The Lebanese are known to be experts on enjoying life! They have lived through enough tragedy to have a deep appreciation for life… and what is life without great food and drink?
2 of the 3 times we have visited Beirut we have stayed in Mar Mikhael and we highly recommend doing the same. It is an epicenter of great dining, nightlife, and culture. All of the restaurants we are mentioning are located in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood unless otherwise noted.
For a true Lebanese experience, we recommend going for traditional breakfast (very Mediterranean in style) breakfast at Fina. Homemade jams, fresh cheeses, and flavorful olives. It is just up the hill from Armenia street and truly in a neighborhood of locals.
Alternatively, for a heavier breakfast, we’d recommend Enab for a hot and delicious Shakshuka. If you aren’t familiar with this dish (it can be found across Arab nations, and even Turkey and Central Asia) it is in its essence eggs cooked in a tomato sauce but the variations are endless and all delicious. Enab is located right on Armenia Street (the main street of the Mar Mikhael neighborhood) and is likely the restaurant we have visited the most in Beirut. It is a fantastic choice no matter the time of day or meal you are seeking. It is built into ruins, which is not uncommon in Beirut, and has a very French feeling indoor area and eclectic outdoor space with a rock cliff as the back wall, and exposed building to either side and a gorgeous tree smack in the middle. The meat main courses are very tasty, the local beers are refreshing and cold, and the shisha (hookah) is flavorful and well-tended. We have literally been here for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and chill tea with shisha hang out across my 3 visits to Beirut and we can’t recommend this casual and authentic Lebanese place enough.
Staying along the Lebanese cuisine theme there is a place if you follow Armenia Street west and when it forks you bear right on Pasteur Street continuing 2 short blocks and 1 long past the fork that is worth checking if you have some extra time. It is interesting because you have to follow steps down from the main street to the back of the building and there is a garden area that even has some meandering turtles in the garden. It offers Lebanese food throughout the day but we went for breakfast before going for a day trip outside the capital. It is also a hotel/hostel so the dining vibe is to go up and order, and return/dump your tray of food. The food was enjoyable but the overall experience wasn’t anything to write home about. If you have some extra time or are looking for somewhere outdoors with a bit of greenery and turtles then you could check out Café Em Nazih.
If you have been sight-seeing and you’re in need of a pick-me-up then we recommend popping into an Urbanista café which you will find scattered through the city. It provides a nice coffeeshop vibe to relax in or use the WIFI to catch up on emails and the coffee is top-notch. You can get your espresso here or you can go local and enjoy a cup of Turkish coffee, just mind the grinds at the end.
As the sun sets, if you are looking to do some more sophisticated dining, then we have two options we highly recommend. The first we haven’t experienced in Beirut itself but rather its second location they opened in Dubai. Em Sherif is authentic Lebanese cuisine at its best! A formal dining experience, incredibly high-quality food with a lovely atmosphere, and exceptional service. Alternatively, you can experience another side of Lebanon’s history, and that is of its citizens of Armenian descent (approximately 4% of the population). For an Armenian formal dining experience sure to deliver food beyond your expectations we suggest Mayrig Beirut. If you are adventurous and/or enjoy raw meat dishes as we do then definitely get the raw kibbeh (Kibbeh Nayyeh) or raw kofte (Chi Kofte). Whether you are adventurous or conservative in your eating we recommend the Manti (small meat dumplings). We are generally fans of any style of dumpling that any culture has to offer, but it’s safe to say that manti has a special place in our hearts. Small and wrapped in crisp dough, you then pour a tomato sauce and a cream sauce over them for a delectable experience. This would also be a good place to try the local liquor, Arak. It has a licorice flavor and you typically mix it with water and ice. The anise/licorice flavor is strong, so if that isn’t your flavor, we wouldn’t recommend it as you are more likely to be offended by that flavor than an alcoholic taste.
For a more casual but equally delicious Armenian option, we recommend Onno on Badaro Street in the Badaro neighborhood. This restaurant has a more neighborhoody vibe but high-quality food. Lebanon has a lot of French influence, so oddly enough this actually the place where Amelia first tried frog legs. Again, this is a great place to enjoy raw meat dishes and Arak.
