How much does taste cost? Lebanese taste, is a love story, a story of nostalgia and transmission of know-how…

How much does taste cost?

Can a taxi driver allow himself to eat downtown or elsewhere? Who can afford a pasta dish at 15 dollars! The poshy design of some venues freaks out the poor who quickly would associate it to its high prices. Some owners have become ogres who strip wallets of their patrons, in no time.
In a Damascus restaurant back in 2010, while I was working on a food project in Syria. 
I asked the waiter why they specified the weigh of meat. He told me that restaurants should serve the weigh written on the menu. Whereas in Lebanon, we sometimes wonder if we are paying the fair price for the food we eat. They are ruining us and sometimes we swallow rotten food. 
Yet, a decade earlier it wasn’t the case. We could eat well at a reasonable price. In Lebanon, the concept of restaurant was driven by the desire to escape the city, find a getaway, get out off the dull life without paying a fortune a dish of moughrabieh or a pocket mezze as a Sunday treat. 
Today, some clever artisans refuse to high up their menu tariffs. They cook with taste and charge the fair price. 

The real estate boom encourages some to increase immoderately their rates and consumers became accustomed to pay unjustified bills.
How did we get here?

I would like to tell you the story of the evolution of food in Lebanon.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the country was green. Concrete had not yet eroded urban space. Sites to hang out and picnic were abundant. Families filled baskets with food they would peacefully eat in the woods. Under a tree near a spring to chill out, and that would be used as natural fridge to cool out watermelon and beverages. The source was also a water supply. Rivers, these havens became cults just like the river Berdawni that attracted a motley crowd on weekends. 
Beirut was dotted with forests and woodlands. They are close to disappear: Horch Tabet and Les Bois des Pins. The latter space is resisting to concrete, that has like a spider, grabbed Beirut.
At the crossroads, Zahle, a key hub in the region swarming with people. City dwellers and country people flocked into the Bekaa Valley to relax and enjoy meals prepared at home. This mixture of ‘ genres’ gave birth to the mezze culture. This array of small dishes to share consisting of hot and cold, raw and cooked. Now, mezze abroad reflects “the art of eating Lebanese”.

In the 1950s, Lebanon was booming . With the nationalization of the Suez Canal, Nasser diverted tourists and business travelers from Cairo to Beirut. The Lebanese capital was transformed into a cultural and gastronomic hive. In no time, Beirut began to flicker and arrogated to itself the gold palm Middle Eastern destination. This glamorous decade marks the beginning of the creation of culinary brands. Tourists flocked and Lebanese were eager to leave. This desire to eat “out of home” was born with the proliferation of mezze.
In a jiffy, snacks and restaurants opened. The Roaring Twenties, like milk, like cotton, bliss. Life was generous and the country prosperous. The economic boom was taking place before the thud of the war. On the ledge in the muggy heat of summer stretched, clubs and restaurants were flourishing. On a yéyé background tune, girls and boys swung.

A bus, machine guns, loud noises, the beginning of the end of an era. April 13, 1975, bang, the civil war, the end of the dream. Lebanon sank into a depression. Another framework, the outburst explosion of the society. The heyday of the city centre, once bubbling was only a vague memory. The heart of the capital was quickly deserted. Local caffs and food stalls were occupied by snipers. City restaurants had taken off. Some had closed while the others were scattered in the different regions settling where lived their community. They were scarce. However, they offered good quality ingredients and moderate rates.

The war ended like magic. At a glance, enemies of yesterday buried the hatchet. Taif Agreement signed on 22nd October 1989, ended the clash. In a flash, unbridled war yielded place to an ominous peace. War was an everyday issue taking another shape: a conflict of social classes. The reconstruction caused the destruction of what had remained at the end, the ultimate damage.
Developers put the city under their spell. Lebanese were knackered, deaf, dumb, stunned by years of violence and fear. They gave up, they couldn’t take it any longer. 
The city was sluggishly rebuilding like souls and broken hearts … so were the restaurants!

