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Beirut’s Best Restaurants

In spending eight months in Beirut, going out to eat almost every night, I got to taste much of the booming food scene. I want to help others find the best source and so have compiled a list of my favorites (more to come soon).  Voilá my top picks for Lebanese, American/Grill and Japanese restaurants.

*Note: All the restaurants on this list I have been to at least twice to double-check my taste buds.

Lebanese Al Aajami

This restaurant is very old school Lebanese but the food is innovative and oh-so-fresh. The appetizers change daily: from artichoke salad to a cheese dish with pomegranates and the best hindbe (greens) I have ever tasted. Al Aajami is known for its shwarma and kabab and after trying their meats I can say there is nothing like it! I have always thought of shwarma as street food, but I had no idea what I was missing! Their shwarma is so tender, succulent and just melts in your mouth. The restaurant is a hot spot for those in the know, such as a parliament member who only gets his food from this hidden gem. Unlike most Lebanese restaurants, the menu is in Arabic only so bring someone that speaks the language.

I have been to the other famous Lebanese restaurants (Mounir, Tawlet, Babel, Karamna etc.) and this restaurant is two steps above these delicious Lebanese staples.

Delivery available

Rafic El Hariri Ave. Ramlet El-Baida

+9611802260

American/Grill Aarayes Restaurant

Even after going to eat at The Corner Bistro in NYC (rated best burger in the city) Aarayes burger rates higher on my list. The meat is lightly spiced and of the highest quality. I have tried their cheeseburger (which is not too cheesy but still melts in the mouth) as well as their Mexican burger (peppers etc.) and both hit the spot. Their meat is not greasy but feels luxurious. I also love their grilled chicken; even when I asked for well-cooked meat, it was still juicy and so tasty—not dry at all. The quality and chicken beats Hawa and all the other brands hands down and, if I may say so, tastes even better than home grilled.

This restaurant/diner is immaculately clean and their food is always on point. I have never been there on an “off” day. If you walk into the small casual restaurant and it isn’t crowded don’t fret: most of their customers order delivery!

Boulevard Camille Chamoun

+961 76 166 156

https://www.facebook.com/3arayes.net

Sushi Kampai

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at this famed downtown spot, but I would soon taste freshness and innovation not seen in other Beiruti sushi restaurants. Contrary to the sushi, Kampai is unassuming. Unpretentious, the service is very good even when it’s crowded. The sushi salads are especially tasty and abundant. The spicy crispy salmon salad is my favorite and comes in a cocktail-like glass; perfect if you want to avoid rice. All the fish tastes extremely fresh unlike at other sushi restaurants (for example at Soto). They also have a wide variety of cooked dishes and their chicken teriyaki was authentic and tasteful. Reservation recommended for dinner.

Ground Floor, Palladium Building, Rafic Salloum Street

70 315215

Neophyte in Beirut Ep. 2

It has been a long time since I have written and I don’t have much of an excuse other than starting my internship, getting used to every day living and barking down serveeces (group taxis) on the side of the street.

Saturday night stroll. I guess, the shoes show my Leba-morphosis

Saturday night stroll. I guess, the shoes show my Leba-morphosis

Although I have already been here two months, I still make small snafus and have not assimilated as I had hoped (except for the amount of times I order take-out delivery per week). Even though I understand a lot of Arabic, my Lebanese is still sketchy; I get by in rolling my r’s and extending my s’s in a Leban-ized accent while speaking English.Even though it is extremely frustrating not being able to speak a language fluently (not to brag, but I usually pick up languages in a synch) I have come to terms with the fact that I may just not get this one.  In Lebanon, I’m not forced to speak Arabic and so have gotten, one could say, lazy with the language. Here, if one doesn’t speak English, usually they speak French, which is no problem to me as I switch into French Lebanese: ‘merci’ with a strong rolling r sound. So, I live with little barrier of language.