If you are in the mood for a big ole burger or curious to try one of the best burgers, we have ever had out at a restaurant then you owe it to yourself to visit Ferdinand’s in Hamra. However, this is not your average burger joint. This a tiny hole in the wall restaurant bar, bursting with personality and flavorful food. There are 2 high top tables out front and less than 10 tables inside plus a few bar stools. The first time we went here the only table available was one of the high-tops outside and we swear to you our server was also the cook and was also smoking a joint outside a few steps from us in between interactions. It is small, it is packed with people and the atmosphere, and it is a great example of the energy that Beirut has to offer.
When we went to Ferdinand’s for the first time it was because we had heard great things about it. We’d also heard that the main street in the Hamra neighborhood was full of bars and nightlife. Hamra on the very west side of the city and every time we have stayed in Beirut we stayed in Mar Mikhael or Badaro which are east of it. So, we took a taxi about 10 minutes west of Mar Mikhael and had the driver drop us at the eastern end of Hamra’s main street so that we could walk and drink our way to Ferdinand’s for dinner. Most of the bars here, not unlike Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael, are small, have their own regulars, and can provide an intimate experience with the bartender. We stopped into about 3 bars and at each, we sat at the bar and ordered Old Fashioneds. Now if you’re an Old Fashioned lover like Amelia than you might also relate ordering them to be like flipping a coin. Whether you are at fancy place or dive the odds seem to swing evenly between being a disgusting experience made with cheap liquor and mismeasured poor ingredients, or the most perfect cocktail of all time elegantly prepared by a bartender who also appreciates this classic drink and good bourbon. Well, every single one of the bars we popped into here leaned toward the dive side of things but each crafted a perfect Old Fashioned accompanied by great background music and chill atmosphere. Though Mar Mikhael stole Hamra’s spot as the hip nightlife neighborhood, packed with many trendy restaurants and bars, we would still strongly recommend a libation punctuated stroll through Hamra on your way Ferdinand’s.
As you’ll read in our Experience blog on Beirut, we encourage a day trip up the coast Byblos (called Jbeil by the locals). If you do make the journey then some worthy dining options are waiting for you on this ancient port city’s coast. Most likely your taxi will drop you at the top of old souk so you can enjoy a pretty step back in time as you meander down to the shore through an ancient feeling market. Once down at the coast you will feel like you are looking at piece of art. A few big old rocks scatter this cove, many fishing and recreational boats are docked in the marina and bringing their daily catches directly to these restaurants we are recommending.
The first time we visited Byblos we dined at Bab el Mina and sat along the edge of the terrace so we could enjoy the picturesque view. They have a display of fresh catches for you to select from if you want to, however, if you’d rather not see your food until it is cooked and plated than you can just pick from their menu. We did a bit of both. We ordered a variety of items including a whole fish, grilled octopuses, and assorted mezze (Mediterranean appetizers). The food, the wine, the view, décor, and atmosphere were all wonderful here. On our first visit we saved Byblos for our last day so this was actually our last meal before heading to the Beirut airport… and it was a perfect last meal in this country that excels at making and enjoying food and drink!
The last time we went to Byblos we again dined down on the shore but tried a different restaurant. This time we had done some research and found that there was a restaurant with a long-standing history that went back to Lebanon’s golden days in the 1960s. Chez Pepe also called Byblos Fishing Club or Pepe Abed’s was back in those days considered a jewel of Lebanon’s tourism industry and was frequented by the likes of Bridget Bardot and Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra. Sitting on the terrace where you can look out at the sea or peruse the wall filled with photos of the many celebrities who have posed with the founder, Pepe Abed. A little Googling of Pepe Abed is a fun adventure in itself and makes a visit to this historical restaurant all the more fun. He was known as both a playboy and a pioneer of tourism for Lebanon. He passed away in 2007 and his son currently runs the place. Here you can again choose your fish from the case of fresh catches or select from the menu. The food is tasty and it’s fun to dine here picturing what it would have been like in its heyday and that you may be sitting in a chair that the likes of Sinatra once sat during an exotic Mediterranean vacation.
With that daydream in your mind, we will leave you fantasizing about all the wonderful food and drink Lebanon has to offer. If you’d like to keep reading about the lesser-explored Mediterranean gem visit our Experience or Know blog on Beirut to Byblos.