Lebanon’s sprawling diaspora may have introduced the delights of fattoush and kibbe to the four corners of the world, but it’s no surprise that the motherland remains the best place to sample this most varied of Levantine cuisines. Lebanese restaurants in Beirut run the gamut of expense and fashion, from the elegant mezze platters at the voguish Enab to Frida’s curious hybrid of local and Mexican cuisines. Whether you want to degust local delicacies in high style or chow down on some glorified street food, the Beirut restaurant scene has you covered. Just go easy on the arak.
Abu Naim prides itself on being a traditional Lebanese restaurant, serving classic Lebanese mezze with a typically warm Lebanese attitude. When we say traditional, we mean it: the menu (literally) throws few bones to the uninitiated, what with its kibbeh nayyeh (minced raw beef) and marinated lamb brains. But the squeamish will still find plenty to choose from among the range of hot and cold mezze and grilled meats, all of which are made from fresh ingredients apparently hand-picked by owner Abu Naim himself. Decor-wise things are kept simple, but the plain venue is embellished by the colourful staff who run this snug family restaurant.
Al Falamanki is Lebanese dining. It serves every type of mezze you could ever think of and more, as well as grills and oven-baked dishes. But it’s not just a spot for food: there are always plenty of people enjoying nargileh with friends and a few coffees or drinks.The venue is capacious, but the best spot is the terrace. The beautiful garden surroundings are a blessing in a city where you can walk for miles without seeing a single tree. On a warm summer evening, dinner among the trees is a blissfully peaceful experience, even when the restaurant is packed — which it generally is. What's more, it's open 24hrs a day; so next time you wake up at 2am craving some kafta with tahina, this should be your first port of call.
This classic of the Mar Mikhael scene offers some of the best mezze, and one of the most enjoyable dining experiences, in the area. Located on the first floor of a former French colonial house, the sprawling restaurant dwarfs its neighbours, and you’ll never struggle to find a table. There's something thrillingly chaotic about the place: surrounded by crowds of diners, you can’t help but marvel at the never-ending conveyer belt of waiters dishing out mezze left, right and centre, as nargileh smoke from the adjoining terrace curls above their heads. The sightly restoration job on the house, all pastel-painted furniture and twinkling chandeliers, only adds to the vaguely fairytale ambience. Don't leave without trying the soujok hot pot and the chicken kafta.
Frida is a Lebanese restaurant with a twist of Mexican, inspired (somewhat improbably) by the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The old Achrafieh house that it inhabits has been transformed into quirky bohemian digs, replete with Kahlo-inspired paintings of dresses on the walls and the strains of the 'Frida' biopic's soundtrack issuing softly from the sound system. The theme extends to the menu, which boasts a superb selection of Lebanese mezze, many of them with a Mexican twist – hence intriguing items such as the quesadillas in markouk and makanek with jalapeños. If you're not yet a convert to arak, the house cocktails may just turn you.
Striking a curious, kitsch, "twisted" (in their own words) balance between lounge and restaurant, Kahwet Leila is one of a kind on the Beirut restaurant scene. In the kitchen there's a simple ethos of fresh and healthy food, while in the spacious dining area a laid-back atmopshere of laissez-faire rules – this is the sort of place where as many punters are playing backgammon as eating. But the waiters, who are very much in the restaurant mindset, are speedy and attentive (the appearance of ash in the ashtrays is a particular source of distress). The menu of mezze and grills sticks to the favourites, with a couple of house originals thrown into the mix – we recommend the farrouj meshwe al fahme. There's another branch in Hamra, near the Piccadilly Theatre.
La Tabkha has all the stylings of a French bistro, but the food is bona fide Lebanese home cooking. Mezze is the name of the game and the restaurant is winning at it, with a broad variety of dishes all prepared to a high standard. Main courses are absent from the menu, and the variety of small plates lends itself to a yuppie-friendly health food theme – where else can you ask the kitchen to resize your portion so that it clocks in at under 500 calories?In theory the restaurant is only open for lunch, but the nature of Lebanese lunching means that in practice it stays open into the early evening. It’s a popular spot for the working community of Gemmayzeh, who flock here for business meetings or takeaways between meetings. It’s unclear why the area's hipster crowd hasn’t caught on yet, given the budget prices. We can't recommend it enough.
A Gemmayzeh classic. Le Chef may have been serving locals for decades, but it never gets old. Simplicity is its style, from the unfussy service and pared-down prices (you can walk away with change from any note) down to the handwritten menus. Located slap bang in the middle of Gemmayzeh, it's a good spot to sit down and line your stomach before hitting the bars. Most of the menu is Lebanese, but the kitchen throws in a few curveballs, such as the chicken with rice and Mexican sauce. For something closer to home, you can’t go wrong with a very generous slice of kibbeh and lentil soup. If you’re having trouble locating the venue, listen up and you’ll hear the energetic staff shouting their trademark ‘WELCOME’ down Gouraud Street – their go-to catchphrase, regardless of whether you're arriving, half-way through your meal or leaving.
Stop eating. Keep it that way for the next 24hrs. Are you on the verge of collapsing? Now go to Tawlet. Originally a part of Souk el Tayeb, an organisation that promotes Lebanon's independent farmers and producers, Tawlet has evolved into a restaurant in in itself. The concept is in the same spirit as the Souk. There is no menu: just a daily smorgasbord of traditional Lebanese dishes prepared by farmers from all over the country, who rotate throughout the week. There's only one option: an all-you-can-eat buffet, which comes in at LL40,000 per diner.Community is the watchword. There's no intimate dining experience here: you help yourself to the food then plonk yourself down at one of the large communal tables. The sheer variety of lovingly prepared dishes is enough to fire up the most sated stomach, but our advice is to take it easy, and attack the buffet a few small portions at a time. The cooks are on hand to give some context: the genesis of the recipe where the ingredients are sourced, which markets to head to if you want more. The mission is as much pedagogical as gastronomic, and it's no surprise that Tawlet offers cooking classes on the side.
Doing away with the naff trappings of faux-classic Lebanese decor that bedevil most Lebanese restaurants in the city, Toot Beirut puts a chic, modern spin on the national cuisine. As its name suggests, it reclaims the traffic chaos of Hamra as a marker of urban cool – which is certainly the watchword in this roomy, artfully decked out restaurant. Among the usual mezze suspects, shawarmas and grills, the menu sneaks in a couple of quirky signature dishes, including the delectable mou'ajanet Toot pie. A generous bar menu, including a handful of house cocktails, continues to draw in the punters after dinnertime.