Well, that is most of the time. While ordering food on the phone there are still a few mishaps. First, the tricky part is describing where I live! Here, there are no strict house addresses, so when I order delivery I have to explain my location perfectly in reference to land marks: across from the government building, up the street from the Thai restaurant and next to that one gas station. I cannot tell you how many times the delivery boys have gotten lost. When I am too tired of describing, I call one of the places that saves your telephone number so my address is already in their delivery system.

Then there was the time I ordered chicken. I wanted grilled chicken skewers (‘taouk’ as they call it here) and the call center woman asked me if I wanted it ‘fresh’. Of course, I want my chicken fresh! What type of a question is that. The end result was a pack of chicken pieces that were raw. I should have known she meant uncooked by using the word fresh. I definitely learned a lesson there. Next time, I’m told, I must specify that I want the chicken ‘ready.’

Other than a few mini delivery disasters, I have settled in without much of a fuss. For any of you worried about my sleep patterns, I am happy to announce that I have now moved apartments and so am not woken up by the bulldozers on Saturdays.

We have had odd weather here, including rain in May, and so I still haven’t gotten to the beach. Soon, hopefully, because someone is craving summer.

On assignment for my job at a Lebanese cooking class

On assignment for my job at a Lebanese cooking class (I’m back center)

Living Beirut Off-Season

So, after a stint in San Francisco, where I worked as the Social Media Intern for the co-working space HUB, I am back in Beirut, Lebanon.
LIVING.

As I compare my first impressions from June and my new insights, I see how these two experiences may have nothing in common except for country.
This past summer, spent studying Modern Standard Arabic at the American University of Beirut (AUB), I passed all my time studying (and clubbing once in a while!). Here again, I foresee a more laid back Mediterranean approach to Beirut including journalistic internships, many political and social discussions and evenings spent by the sea.
On my first trip to Beirut, I lived in the AUB dorms and hence, similar to American colleges, I lived in ‘the campus bubble.’ However, this time around, I am living in my own studio! And to make it even more of a pivotal experience, this is the first time I live alone! No roommate or family!

Contrasting my then and now, I must take note of the ease I feel in just being. The anxiety I felt during the first weeks of the summer here are nowhere in sight. Even though I didn’t really know the lay of neighborhood I am living in, my first day here I explored and climbed comfortably in contrast to my first weeks in Hamra when I was at AUB. Before, I felt like a passer by, now, I feel this is my home. I have explored more in a few days than I did in all my two months of intensive Arabic study!
One may ask, why the shift? It is possibly because I now understand much more Lebanese language than I did when I came during the summer time? or maybe because I know more of the etiquette, the do’s and don’ts? I would like to think that it is both of those, plus the amount of personal growth experienced during the past six months out of conventional college.

Beirut feels different even to Lebanese. While my comfort is a positive, many Lebanese feel true stagnancy in the city’s core. Beirut itself is empty, and not just in comparison to the summer months! Due to khaliji (Gulf states) boycott of a certain Lebanese organization, many restaurants and hotels are worrisomely empty. Even Petit Café, a famously packed buzzing spot over looking Raoche, the notable Lebanese rock formation, had more open seats than not and while having desert at Moevanpick, a luxery hotel over looking the coast, I found myself “owning” the terrace. I was the only one out there!

It is so odd to experience the city of such pumping energy beating at a calmer rate.

But, in the slower tempo, I feel I am truly living the city.

At Petit Cafe

At Petit Cafe

Born Again in Lebanon?

As many of you know, I am a lover of books and bookstores and so, when my classmate took me into Al Manara bookstore I was quite excited! This is until I realized I had actually walked into a Evangelical Christian ministry.  My visit started out peachy, with welcome coconut balls and hot cocoa and hugs exchanged between my classmate and the woman that I owned the supposed bookshop, but the happy feeling quickly shifted.  Upon sitting down (my lovely classmate wanted to play the cross-embedded guitar) the revelation occurred that I have not yet been “blessed” by Jesus nor have I submitted to his “love”  and thus I needed to be made aware of his power. And thus, the stories of “miracles” commenced. The accounts told by the head of the ministry seemed so far fetched that I really was in, albeit skeptical, awe.

