Ever wondered how it would feel to cross the Berlin Wall while slightly tipsy? Do you hanker for the age of swing jazz, sharp suits and contraband moonshine? Are you of the opinion that alcohol is best savoured in an industrial setting of concrete and strip lights? …no? Well, now that you’re here you may as well entertain the thought, for all three experiences are on offer at Beirut’s weird and wonderful themed bars. Make no mistake, these watering holes tend to wear their theme lightly, and you won’t be expected to dress accordingly; but if the wider Beirut bar scene is leaving you cold, they could be offering just the sort of offbeat fun you’re after.
If you're sick of being eyed up by smirking fashionistas in oh-so-trendy cocktail bars, why not try a place where all punters are all equal? It’s not entirely clear whether Abu Elie is a communist-themed bar or a bar run by communists who happen to proudly display their political inclinations, but it's a fact that the venue has hosted many of Lebanon’s reddest activists over the years.Its nondescript entrance means that it isn't the easiest place to find, but once inside it sure is eye-catching: the decor is a cacophony of red paints and portraits of Che Guevara and Lenin. The ambience is riotous, and despite the plethora of trinkets hanging from the walls it never seems gimmicky or tacky. Given the bar's impeccable communist credentials, you might expect that all drinks are the same price. Sadly, they're not, but they're still reasonably enough priced as to be affordable for any comra… er, customer. A classic of the Hamra scene.
As you walk up to the bar in Bedivere, the staff will invite you to hand over your phone in return for a discount on your drinks. This novel concept sums up the ethos of this quirky bar, with sociable vibe and tongue-in-cheek knights in armour theme (Sir Bedivere was one of King Arthur's most ardent devotees). The Luddite twist may not be to everyone's taste, but if temporarily depriving you of WhatsApp and Instagram encourages you to confabulate with your band of merry men, then all the better. Clearly many Beirutis agree: since opening in 2012, Bedivere has been consistently popular with a cross section of the city's boozers. The tavern's cocktails (or 'potions') are reasonably priced and eminently quaffable, and the food menu is decent, even if it throws few bones to veggies (pun intended).
With a hop, a skip and a twirl of the cane, Chaplin transports its crowd of hip young things back to the era when its namesake ruled the silver screen. With its two-tone beige and olive walls, dark wood furniture and carefully selected vintage photos and curios dotted about the place, this kooky venue does an impressive job of replicating the atmosphere of the silent era – but, needless to say, without the silence. It's a warm, convivial space, where the cocktails are cheap and the conversation flows as freely as the imported beer. Snacks are strictly functional – the nachos and dubious "Turkey cheese" are there to line your stomach, nothing more – but in all other respects Chaplin stands out from the crowded Mar Mikhael scene.
You'll be glad to know that it's perfectly possible to reach Checkpoint Charlie without having to scramble over barbed wire or dodge vicious guard dogs. Unashamedly capitalising (or should that be communising?) on Berlin's rep as the nightlife capital of Europe, this quirky Downtown joint goes for an audacious Cold War theme, complete with Stasi flags and an elaborate model checkpoint in the corner of the seating area. They have the usual range of bottled and draught beers on offer, as well as an inviting menu of German dishes (elsässer flammkuchen, anyone?). But the biggest choice facing the pundit is an ideological one: where to sit, East or West?
Though nominally themed around Argentina (the upstairs restaurant La Estancia is an Argentinian steakhouse), El Gardel is a sort of institutionalised celebration of all things Latino – musical, aesthetic and alcoholic. Vintage snaps of presumably famous salsa and tango dancers adorn the walls, while that same music drifts out of the sound system. El Gardel tends to attract an older crowd – many of them diners on their way back down from the restaurant – and indeed anyone who's sick of sipping their cocktails to a soundtrack of electro beats. Every Wednesday night is salsa night – so whether you’re experienced with the passionate dance or a novice just starting out, come down to wiggle those hips.
Thanks to this snazzy Downtown joint, you don't need to read Fitzgerald's novel – heck, you don't even need to sit through two and a half hours of Leo DiCaprio's smirking – to feel a part of the Jazz Age. A world in which alcoholism is a respected life choice and "cocktail party" is the default setting for social situations is a fine choice of theme for a bar, and they've done a great job of seeing it through at Gatsby. The decor is strictly ’20s, and vinyls and retro radios adorn every spare surface; the speakeasy theme carries over into the cocktails, which run the gamut of spirits and sport evocative names like Hemingway Special. Uruguay is always a fun place to drink, but the neat concept pushes Gatsby above the competition.
From the outside you might think Junkyard is constructed entirely out of shipping containers. You'd be wrong – well, half-wrong. Shipping containers are only a part of it. The highly eccentric interior decoration consists of everything from old car parts to sheets of scrap metal, making for one of the most brazen themes on Beirut's bar scene. There's an environmental thrust behind this preference for recycled material, but if you find all those car bumpers and whatnot a tad intimidating you can repair to the spacious outdoor area, which comes into its own in the summer. Not that this means you can turn up in shorts and flip-flops – the women with the clipboard on the door won’t take kindly to you.
Avast! Cast off the anchor and raise the mainsail. Well, sort of. As the name suggests Newport is a nautical bar, but it wears its theme lightly: it's more yachts and white deck shoes than gold bullion and wooden legs. As in Hamra's Captain's Cabin, there's a lack of actual ship-related paraphernalia on the wall, but you’ll find plenty of marine-oriented cocktails on the menu, including but not limited to the Captain's Orders (a Pimms-based concoction – rare for Beirut) and Full Speed Ahead (a heady mix of rum, ginger, lime and thyme). Puntastic. A modest selection of alcohol-inspired light meals – pizzas, sandwiches and, err, edamame – is on offer to stave off malnutrition and scurvy.
Such is the competition on Mar Mikhael's rampant nightlife scene that a new arrival needs to mark itself out if it doesn't want to sink. Under Construction, situated on artsy Armenia Street, has succeeded in this: it takes an unusual theme and runs with it. The faux-crumbling façade outside is sure to make you double-take; but once inside, the ample concrete and strip lighting keeps the construction site vibe going. The seating area is vast, but it fills up rapidly on weekends as local hipsters come to soak up the faux-grungy vibe with their booze. It’s not the place for quiet conversation, but rather for loud tunes and wild cocktail-fuelled revelry.