Elie Saab’s Smooth Guide to Beirut (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Beirut is in its final stages of reconstruction. I always dreamed of this time, when the city would be fully rebuilt. It’s a city that doesn’t surrender. It doesn’t know weakness. Every 10 or 15 years there’s a problem, but the strength of the city is in its people and they have a lot of energy and courage. We’ll always have political problems, but that’s the same everywhere in the world. I’m very optimistic.

Elie Saab, Beirut, January 2011 © http://www.markcoflaherty.com

My earliest memories of Beirut are very dreamy. I grew up in a town just outside of the city, but I came here every week or so, and I have such good memories of the time; I can remember the crowds in motion while I looked up at people on balconies and at windows. I’ve always loved to be where there is a lot of life, so Beirut has been a kind of muse to me. The sunshine here is a source of constant inspiration, and I dedicated a collection to it once. When I think of Beirut, I think of the beauty of the natural scenery – the mountains around it and the richness of its colours. It’s a city on the water, on the Mediterranean Sea, and you can feel it in the mood of the place. I always think that a city near the water has a distinct mentality – it gives a coolness and calmness to the people.

You should spend Saturday morning visiting the new souks downtown. All of the luxury international brands are here. Next to the souks, it’s all about Aïshti, the department store that has all the best labels – including Prada and Yves Saint Laurent. There really isn’t another place to shop for international fashion. The development company Solidare really has woken up the city, constructing the new souks and the downtown Central Beirut District, but also reconstructing a lot of the old buildings that had been destroyed, with exactly the same architecture as before. I like the modernity of the new downtown, where all the high-rise steel and glass residential buildings are being constructed, close to my atelier. It’s the city of the future. I’d prefer not to see the scars of the war, but of course there are so many buildings with bullet holes that show the past. There’s still the old bombed-out and derelict shell of the Holiday Inn, facing the Phoenicia hotel. It’s a building with a story and maybe it would be good to leave it as it is, to show our children how their father and mother lived. It might make them appreciate what we have.

Eat at Balthus, a French brasserie that’s full of life, particularly at lunchtime. This is such a small city, so when I go, I know half the people there – lots of my friends and neighbours are regulars. It has a classic brasserie interior, and the meat dishes are amazing. I like the fact that the menu doesn’t have 100 things on it, but what it does have is very good. The fish with olive oil is great. Every time I go, I have the same thing: a crab salad with potato and green leaves. It’s their speciality.  Another great place for lunch is Al Halabi, which serves very traditional Lebanese food. I don’t think that there’s anything flash about the restaurant at all, but they have excellent kibbeh, and tabbouleh.

I don’t walk in Beirut. The Lebanese take cars everywhere, and the new parts of the city make you feel like there’s no place to walk, apart from the souks. But there are newly fashionable areas to explore. The area of Mar Mikhael, where the design store Liwan is, is very nice. The owner, Lina Audi, sells unique fashion and furniture, and has another shop in Paris. Since she opened her shop in Beirut, others have come to Mar Mikhael too and it’s a new centre for development.

There are a lot of excellent designers and design stores in Beirut. Chakib Richani is the architect who designed all my stores and residences. He has created a great, very modern product range of furniture pieces and has a showroom in Saifi Village, where many interior designers are based. Nada Debs has a store there, selling her ‘east and east’ designs, mixing middle-eastern and far eastern styles of furniture, as well as pieces that mix the traditional east and contemporary west – it’s modern, but with a touch of the old Lebanon beneath the surface. The whole of Saifi Village is great to explore, you can find a lot of wonderful handmade work here, from kaftans to furniture.

I’ve never bought art for myself because I’ve always preferred empty walls, but I’d very much like to start collecting the work of Paul Guiragossian, the Armenian-born painter who moved to Beirut in the 1930s; he captured the human condition so well. His paintings are hard to find and buy through galleries and at auction, but there’s a museum dedicated to him in the city within the Emmagoss Gallery – owned by his son – with a lot of major works on show. We only have one real museum, the National Museum of Beirut, but then there are so many things better than a museum close to us, like the ruins of the Roman temple in Baalbek. The National Museum reopened in 1999 after major renovation; it suffered serious shelling during the civil war. The Phoenician and Roman-era art and relics are truly amazing.

I prefer to have dinner at home, but Chez Sami is one of my favourite restaurants, 40 minutes’ drive from the centre of town, on the coast. The interior is all wood and bamboo and the room overlooks the sea. It’s a simple place; they serve only fish, but it’s with an oriental and Lebanese style, and I don’t know why – I think it’s the dressing – but they have the best Fattouche I’ve ever had anywhere, and in eight different varieties.

A lot of my French friends ask me for Lebanese wine, because it’s so good. I don’t drink it myself as I find it the wine from hot countries too strong for me, but all the Lebanese restaurants have very good wine. And if you like French wine, dine at Burgundy, which has a spectacular contemporary interior. The restaurateur opened the place just because he had such a great wine cellar. If you want to try Lebanese wine, buy some to take home from the Enoteca, one of the biggest and best wine shops in the city.