The ministry was such a bizarre space that initially I was intrigued. The woman who first greeted us began speaking about adult baptism and then I realized I had really stumbled upon “born-again” Lebanese Christians. I would have never dreamed that they might inhabit Lebanon as well but, once again I was wrong. At one point I asked the head of the ministry to switch into Arabic—at least I could make a teaching moment out of this and zone out if need be, but alas, after a few minutes she switched back into English.

The woman then began telling me how she “found” Jesus and how she had been really depressed (and could only see “pornographic images” *confused face*) prior to her enlightment. As the hour trudged by, she began to tell me that Jesus was waiting for me and that I am special and I just need to open my heart and feel his love. GET ME OUT OF HERE was my feeling at this point. I finally reminded my sweet classmate that we needed to do our homework. I clutched my purse in hopes of making  my point. When we were about to leave (Halleluja) I said goodbye and the woman hugged me and began praying over me. She wanted to save my soul.

Once we had finally left the “bookshop” my first words  to my classmate went something like this: “Now this is something to write home about.” And so voilá.

It took me about an three hours to calm down completely from the visit and settle my nerves. I hate when people try to force things down my throat and I am not a fan of extremism in any form. If the woman really wanted to make me feel something spiritual she should have been much more sensitive so at least I could come away from the experience with a good feeling or at least an understanding and respect of a view that differs from my own. She was the opposite of successful. But, at least she provided a good story, I guess 😉

Salon, Diet & Plastic

Lebanon is one of the most beautiful countries I have been to and, naturally, it has some of the most beautiful people (most importantly on the inside BUT also on the outside). The obsession with beauty and perfection in some circles is so extreme that even the woman doing my nails admitted: “it’s too much!” However, this was after she refused to paint my toenails and finger nails different colors, “That will look stupid and people will laugh at you!” Of course, I would not want that!

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Here, the beauty salon is an essential part of many women’s weekly schedule. And what a scene it can be! Although in the U.S. people might go to the salon to get “beautified” here it seems that the salon, while being a place to get even MORE beautiful, is where you go to be seen and talked about. I have now been twice to get my nails done and I saw some of the same women there the second time on a completely different day. I have seen and heard many things at the salon, from meltdowns from diamond studded hijabi women to conversations about the upcoming nuptials of a 17 year old girl. While getting my hair done for the first time  (no, I haven’t done it again) I (unintentionally) even created a little drama. As soon as I sat down  the male hairdresser took a piece of my hair and say: “Shou haida? Shou haida?” I was confused because it was a normal piece of hair and I didn’t know what was wrong with it. Then he said “Moda Adeeema.” He waved his hands gesturing to the past. He was commenting on the fact I have layers and layers were in fashion here years ago. I kept repeating: In the U.S. layers are still in fashion. He just shook his head. Oy Vey. Only a few weeks in and I am already on the Lebanese fashion blacklist. Beirut, and Lebanon as a whole, is not a cheap city but some things, ex. Salons are quite inexpensive! Nails start at $4 or so and a hair blow-out at around $7 and I am not talking about bad hair or nails. I have never had such a

Too-much make-up for my birthday

Too-much make-up for my birthday

good manicure/pedicure in my life! The manicurist deals with each nail with finesse and I am constantly being asked if I want Nescafe or a water by one of the Philippina helpers. Such an odd sensation for me. Beauty is a big industry and is highly regarded. Here, dieticians can get paid as much as “real” doctors as the diet fads shift from No-Carb diets to absurd regiments where you are not allowed to look at different objects each week (for example, for the first week of my friend’s diet she could not look at plants and went as far as having to duck her head every time she saw a tree out of the car window!). Insane! Plastic surgery is also rampant here and I cannot walk down the street without seeing at least a few fake lips, unmoving faces and plastic Pamela Anderson breasts. The Lebanese nose is also something that all women get rid of as high school graduation presents. Even my American roommate, who is of Lebanese descent, thanks God that she did not get her Grandfather’s, allah yarhumhu, dreaded prominent nose. It is a bit sad to see all these girls change themselves to look the same!

