturday’s event is the biggie. Every stallholder present grows or makes what they sell and, like the restaurant, the aim is to help people across Lebanon without more obvious opportunities both make a living and gain a sense of value. It’s also a way of celebrating and perpetuating the country’s rural craft techniques, many of them culinary ones.
Prices are more urban than you might expect but it helps to know that money is going to families who need it, and who may not otherwise have access to a source of income. A point that hit home at the first stall we visited when we discovered that Oumali (“mother of Ali”), from south Lebanon, has managed to put her children through school with her takings from selling manoush – saj bread filled with za’ater, labneh, vegetables and tomatoes – at Souk el Tayeb, and from occasional stints at the stove at Tawlet.
It’s also a great way to see the diversity of the country’s food scene, with Georgina (a stallholder from north Lebanon who sells the traditional meat dish of kibbeh, in every shape and size) and Nabil and Nada (farmers from West Bekaa who sell their own-grown, and artfully packed, pickles, preserves and distilled flower waters) rubbing shoulders with Elmir (a hip Beirut craft beer producer) and The Good Thymes (a next-level za’atar business from south Lebanon selling a variety of blends, including one made with goat kechek, sumac, sesame seeds and sea salt).
Alongside these are fresh veg stalls selling the local (tiny) okra and wild asparagus, kaak bread, falafel, recycled glassware, dried fruits, honeys, handmade soap scented with wild herbs and much more. One word of warning: don’t be tempted to buy any olive oil as you’ll have it confiscated at the airport, even if it’s in checked-in luggage (see below).
The Phoenicia Hotel – best hotel
Majestically located, with views out to sea from almost all of its bedrooms, this ship-like hotel (there are 446 rooms) is an iconic Beiruti landmark and a perfect reflection of the city’s ‘live for the moment’ attitude; burnt out during Lebanon’s civil war it subsequently closed for 25 years but is now back to offering dizzying levels of opulence (for an instant history lesson, spot the battle-scarred carcass of the former Holiday Inn behind as you recline by the Phoenicia’s glamorous, mosaic-tiled outdoor pool). We liked the rooms in the Phoenician Tower best, with their Arabic-laced balconies and toned-down colour schemes.
Resolutely traditional elsewhere, with acres of marble and velvet and deep-pile carpeting, the Phoenicia’s blingy glamour is joyful, and surprisingly inclusive judging by the range of guests (though sit in the bar in late evening and you’ll witness the floor-skimmingly frocked and glossily coiffed regulars cascading down the foyer’s sweeping staircase into waiting taxis). Home to a big-hitting collection of modern art, with works by Howard Hodgkin, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long among it, the hotel also maintains an impressive service mentality. Daily deliveries of fruit, chocolates, jammy little raspberry macarons and freshly baked madeleines appear via housekeeping, and no request goes unanswered, whether you’d like more Ila toiletries in your bathroom, a customised massage in the spa or a small-group cooking class in the hotel’s penthouse suite courtesy of the Phoenicia’s Culinary Institute (a local membership-based cooking club which hotel guests can tap into if workshops are taking place during their stay).
The Cascade Lounge bar wraps around a fountain in the centre of the hotel and acts as a lobby lounge as well as a drinks space, so it’s bustling around the clock. Afternoons see the space play host to an elegant afternoon tea service while, come cocktail hour, it cranks up the glitz. If you have a hefty wallet you can sip your way through a range of rare whiskies, cognacs and wines but we recommend keeping it simple with a G&T, or a bottle of Lebanese wine from nearby Ixsir winery (read on for more on that) with a bowl of moreish jumbo cashews, pistachios and pecans on the side.
Restaurants-wise, there are three options – the Amethyst Lounge and shisha bar operates around the hotel’s outdoor pool in the summer months while indoors, year round, there’s a choice between Italian-themed Rossini and Mosaic, a contemporary, light-filled, largely Lebanese dining room that also hosts themed events throughout the week (sushi, French, Sunday lunch…).
The standout food experience at the hotel, however, is the breakfast buffet. Served in Mosaic, it’s one of the best we’ve tried (and we’ve tried a lot on our #olivetravels). A vast series of counters totter under the weight of fresh fruit and nuts; freshly pressed juices; myriad continental rolls, breads and patisserie; cereals and granolas; jams, local honeys, date syrup and carob molasses; homemade halva flavoured with pistachio or swirls of chocolate; local cheeses, labneh and butters; huge trays of house-made knafeh set beside jugs of lemon- and orange-blossom flavoured sugar syrups; olives of all shapes, sizes and colours; salads, hummus and moutabal platters the same could be said of; hot stews and meat dishes; Middle Eastern breads from khebez to sesame-sprinkled kaak and made-to-order saj.
Our tip? Queue up for the saj bread and watch it being cooked in front of you on a domed griddle then drizzled with your topping of choice (za’atar, kishk…). Then, grab some fresh fruit and a bowl of warm ful medames to go with it (slicked with olive oil, lime juice and a dusting of paprika) and take the whole lot outside to enjoy on the terrace with views out across the palm-peppered harbour and corniche (as per the image below).
Rafic Hariri International Airport – best food souvenirs
It isn’t often that we include an airport’s duty free shopping area in our foodie guides but this isn’t your average airport shopping experience. Go through to departures in plenty of time (and with plenty of space in your hand luggage) to stock up on nuts, dried fruits and Lebanese sweets (all sold by weight) as well as bottles of pickles, slices of freshly made sfouf cake (made with turmeric and orange blossom water), Lebanese wines, cigars and even jars of kishk (milk, yoghurt and cracked wheat that’s been fermented, dried and powdered).
One note of caution: no matter how professionally sealed it is, if you buy olive oil in Lebanon and try to bring it home in your checked baggage you will have it confiscated from you at a pre check-in customs scan. Save yourself hassle and money by buying it in Departures instead.
Words and photographs (except Phoenicia Hotel pool image) by Rhiannon Batten, May 2019