Surreptitiously, like rebels without a cause of life supplanted the Rebel disarray. Restaurants began to hatch, a reflection of the outstanding creativity. Everyone wanted to party, to grab it all. 
Yesterday they were holed up, terrorized by their neighbours. Now they wanted to celebrate with them. 1990 an ab fab decade ! 
Each eatery claimed its taste and type of clientele. They were often good and fair. L’Os in Ain Saade was a winner. One could drive for miles to eat its famous garlic baguette. It was common to drive from Faraya to Dbayeh for a manouche with a one-off texture. The beautiful scent of chicken coming out of Snack Lala on Mar Mitr street filled the air. And for a boost of vitamin, fruit cocktails at Frulatte were a hit. Restaurants were scattered in all regions. The Chase in Kaslik was popular. The neighbourhood inspired an eponymous TV show. In the same surrounding, Down Town and So enchanted by their contemporary design. Le Gargotier in the summer village of Broummana was famed for its grilled meat. La Crêperie overlooking the bay of Jounieh was much-appreciated for its European menu, in Horch Tabet, Romano 222 with its international cuisine. The Beirut Cellar in Achrafieh is a steak house that has remained in its “décor” with everlasting faithful patrons.
For the ritual Sunday mezze, big names would attracted families. Founded around the 1950s, the mezze mongers, Mhanna, Halabi, Fadel or Sultan Ibrahim were still hits. Pepe Abed, an iconic seaside restaurant remained flamboyant. Overlooking the old Byblos port, it charmed seafood lovers. In the aftermath of war, it didn’t seem to have changed a lot. Its gallery of celebrity portraits and cat-of-the-day fish were still valued. Everyone could afford hanging out. In Raouche, Chez Popeye and its laid-back atmosphere, while one would rush at Myrtom House for a fondue. The Blue Note, a typical Hamra club was the place to hang out for steak and chips with live jazz band. In short, Lebanese were hungry for everything!
On another level, Blue FM, a radio station in the wake of underground radios played an unruffled jazz, blues and classical music.
Amid inhabited houses invaded by wild vegetation on the blue line, a restaurant-club, Le Babylon sparkled. With its Lovely counter and delicious international menu, it catered for the Thirty-year-old generation in search for quality and good sound.

Then came the 2000s. Not so lovely, not so fair. 
But why, what happened?
This decade marked the beginning of food scandals. Meat, dairy products , fruits and vegetables, fish, nothing was spared. Some shenanigans were revealed in broad daylight provoking outrage and distrust. However, many passionate restaurateurs, were resuming tailor-made dishes.
In the wake of these lovers of good food, Kamal Mouzawak founded in 2004 the first farmer’s market. Farmers and small producers hailing from villages were invited to display their healthy products in the capital. What a treat ! Kamal who had traveled the country has noticed that small-scale producers could not sell their products at a fair price. People were hungry for quality. He opened a space whereby farmers would meet consumers. Tawlet, his latest achievement, showcases cooked dishes with regional specificities.

What has changed dramatically since the 2000s, is that taste became expensive. In the heyday, it was easy to take the family out at a restaurant on a Sunday. Even during the civil war, people had more money than now. 
2008, is the key date where real estate started impacting directly on menu prices. Some restaurant owners would exclusively cater for well-to-do people, expats or Gulf tourists. Poor people were left behind. They were no room for them in trendy and downtown venues. A meal consisting of a main dish and two entrées with a drink was easily charged USD 50 per person. For a family of 6, it’s a huge investment of 300 USD.
Who can afford such a luxury? Rates increased in a disproportionate way.

Where do the poor hang out? In hookah cafes, they would waste hours smoking for an average cost of $ 8 USD. What a shame!
It is a social regression to offer as an alternative a toxic substitute.

To advise patrons, I decided to share honest places I have been to in a foodie guide book: Le Liban Gourmand. 

A bunch of restaurants operate with an authentic fair way. Abu Hassan in Caracas, from father to son, with specialties from southern Lebanon. Its Khashouche , moujaddarah hamra alongside spicy Kafta tomato aka kichkhach are awesome. T Marbouta in Hamra is yummy with its creamy lentil soup and meshouis. Le Chef, an iconic Gemayze canteen is tasty. You’d be served by Charbel and his a broad smile. Imm Nazih or the story of a family who transformed its building into several clever living spots. A guesthouse, an outdoor cafe and a straightforward canteen with Lebanese staples. 

Roni and his brother restored the family fouwel outlet, Abu Abdallah. Before the war, the grandfather had his business in downtown. Forced to move to Dora, the grandchildren took over and are making sure to prepare the best hummus and Fatteh in town. Ali Baba et les quarante poussins, at the corner of Jesuits Garden boasts a family-style kitchen.

Lebanese taste, is a love story, a story of nostalgia and transmission of know-how…

Cherine Yazbeck

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.