 

——— As a side note, one thing that I would never have believed in the states is the ease at which people switch between dollar currency and lira. If I give someone 50,000 lira I will most likely get back change in $10 or $20 bills. And if I pay for something with a $20 I will get change back in lira. When I get cash out from the bank they will always ask if I want it in Lira or Dollar as big amounts of cash are often kept in dollars because the exchange rate is 1500 to every dollar. So, when you come to Beirut do not worry if you initially only have dollars!

FusHa-3meeah-English-French mixtape

The other day my friend remarked: “You haven’t written a blog post in a while.” Sadly, he is correct. I honestly have been so bogged down with class (8:30-3:30 with an hour lunch break) and five to eight hours of homework a night! And when I am not doing school work I try to be out and about enjoying my time here!

One thing that has completely taken me by surprise is the feeling of utter vulnerability in not be able to speak spoken Arabic (3meeye). The Arabic that is taught in class called FusHa or Modern Standard Arabic is only used in writing and in extremely formal situations so, for the first time in a VERY long time I am literally without words. Since I speak Spanish, Italian, English and can get by with French I really do not know, or remember, the feeling of not being able to understand the banter on the streets. Even though most people DO speak English or French here I have always said, and will continue to say, that there is A LOT lost in translation or left out when you do not know a person’s mother tongue. Thus, my thirst to learn spoken Lebanese grows stronger by the day!

On the Lady G

Yesterday I spent the day on my friend’s beautiful yacht and was so lucky to be surrounded by Lebanese speaking people. It helps me so much to hear the dialect and try to grasp the gist of the conversation although I cannot understand every word, of course!! On our return to the port, my friends put on traditional Lebanese music and started singing at the top of their lungs and, while so entertaining, it served as a great Arabic lesson also 😉

Bringing up the yacht makes me think of another topic of discussion: Imbalance of wealth. Lebanon, especially Beirut, is NOT cheap and salaries are NOT high so I ask, “how do people afford these prices? As a father of a friend told me, “4% of Lebanese are extremely wealthy and the rest have to work really hard to make ends meet. Even the women have had to start working!” As a friend of mine would said, “Most Lebanese are on the ‘Struggle Bus.’” It is also fascinating to note that while there are only 4,000 Lebanese living in the motherland there are triple that (12,000) living abroad. To counter act the low salaries most Lebanese have family members living abroad who send momeu home to their families.

I have been blessed to meet the most amazing people here in Lebanon and, in reflection, I realize that, since I am studying at the best university in the middle east, I have (in great majority) met people who are 1) highly educated 2) more often than not come from “good families”

I have not been able to, yet, make real connections with the vast amount of Lebanese who do not fit into these two categories.

At the beauty Salon I try to make conversation in my broken FusHa-Lebanese-English-French mish-mash of words but I truly believe that I will not be able to even start to paint a cohesive and balanced picture of Lebanon without knowing spoken Lebanese.

Back to homework 🙂

P.S.  I think the solution to this small problem  of learning spoken Arabic is to stay in Lebanon LONGER …How about a year Mama? :p

Metal Rods, Checkpoints & Handshakes

Update: Class didn’t remain “dry” for very long thanks to the enthusiasm of our wonderful teachers! hamdullah!

Time is flying and I don’t like it! I am having the time of my life here in Lebanon and am savoring every second (well, maybe not my 7 hours of dry non-stop Arabic classes and 4+ hours of homework a night but, c’est la vie, and a pretty good one at that so it is fine!).

