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Danielle Issa 17 Nov 2014

Meet the Man Behind Some of Beirut’s Best Eats: Mario Haddad, Jr.

You could pass Mario Haddad Jr. at a gym, or inside a mall, or even — dare I say it — in a restaurant, and never for a second would you suspect he’s an avid restaurateur. With long brown hair tightly pulled back and tucked into a man bun, dozens of thread bracelets adorning the space between his wrist and forearm, and a very fit, mid-sized frame, Haddad is totally unassuming and will strike you as gregarious with his conversational fluency.

I had the chance to catch up with the man behind Unlimited Holding Company, which counts among its repertoire of outlets Le Sushi Bar, Al Falamanki, and more recently, Junkyard and Mario e Mario. The company employs 30 in its corporate office and 300 in its four dining venues. Haddad can be found frequenting each one at least twice a week. In the case of Mario e Mario, an Italian ristorante with a daily evolving menu of rustic cuisine, Haddad’s quotidian presence is unwavering.

The grandson of the founder of Circuit Empire, which was established in 1919 and today leads movie distribution in Lebanon and the Gulf, Haddad is involved in the day-to-day of Empire’s operational management. But on the side he’s nurturing his own passion for the culinary arts and has been at it since the age of 25.

Le Sushi Bar, a Japanese restaurant along Abdel Wahab in Achrafieh where the average bill per diner is no trivial 117,000 LL, was the first venture he launched 17 years ago with the help of 6 partners. Al Falamanki, an expansive Lebanese café with traditional themes and a very casual ambiance, opened nearly a decade later just down the street in Sodeco.

In the summer of 2012, Junkyard debuted as a pop-up concept with a kitchen set in a shipping container and furniture recycled from unwanted goods. Despite its wild success, Haddad had entertained no serious intentions for the future of the joint, and at the start of the wet season, he shuttered it. This year, however, Haddad revived Junkyard into a full-fledged venue and nearly simultaneously debuted Mario e Mario nearby in the Mar Mikhael quartier.

Junkyard is fashioned from ten 40-foot-long and five 20-foot-long containers. Arranged in the shape of a U with a glass dome enclosing the courtyard, the place can seat up to 700 guests in the summer when the rooftop is open but accommodates 300-400 in the winter. Haddad chucked the original tapas-style menu in favor of more sophisticated gastropub fare which he calls “gourmet street food.”

The menu, already in its second edition, boasts a $30 burger crafted from 28-day-aged grass-fed Australian Angus beef that is chargrilled to bring out the best of its sirloin juices. There’s also a Thai beef salad, pulled pork sandwiches, paella, fish and chips (an ode to Junkyard’s British chef Lee Purcell), as well as meat and potato pie. The average bill per diner is 56,000 LL.

Mario e Mario is a totally different brainchild. Opened as a tribute to Haddad’s father who serves as the head of the Italian Academy for Gastronomy in Lebanon, the 70-seat restaurant delivers a surprise effect thanks to its ever-changing menu.

“Inconstancy is pleasurable,” Haddad says, insisting that dining should be an adventure and not a guaranteed joyride. There is something “socially responsible” about cooking the day’s natural offering, Haddad adds. This month, for example, the Alba white truffle is incorporated in several dishes. The chef draws on Lebanese free-range chicken and Australian lamb and beef in the meatier mains, and produce is sourced locally. The average check per diner at Mario e Mario is 80,000 LL.

Where’s Haddad headed with four resoundingly successful venues? A second branch of Al Falamanki has just commenced construction in Dubai and is slated to open next summer. Duplicates of Mario e Mario and Le Sushi Bar are also being considered in the Emirati state. There’s even an idea for a Lebanese home-cooking restaurant to be introduced in London and Dubai. Thankfully, we Beirutis will be treated first to a pilot of the concept here in Lebanon. Stay tuned.