It’s barely nine o’clock in the evening, and I’m uncomfortably close to my first brush with death. Or, to be more precise, Death, a lethal-sounding concoction made with gin, vodka, cognac, sherry, lemon, orange and cinnamon, stored in a bottle featuring a skull and crossbones on the front.
It’s the creation of a small, dapper, waist-coated man sporting a glossy, Poirot-style moustache. This is Jad Ballout, manager of Central Station, currently one of Beirut’s coolest cocktail bars (it featured on last year’s World’s 50 Best list). Tonight, like most other nights, the city’s bright, beautiful, and bearded drape themselves across bar stools to the sounds of hip-hop while sipping on Jad’s increasingly inventive potions. “People like to experiment here,” he smiles. “They have very little fear.” And once you’ve tried a Maryam Invisible, which tastes just like a liquified, vodka-spiked insalata caprese, or sipped a fruity Ottoman’s Secret from a massive silver goblet which looks like it was nicked off the set of Game of Thrones, you have to agree.
Local culture dictates that almost any evening can start off around Beirut’s hip, bar-lined Mar Mikhael street, the city’s answer to Shoreditch, and finish somewhere else at sunrise (me? I end up in the middle of what feels like an illegal rave at BO18, a nightclub in a bunker, wearing a huge plastic necklace saying ‘Naughty Girl’ around my neck, dancing to a pumping mix of 80s tracks till 5am. Still not sure how). And that’s largely because Beirutis have had plenty of real, actual brushes with death themselves; they’ve lived through a bloody civil war, which, until 1990, involved complex religious and political in-fighting, and various further skirmishes overlapping into the early 21st century. As a result, they’ve adopted a fatalistic and hedonistic attitude which is visible as much in their nightlife as it is in their – frankly terrifying – driving, so it’s no wonder they’re partying like it’s 1975.
Back then, before things turned sour, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. It attracted the rich, famous and glamorous, from Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando to Sting and Angelina Jolie. Many of them stayed at my hotel, the Phoenicia, once a byword for chic, and today still a lavishly comfortable five star hotel. It sits by the Mediterranean, barely 500 metres away from the infamous, mortar-shelled Holiday Inn, which became a symbol of the war during its news coverage. Luckily, the Phoenicia escaped much damage, but it did have its share of misfortune when Lebanon’s former president, the progressive and liberal Rafic Harari, was assassinated practically on its doorstep in 2004. To this day no-one knows why, or who was responsible.
Today, however, the city is finding its feet again – even though power cuts still happen regularly throughout the day and refuse collections are, shall we say, erratic – and now people are making up for lost time. Hipsters flock to Gemmayzah, another fashionable district; rooftop (and underground) clubs and bars are thriving; and its food scene, which was always a highlight, is stepping up its game. Boy, do Beirutis know how to eat.
Meze-style dishes are a staple; we are, after all, in the land of hummus, falafel and the shawarma kebab. There are places for every style and budget; I have breakfast one morning at Al Soussi, a small, unassuming-looking cafe in the northeast of the city, all battered formica tables and paper napkins. The owner, Raji, has been dishing up sloppy but tasty bowls of foul (made with mashed fava beans, lemon juice and olive oil)m plates of awarma (fatty lamb pieces mixed with scrambled eggs) and fatteh (yoghurt with pine nuts and peppers) for over fifty years. Served with small containers of fresh mint, sliced raw onion, pickles, olives, tomatoes and flatbread, the resulting spread was voted The World’s Best Breakfast by CNN. It’s utterly delicious, the ingredients fresh and simple.
The in-crowd flock to Liza, in the well-to-do Ashrafieh district; here you eat upmarket meze in a stylish, three-storey, vintage townhouse, with views across to towering blocks of luxury apartments - because make no mistake, Beirut is booming, now, too.
Strolling downtown, I see cranes everywhere, standing out starkly against the mix of mosques, churches, small shopfronts and designer stores. I walk past The Egg, a fantastic, ovoid example of Brutalist architecture which used to be a cinema before the war; now it sits, abandoned, just across from the impressive Mohammed Amine mosque. On Martyrs’ Square is the monument to fallen soldiers, still riddled with bullet holes, and on Place De L’Etoile stands an elegant, 1930s clocktower whose face was designed by Rolex.
Now it’s Friday night, and after dinner at organic restaurant Tawlet, and drinks at the bizarrely tartan-walled bar of the Vendome InterContinental hotel, I find myself – along with what seems like most of the rest of the city – at Music Hall, a vast, outdoor theatre arena by the waterfront. Three local girls tell me it’s one of the best nights out in Beirut. Several local dance and music acts will perform throughout the evening. I’m sceptical at first, imagining sitting through the likes of Lebanon’s answer to Demis Roussos and my fears are in no way allayed when the first performer comes on, a traditional, female Arabic singer in a long djebellah, warbling on for what seems like hours.
By the time five swarthy bearded men in bandanas come and start kicking their legs to some insane-sounding balalaika music, I’m quite getting into it. The sets and the staging are big budget, which gives the whole thing a kind of Eurovision-crossed-with-X-Factor feel.
After a sexy Spanish duo perform a sassy version of Despacito, and a brilliant vocalist belts out Alicia Keys’ New York, I’m on my feet, dancing frantically along with everyone else in the crowd.
It’s a bit like being in a mad, feverish cheese dream, but I am loving it. Lebaneasy does it? No way.