Crisis-hit Lebanon still has an appetite for dining out

Restaurateurs enjoy a resurgence in business following the pandemic - and despite the economy

People dining at Faqra Club in the Lebanese mountains north of Beirut. AFP
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The world over, Lebanon is well known for the diversity and creativity of its cuisine, encompassing traditional Middle Eastern influences and an array of international styles and flavours.

Unfortunately, the past few years have not been kind to the country’s famous fine-dining scene. Restaurants have been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Lebanese liquidity crisis in the past two years, as has most of Lebanon’s hospitality sector.

Despite the challenges that operating in the struggling economy presents, restaurateurs are experiencing a surprising rebound, driven by a combination of resurgent tourism and the shifting attitudes of local consumers.

Quote
The Lebanese have an appetite for saving up, going out and spending money. It will never stop being like this, it didn’t during the Civil War and it won’t now
Samer Maroun, Lotus Management Group

“Today, you have these newly rich people [who] made their money from the exchange; people that want to show more and make sure that people are seeing them,” businessman Samer Maroun tells The National. “They want the more expensive [ingredients], like truffle oil and black cod. They want to make sure [they are] eating the best.”

Brothers Samer and Mazen Maroun, co-runners of Lotus Management Group, are experienced business owners in the hospitality and catering industries. In 2019, their family separated from their famous restaurant and pastry shop La Gondole, founded in 1957, because of the prohibitive operating costs arising from Lebanon’s rapidly encroaching economic crisis. Then, in 2020, their Prune bistro was destroyed in the August 4 port explosion.

With the Lebanese government approving the "dollarisation" of prices for restaurants, cafes and bars over the summer, and improving market stability, the Marouns have reinvested in the Lebanese dining scene with Pazzi, a cosy new pizzeria in Beirut’s Badaro neighbourhood.

“We wanted to do a smaller place,” Maroun says. “[We have seating for] 55, between the inside and outside on the terrace. It’s nice to sit at night, to have a drink and to eat pizza.

“[The Lebanese] have an appetite for saving up, going out and spending money,” he says. “It will never stop being like this, it didn’t during the Civil War and it won’t now.”

The cost of dining out has risen dramatically on the Lebanese lira, and US dollars are in short supply in the country. As such, local consumers want a truly exceptional experience that will justify their expenditure. That means entertainment, novelty and, above all, quality.

At the same time, Lebanese expats and foreign visitors with access to US dollars can enjoy premium cuisine at a relatively low price point.

The rooftop bar at Salazar Beirut. Photo: Salazar

“We’ve had quite a good season, in general,” says Nawaf Beydoun, owner of rooftop bar Salazar. “There are a lot of expats coming to visit Beirut, people that are making fresh dollars ... whatever they're going to pay here is going to be much less than in Dubai, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. At the moment, Lebanon is relatively cheap [for them].”

Opened in May, Salazar is one of several new concepts in Beirut for Beydoun and his company, Mindset Group, which lost six of its seven original venues in the Beirut port explosion. Previously known as Jackie-O, the trendy rooftop bar — located in Beirut’s upmarket Saifi district — now has a new style, inspired by the mixing of Hispanic and Arabian cultures found in southern Spain.

This extends to the menu of light bites, mingling fresh, local ingredients with international dishes, all infused with Andalusian and Latin flavours.

Beydoun’s other future plans include Panchos, a Mexican taqueria resto-bar, and Zaia, a high-end lounge themed around Peruvian cuisine, both situated in Beirut’s vibrant Mar Mikhael neighbourhood. Pop-up diners with novel concepts are becoming increasingly popular in Lebanon as a means to cut operating costs for owners, but Beydoun says that his new venues are here to stay.

“The vision that we have is not a ‘hit-and-run’ business,” Beydoun says. “If you go to Batroun, for example, it has a season [of] four or five months, then they close. We like the waves of the ups and downs, and rising to the challenge of fixing them. That's why we have several outlets. If one place closes down, it's easy to move around employees.”

Hotels in Lebanon have also been performing well. Many were forced to suspend restaurant services during the pandemic. As restrictions ease and more Lebanese embrace domestic tourism, these satellite businesses are bouncing back.

One example of this is newly reimagined Italian restaurant Da Sophia, previously Sophia’s Live Kitchen at The Smallville Hotel, which reopened its doors in June to startling success after closing down in 2020.

“We didn't have any grand re-opening, but people were so enthusiastic,” says Berthe Barakat, director of business developmentat The Smallville Hotel. “[We never] expected to have these numbers; it was an increase of 20 per cent from 2019, even better than before the crisis.

“People used to like our cuisine, but we also wanted to have more dishes and more varieties,” she says. “The quality is what matters for us. The chef doesn't accept to have anything not cooked a la minute. Everything is prepared here [and we] have fresh items that we bring in daily.”

The inviting terrace venue is external to its parent hotel, making it equally accessible to guests and walk-ins. While it may be more lucrative to cater exclusively to the wealthy, Barakat and her team are committed to offering dishes that are delicious and affordable.

“Even though the Ministry of Tourism allowed us to charge in dollars, we wanted to keep the menu [priced] in Lebanese lira, just to encourage local people to come,” Barakat says. “We want to have the local market here [but] people don't have the purchasing power they used to.”

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:02 PM
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