Until a couple of years ago, it was a sleepy district in a booming city. Now, a walk through Gemmayzeh in East Beirut requires pluck just to get past the hordes of beautiful people pondering their next drink destination, and a trip to the beauty salon beforehand, simply to fit in. For in Beirut, more aptly named the Vegas of the Middle East than its popular Parisian comparison, Gemmayzeh is the Strip.
More than 100 coffee shops, bars and lounges are stuffed into this small neighbourhood in and around Gouraud Street. Most don’t open until the evening and none really get hopping until after dark.
Fireworks blast throughout the night (and sometimes day) celebrating weddings, birthdays, football goals or just because. Party night is every night, food is always a celebration, and just going for coffee is a reason to dress up.
The neighbourhood is an explicit reminder of how close different groups in Beirut live together. While Gemmayzeh is a decidedly Christian neighbourhood (scantily clad women knocking back vodka and Red Bull wouldn’t pass in a Muslim area), the Al Omari Mosque can be seen glowing blue and gold from nearly everywhere on the Strip.
As the saying goes, what happens in Gemmayzeh stays in Gemmayzeh. For this is where locals and visitors, often from surrounding, more conservative regions, come to indulge.
IT’S NOT ME, IT’S MYU
A former arak distillery is now among the most sophisticated watering holes on the Strip. In MYU, a black mesh dome separates the dining room from the bar, and mirrors cover all the bathroom walls, ceilings included. Owner Mourany Youssef, who lived in Montreal for eight years and still calls it home, keeps things current with crafty cocktails – try the tabbouleh: lemon vodka, salted rim and cherry tomato – and remixed MJ on the stereo. St. Antoine Street; 961-03-33-44-76
THE DEMO IS THE REAL THING
Just off the Strip is Demo, where intelligentsia congregate to debate and drink with friends. Opened in January, the long, sparsely decorated space with cable spool tables and a killer soundtrack resembles a dramatic artist’s loft. Fitting, since the two owners’ (Tarek Mourad and Nabil Saliba) passions are theatre and music respectively. There are plans to add a performance art showcase, with choreographers and actors instead of waiters, and musicians gathering to jam. Until then, it’s an excellent place for coffee and cakes during the day and drinks at night. Liban Street; 961-03-95-85-04
BLAST FROM THE PAST
While it seems like all of Beirut is either being built up or torn down, a stroll through Gemmayzeh in and around Gouraud Street (preferably during the day, before the crowds) offers a pleasant look at what once was. The area is almost entirely made of Ottoman-era buildings, and has somehow managed to survive both the civil war and the current building boom. There are also a handful of churches in the area – a nice break from the traffic and pubs lining the Strip.
WHO NEEDS NYC, LONDON OR PARIS?
If one insists on calling Beirut the Paris of the Middle East, then Kitsch is the Colette of Beirut. The first concept store in the city boasts up and coming designers – Lemlem, Pencey, Torn by Ronny Kobo – movie posters, books, vintage Rolex watches and a coffee shop where co-owner Racil Chalhoub will encourage you to “sit for hours as if you were at your friend’s house.” Serving brunch, salads, tartines and baked goodies like the Kitsch Cupcakes all made fresh in-house, this is a friend’s house with benefits. 14 Gemmayze St.; 961-1-57-50-75; www.kitschconcept.com
THE OLD BOYS AND NEW GIRLS CLUB
The air is dense with narguileh smoke, Lebanese men lean attentively over backgammon boards, a one-man band belts Arabic music. Gemmayze Café has everything the Arabic world evokes. Owner Angel Abihaidar’s grandfather opened in 1951 and she will proudly tell you, “The café never closed during the war even though there was nothing else open all around. It was blessed.” Not much has changed since the beginning. Except now women, teenagers and international types join the men in smoking, drinking, dancing and doing what the Lebanese do best: enjoying life. Gouraud Street; 961-01-58-08-17
HOT, HOT, HOT
Le Rouge, as the name suggests, is all about the colour red: poetry handwritten on the walls, warm lighting, a fiery manager and lots of red meat. An excellent place to come for a steak, and the Roulades d’Aubergine and Nakasaki on Ciabatta are also red hot. 15 Gouraud St.; 961-01-44-23-66; www.lerougebeirut.com
ON THE EDGE OF GEMMAYZEH
Across from the start of the Strip is Saifi Village, a corner of the mass restoration project bringing the city’s French-colonial buildings back to life. The polished square, a replica of the area before the war, is dubbed the Art District with its collection of boutiques and galleries. Cream (Saifi Village Lot 741; 961-19-87-78) carries all you need for a night out – jewellery, handbags, accessories, shoes, clothes – from more than 60 designers, many Lebanese. Maqam Art Gallery (Al Mkhallasiya Street; 961-1-99-12-12; www.maqamart.com) has a fine collection of modern art, with local exhibits every two or three months. On Saturdays, you’ll find the country’s first open-air farmers’ market – Souk El Tayeb (Saifi Village parking lot; 961-1-44-26-64; www.soukeltayeb.com). Saifi Village is between Gouraud Street and Place des Martyrs.
THE CHERRY ON TOP
Entering Al Mayass Restaurant is like arriving to your birthday party. Manager Ibrahim Moukalled greets you as his first-born. While the mustached Minstrel serenades you, wait staff flash huge smiles and seat you at a table in the thick of the action. If you can’t decide what to order, Ibrahim will tell you. “Kebab be Karaz,” he says. “If you tell anyone you came here and didn’t have the kebabs with cherry sauce, they’ll say you never actually went.” Rue Trabaud; 961-1-21-50-46
FROM FARM TO TAWLET
Tawlet’s trailblazing founder, Kamal Mouzawak, takes farm to table to its ultimate conclusion. Every day, a new chef/farmer from a different Lebanese region cooks local favourites and Grandma’s specialties for the tawlet (table in Arabic). The hot and cold fare is laid out buffet style and arak flows freely. It’s also the only non-smoking joint in town. 12 Naher St.; 961-1-44-81-29; www.tawlet.com
Special to The Globe and Mail