I still feel extremely unprepared to speak to people in the street but yesterday I started ordering my food in Arabic and asking for directions so, that is a first little step. I am also learning how to text in Arabic dialect which is exciting for me! One thing that is fascinating about Lebanon is the fact that it is truly a trilingual country and you will hear French and English intermixed constantly with Arabic! “shukran” often becomes “merci” and “min fudlik” becomes “please.”

I am having to get used to the electricity being intermittent. For example, the lights will go off at least 3 times during class or while shopping for yummy fresh fruit at the market, all of a sudden the grocery store will become pitch black until the hum of the generators begin. It makes me laugh to think about how excited I would get when the electricity is down during a big storm in the States and thus we would get to use candles! Here, outages are not that romantic 😉

Anyway, to continue in the same vein as my last post, on things distinctly different from what I know, here you go:

Check Points

I was honestly really surprised that there are checkpoints in Lebanon. For some reason I had always associated checkpoints with Lebanon’s neighbor Palestine but alas, they too exist here while on a much smaller scale.

The other night my male friend was sitting in the front seat of a taxi when, all of a sudden he got out and yelled to us that a girl must sit in the front instead of him. While I didn’t understand at the time,  he later explained that the Syrian taxi driver did not have papers and would be questioned if another man was sitting next to him. If a girl is sitting in the passenger seat the car is usually whisked by.

Humvees and Metal Rods

The other day I saw my first tank on the side of the road. While it did not make me at all nervous it was initially surprising, as I had only seen tanks in movies or in newspapers. Once again, I was brought back to thinking how removed the U.S. is from the reality on the ground in countries so far away. Tanks and such ARE real and I just wish that the people who remotely engage missiles etc. would comprehend that no, the people in the Middle East are not characters in a video game.

Another security object that I had not seen before was the “metal rod.” At all entrances of malls and public places there are men with metal rods. A friend of mine asked me: “See those metal rods? Do you know what they are?” No I did not. She went on to explain that they are bomb detectors. Interesting.

Hand Shaking

The American University of Beirut is the most prestigious university in the Arab world and only the most intelligent and successful students are given entrance. Wrongly, I often associate education with a degree of secularism or at least the questioning of authority. On my second night in Beirut, while watching the Euro Cup, I met two male students and conversed about the final game and poetry (yes, I know it was an odd mix). Anyway, when it was time to leave (male students are not allowed to stay in the female dorms after 12, and visa versa) one of the guys shook my hand excitedly, “So nice to meet you,” and so I put my hand out to shake the hand of the second student. Alas, I was met with the air. The second student touched his hand to his heart and looked down and muttered “sorry” under his breath. While I know he would have done the same to all other girls, it was such a bizarre feeling to be so directly refused because I am a woman. Since I pride myself on accepting the differences of all, I was very taken aback by my own personal shock at the encounter. I never thought I would react so strongly to this gesture.

For some reason, I thought that (some) Muslim men do not shake women’s hands in more conservative countries like Afghanistan or Yemen—not in the metropolis of Beirut! But, alas I was wrong and definitely learned a lesson: ALWAYS WAIT FOR THE MAN TO REACH OUT HIS HAND FIRST. It is all just SO humbling and I have realized just how much I do NOT know. Onward…

NOTE: This unique experience of conservative undertone has NOT been wide spread.

P.S.

The nightlifehere is amazing! People here just live more fully than in any other place I have been. I LOVE IT!!! As a matter of fact, tonight I am going to an Enrique Iglesias concert on the waterfront (I missed the Pitbull concert)!

Top 7 MOST surprising things about Lebanon

So, I have been here five days so far and have picked up on many cultural curiosities. Here are just a few in no particular order!

1)    Everyone wears Jeans!!!

