Beirut’s Hamra District offers many choices for good food at reasonable prices
By Susan McKee
Like every metropolis, Beirut, Lebanon is composed of distinct neighborhoods. It’s just not possible to explore the whole city — especially on a first visit.
An easy way to get to know a bit of the Lebanese capital is to pick one neighborhood as home base, and explore on foot from there — especially because the bus system in Beirut is impenetrable, there is no subway or light rail and the traffic is horrendous.
I decided to make the part of western Beirut known as Hamra my base on a recent visit.
Lots of Street Life
It’s a great walking neighborhood with lots of street life. Hamra is a small shop paradise, with clothing boutiques vying for attention with cafés, jewelers, pastry shops, and bookstores (not to mention the occasional itinerant peddler with an armload of necklaces for sale).
The main street is, not surprisingly, called Rue Hamra. It runs east and west in West Beirut, an area that fronts the Mediterranean Sea on both the north and west.
The American University of Beirut campus is here, and it’s this institution that gives the neighborhood much of its zest. The student body, while primarily from Lebanon, comes from across the Arab world and around the globe.
Established in 1866 by American Baptist missionary Daniel Bliss and with almost all classes taught in English, it has been one of the primary institutions in the Middle East (open since its founding to students of all faiths — or no faith).
These days, there are about 8,000 students from 66 countries half male, half female.
The university is one reason that it’s easy to get around Beirut speaking only English. The bookstores and newsstands in Hamra have lots of English-language publications. Street signs are in both Arabic and Latin letters, and most shopkeepers and restaurateurs speak Arabic and English — plus French. The country was a French Mandate between the end of World War I and 1943.
Unlike the “open” campuses common in the United States, AUB is completely walled off from Beirut, with just a handful of entrance gates. Westerners usually can wander in just by nodding and smiling at the armed guards. Such security measures are expected in a country with a recent history of civil war (and the current flood of refugees from the internecine fighting in adjacent Syria).
Eating Beyond the Obvious
Back to the food! Lebanon is a crossroads country, so you can find any cuisine you want, including the ubiquitous Mediterranean staples of hummus, tabbouleh, pita bread, and kibbeh. If you’re looking for something fast, check out the myriad choices along Rue Bliss, which runs along the south side of the AUB campus–my choice: Kabab-ji.
Here are three of my favorite “sit down” restaurants in Hamra: Pizzeria Napolitana, Bread Republic, and Café Younes.
It may seem strange to find Italian food in Lebanon, but I really enjoyed eating at Pizzeria Napolitana on Rue Hamra (there are two other locations in town). A little slice of Italy, they do serve pizza cooked in a wood oven, but I enjoyed their pasta dishes — especially the Spaghetti Alla Bolognese.
In an alley, just a half-block north of Rue Hamra (between Rue Hamra and Makdissi Street) is Bread Republic. As you might guess from the name, their bread — all yeast-free — is their claim to fame (although they do tout their organic produce, locally-made cheese, and other artisan products).
In fact, if you plopped this eatery down in the middle of Berkeley, California, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’d be right at home (there’s free Wi-Fi, of course).
Bread Republic operates its own bakery in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut, and on Tuesdays, they host a farmers’ market in their alley next to the restaurant. The sandwiches are inventive and tasty. I had a salmon avocado-cream cheese panini on black bread. The surprise? A layer of thinly sliced lemons was added for distinctly Levantine zest.
Café Younes, between Rue Hamra and AUB on Rue Omar Bin Abdul Aziz, has been serving the best coffee in Beirut since 1935. I liked having breakfast here, opting for the Spanish omelet. This popular spot also has free W-Fi, and the locals seem to prefer it to Starbucks — ubiquitous even in Beirut.
Zaitunay Bay Promenade
One sunny Sunday afternoon I walked down to the Corniche and then ambled along the seafront all the way to the newest hotspot: Zaitunay Bay. Completed just last December, this pedestrian promenade fronts the yacht harbor just north of downtown.
It’s hard to believe that this area was once a dump next to a sewer outlet. Using the garbage as the basis for a landfill, the developers of Zaitunay Bay have created a place to see and be seen in Beirut.
The boardwalk is teak, edged with a gray basalt stone wall wide enough to serve as informal seating. Each of the restaurants has outdoor seating (when finished, there’ll be 17 — I saw about 10 open when I was there).
Even though I’d just finished lunch, I ducked into the Häagen-Dazs for ice cream, and then sat outside to people-watch, listening to the waves lap against the yachts.
Where I Stayed
I had booked a room at La Maison de Hamra for my stay in Beirut. The location (right on Rue Hamra at the corner of Rue Omar Bin Abdul Aziz) can’t be beaten. Each unit has a kitchenette and free WiFi.
It has everything a Western tourist could want, from contemporary decor to a hand-held shower. The bath towels were plush, as was the terry cloth robe. The flat-screen television made up for the fact that the balcony wasn’t wide enough to stand on and overlooked a narrow alley.
The staff at the front desk couldn’t have been more helpful, advising me on shops and restaurants, and calling a favorite cab driver to take me on a last-minute day trip to Byblos. In fact, almost every tourist destination in this very small country is a day trip from Beirut.
Addresses Aren’t Useful in Beirut
A word about addresses: they’re not really useful in Beirut (it’s rare to get a number with the street name). Why? No doubt, it’s a tradition — there aren’t numbers on the buildings. Besides, streets change names after a few blocks, so approximations of locations are just as useful.
The United States Department of State has a level 3 warning about travel to Lebanon. That said, I was there in early February and had absolutely no cause for worry. The occasional uniformed soldier (complete with body armor and assault weapon) was the only reminder of the safety and security conditions referenced.