I very much like Bar ThreeSixty on the top floor of Le Gray. The service in the hotel is amazing, but what I like best is that the bar is circular, walled by glass, with a view over the new Al-Omari mosque, the old church and Martyrs Square. If I have people who want to see the city by night, this is the best place to take them. For a different ambience, go to MyBar in Berytus Tower, a very new and highly-designed nightlife space that’s absolutely packed with people in the evening. I also like the bar at the Four Seasons hotel. I like the service that you get at a Four Seasons anywhere in the world, and there are spaces here that you can have curtained-off, so it’s very private and far from flashy.

Personally, I like very homely and intimate hotels, like the Intercontinental Vendôme – which is far smaller than its sibling property, the Phoenicia – and the Relais & Chateau hotel, the Albergo. At the Albergo they have a very nice terrace and rooftop restaurant, reached by a tiny old central lift which leaves each floor visible through its bars as you ascend. You feel like you are at an old, grand, Lebanese family home.

I live in Gemmayze, the only place that was not touched during the war. All the buildings along Gouraud Street are authentic; they’re just as they were, they haven’t been restored. I feel the real, historic Beirut on these roads, and I live in a very old house on that road. It’s a district that has its own charm and style. I like things that are either very modern or incredibly old, like a listed building; no middle ground.

In every city around the world, Friday and Saturday nights are extremely busy, and of course everyone talks of Beirut nightlife. It’s not really my style to go out in Gemmayze at night, it’s for all the young, cool people. But I like to see the crowds and feel the energy and this is the major nightlife district. This is where to come for people-watching. All the women dress up. Women in Beirut are very elegant: they are very cosmopolitan, and have something of the style of the French, but they’re flash and more glamorous. I am so happy to see people going out, it makes me feel good about the country and the future. I’ve lived in both sides of Beirut – the war and the peace – and I feel so happy for the people now. This is such a vibrant, beautiful city.

HOTELS

Prices are for a double room per night with breakfast for two.

The Hotel Albergo, 137 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street, (+961-1-339797; albergobeirut.com), from $350.

The Four Seasons, 1418 Professor Wafic Sinno Avenue,  Minet El Hosn, (+961-1-761000; www.fourseasons.com/beirut), from $445.

Le Gray, Martyrs’ Square (+961-1-971111; www.campbellgrayhotels.com), from $345.

The Intercontinental Vendome, Ain Mreysseh (+961-1-369280; www.ichotelsgroup.com), from $357.

RESTAURANTS, CAFES AND BARS

Prices are for a three-course meal for one with half a bottle of wine.

Al Halabi, Antelia Square (+961-4-523555), $35.

Balthus, Ghandour Bldg, Minet el Hosn (+961-1-371077), $55.

Burgundy, 752 Gouraud Street (+961-3-074949), $60.

Chez Sami, Maameltein, Jounieh (+961-0-91520; www.chezsamirestaurant.com), $60.

MyBar, 1344 Park Avenue (+961-1-999608; www.maybar.me).

SHOPS

Aïshti, El Moutrane Street (+961-1-330111).

Chakab Richani Products, Saifi Village, Bldg 123 (+961-1-973088).

Enoteca: Le Maison du Vin, Jal El-Dib Highway (+961-1-898597).

Liwan, 56 Madrid Street, Khanikian Bldg (+961-1-444 141).

Nada Debs, Mkhallassiye Street, (+961-1-999002).

SIGHTS

The National Museum of Beirut, Damascus Blvd, Badaro (+961-1-612295; www.beirutnationalmuseum.com); Tuesday-Sunday 9am-5pm, 5000LP/$3.30.

The Paul Guiragossian Museum: Emmagoss Gallery, Centre Le Baron, Amaret Chalhoud Street, Zalka (+961-1-888643; www.paulguiragossian.com); Monday-Friday 10am-7pm, Saturday 10am-4pm, free admission.

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY

The coastal town of Byblos is 40km north of Beirut and lays claim to being the oldest consistently inhabited city in the world, founded around 5000BC. It’s a favourite seaside resort for the Lebanese, with increasingly upscale waterfront dining and new hotels, and a warren of ancient souks. The old medieval quarter remains walled, and there are remains of Phoenician temples and caves within many restaurants and scattered throughout the laneways. The most obvious landmark is the castle, built by the Crusaders between the 12th and 13th centuries. The other most visited site in the area is Saint Charbel’s tomb at the Saint Maron Monastery, a short drive inland, which also has a small restaurant and a shop selling the Annaya wine made by the monks (saintcharbel-annaya.com).

WHEN TO GO

Beirut can suffer from impossibly hot summers while the winter months can be marred by violent storms and consistently heavy rainfall. Early spring and late autumn are the most pleasant times to visit; both are clear and are still warm enough to make use of outdoor and rooftop pools.

HOW TO GET THERE

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Le Gray and BMI (0844-8484 888; http://www.flybmi.com), which flies twice daily, direct, from London Heathrow to Beirut, from £427 return.

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One Response to “Elie Saab’s Smooth Guide to Beirut (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. […] Elie Saab’s Smooth Guide to Beirut (Financial Times How to Spend it) […]

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