Always classy!
notice the awesome heels

Even though it may be 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humid everyone seems to wear jeans!* Lebanese wear jeans for many reasons.1) They are considered modest and a good option for Muslim women 2) They give less chances for men to be crass. One of my friends said: “I won’t wear shorts in a service (group taxi) since you never know who you will be seated next to 3) they are a fashion statement, of course!

You can almost single handedly pick out foreigners from the crowd by just looking to see if they are wearing jeans.  When packing for my trip I only packed dresses, shorts and skirts in response to the high temperatures I foresaw. So, third day in Beirut I was off to buy jeans at the Beirut Souks. The Beirut Souk used to be the old market place before the war  and so developers have built a beautiful outside mall with old Arab influences in the architecture. You can find anything from H&M to Dolce Gabbana here and it seems like a good place for people watching—as is every other place in Lebanon as plastic surgery is rampant!

*I have not yet been to the beach and am sure that jeans are NOT worn there.

2)    Great Water Pressure!

There is better water pressure in my dorm showers than in my dorm in California!!! I think this is most likely because I am staying at the American University of Beirut but, even though Lebanese say the country is a third world country, it really feels much more like a second world country! Electricity goes out often so I guess it needs some time to become “first world.”

3)    Lebanese Love American Food!

There are American restaurants everywhere!!! From pinkberry, dunkin’ donuts, McDonald’s and burger king to Applebee’s! The supermarkets have all the newest American hair products and house goods. And the thing is that Lebanese love all this stuff! McDonalds does not have the reputation it has in the states as being for those that cannot afford better—it is a fun “cool” place here.  A Lebanese owned American diner-style restaurant called “Roadster” has also opened up and there are lines out the door at their many locations!

4)   Lebanese LOVE sushi!

Out with friends eating Sushi!

Other than American food, Lebanese LOVE sushi! There are sushi restaurants everywhere! Last night I ate at a wonderful conveyor belt sushi place with a dear friend! So delicious! Ps. For dessert at a different restaurant I drank an avocado mango drink! Delicious!

5)    There is no civil marriage.

One thing that I found quite curious was the fact that there is no civil marriage in Lebanon. On your ID it says your religion (passed down from your father) and two people are obligated to marry in the specific church or mosque. A couple then lives “under” that sect’s law in regards to testimonies, divorce laws etc. For example, Marionite Christians have very strict divorce laws which can take up to 10 years to resolve and some wills will be passed down only to the primogeniture.

So, I asked the question what if people from two different religions want to get married? The answer: Either, one of them converts OR they fly to Cyprus and have a civil marriage.

Since weddings show the status of a family—the more people you invite and the grander the ceremony, fireworks etc. the better the reputation—weddings cost LOTS of money. Some families are ok with having their children elope as it won’t cost them as much BUT, the wedding is still a highly engrained tradition which if not done “right” could create a bit of a scandal.

6)    The country is so small!

I never realized just how small the country of Lebanon is! If there was no traffic it would take about two hours to drive around the gorgeous land. People talk about different towns as if they were far a way, or as if a neighborhood was THAT difficult to get to but honestly I could walk around Beirut’s entirety in a few hours! That, to me, is awesome!

7)    Lebanese are the friendliest people EVER!

They are the most warm and hospitable people I have ever met! While some of my classmates get annoyed that the shopkeepers won’t talk to them in Arabic (Lebanese are generally tri-lingual: Arabic, French and English)  a friend of mine told me the true reason: They just want to make it EASIER for you! They want you to feel more comfortable.

I was graciously invited to a wonderful evening dinner party on the first night I arrived in the country. My host, his family and all his friends could not have made me laugh more, smile more or feel more at home! Subsequently, I have been taken out to see the city by the people I met that night and I am always being checked up on. Everyone wants to make sure I am having a good time! And don’t worry: I LOVE IT here!

Note: Dear lebanese readers: if you think I may be wrong in any of my points please correct me! Merci!

Right off the plane I was whisked away to an amazing Lebanese feast in Amioun, a small town north of Beirut

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