The Best of Beirut
on Mar 13, 2014 By Danielle Issa
Nothing brings Lebanese people together like the almighty argileh. Whether you’re at a casual hangout with friends, feasting over a traditional Lebanese mezza, attending a wedding reception, or simply looking to bide time, the argileh is your trusty companion.
And boy have we gained a reputation for it to boot! The whole world over is quickly catching on to the Lebanese love affair with shisha, as it’s called abroad, and shisha cafes are sprouting up left and right.
But not any old place will do; you need a relaxed environment, an attentive bus boy to stoke the coals, a smooth-flowing argileh, tasty flavors of your favorite fruit combo, and perhaps a backgammon board or a deck of cards to keep you entertained. We’ve puffed our way through a slew of the city’s water-pipe joints, and here are our number one picks.
Photo via Instagram
Café Hamra is part-diner, part-hookah lounge, part-multipurpose space, which is why we love it so much. The menu is eclectic, ranging from a self-service salad bar to Lebanese tapas like hummus and baba ghannouj.
And there’s a lot to do if you’re looking for entertainment: pluck a book from the baskets of paperbacks, play the pinball machines, engage in a match of tawlet zaher (backgammon), or simply sink into a massive leather sofa as you puff at your teffe7ten-flavored (two apples) argileh. The café hosts every atmosphere imaginable across several rooms, and even a backyard setting to suit your al fresco inclinations.
Hamra Main Road
Photo via shouraeyak.com
Kahwet Leila is a self-dubbed kitsch Lebanese lounge that serves food in a very comfortable faux-trottoir ambiance. Brought to us from the restaurateurs behind Leila, this venue dishes up the same innovative eats, including specialties like spicy hummus, labneh blended with diced veggies, ras asfour in cherry coulis, and who can forgot the iconic ghazel il banet topped with bouzet miskeh?
Dining at Kahwet Leila is incomplete without an argileh maassal. There's something about inhaling and exhaling deeply that aids in the appreciation of tastes and aromas. Try the lemon-mint shisha for an incredibly balanced marriage of the two flavors; neither overpowers the other.
Photo via kahwetleila.com
Notorious for its 24/7 service, Al Falamanki in Sodeco is a hit among locals, expats, and aficionados of argileh in general. The setting - a mix between traditional wooden decor and cozy couches - makes it a choice destination for those looking to get authentic Lebanese grub over a game of backgammon and a puff of argileh.
Al Falamanki presents its guests with a wide variety of shisha flavors, from rose to apricot to watermelon, but we recommend you go for the house specialty, the Jordanian mouassal (17,000 LL), which exquisitely combines grapes and berries in a fruity cocktail of savors. One little warning: bring your own deck of cards to avoid the 7,500 LL surcharge!
Photo via dansmabenz.files.wordpress.com
Outside of Beirut proper, perhaps the bastion of all things argileh is Saniour, formerly Khaymet el Saniour, which came down from its original tented venue in Dhour el Choueir to open several more branches.
It seems Saniour does everything and does it right. We recommend you start with a ras laymoune argileh, which features a fresh grapefruit nestled on top of the water pipe as a bed for the shisha coals. Once you’ve gotten settled in, order a few bites from the wood-fired forn, including a mashrou7et zaatar 2ordonneh (Jordanian thyme mix; 3,750 LL), a spicy cheese savory pie (5,500 LL), and, if you’re insatiably famished, the house specialty Patriot (20,000 LL), a table-length man2ouche divvied up into 6 or 7 distinct Lebanese toppings from kishek to shanklish.
Sawma Jaber street
Near Saint Couer Choueir school
Photo via blogbaladi.com
Citadelle, first known to its regulars as Car Wash Café, is indeed a fortress of a restaurant with imposing columns, a spacious interior, and a mile-high ceiling. The resto-café is replete with international cuisine offerings in addition to standard Lebanese fare, and while their pizzas are spot-on thin and crispy Neapolitan pies, we recommend you go the hummus and mashawi route to Levantine bliss.
After all, nothing complements an argileh quite like savory cubes of garlic-slathered taouk; tender and fatty kafta; and chewy beef smothered in smooth chickpea purée. You can’t go wrong with an apple or two for the argileh’s tobacco flavor, but try all the colors of the rainbow: mango, grape, cherry, strawberry, kiwi—you name it, they’ve got it! Added bonus: free WiFi.
Jdeideh Square, Serail Street
Photo via Facebook
We’d be remiss if we left the iconic Zalka stronghold, Republic, off this list. The deceptive slogan, “Since 1920” actually refers to the founding of the Lebanese republic and not the restaurant itself.
Weekend or weeknight, there’s never a time this resto-café isn’t packed wall to wall with shisha-puffing clients nibbling at salted peanuts and pumpkin seeds. This place is indeed an argileh paradise, and it’s not uncommon to see a table of half a dozen guests each seductively inhaling at his or her own hose.
Republic’s menu offers a bible of entrees, platters, sushi, and juice cocktails sure to tempt every palate. But their efficient argileh service and vigilant coal rotation truly ensures this shisha haven will be around to celebrate the 2020 centennial.
Danielle Issa is a food blogger in Lebanon. You can find her on Twitter, and be sure to check out her blog, Beirutista .
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