Downtown Beirut is stunningly lovely, if a little shiny. It’s without the charm or grace that I’m sure it had before the war tore it apart. Today, the brand-new construction (the city was almost entirely rebuilt in the mid-1990s) echoes the facades of the former city, but right now all of the new buildings, even the gorgeous grand mosque, are very Florida. The city would benefit from some wear.
Wear, of course, is different from war, the signs of which are plentiful. Bombed-out buildings, piles of rubble, and stories about snipers here and kidnappers there are everywhere you turn. The power goes in and out all over Lebanon constantly, and you are likely running from an emergency generator without even knowing it.
But in the heart of downtown, at the rebuilt Place de E’toile and the newly built clocktower (sponsored by Rolex, of course), it’s all luxury shops, fancy hotels and Lexus and BMW SUVs. And cafes, lots of cafes.
It’s also retarded. We wandered the Place de E’toile late one evening, browsing menus and thinking we’d stop for tea and a small bite to eat. We glanced at the menu at one crowded, casual burgers-and-fries place that seemed promising. The manager informs us that there is a $50 minimum PER PERSON to sit down. At what would be the equivalent of an NYU student joint in the city.
$100 for a night. We thought of what that could be. Dinner and drinks at Fatty Crab. Dinner without booze at Babbo. An hourlong massage. Mani, pedi, and beauty products at Rescue. Sushi at the Princeville. FIVE NIGHTS of lodging.
All of those things seem reasonable for $100. Not a burger and hummus.
The story was repeated elsewhere, at all of the other cafes. The cheapest café we came across, at the edge of downtown, had no food minimum and “competitive” pricing – $14 for a sandwich, $18 for a burger -- but a $10 cover per person to watch the World Cup game. The World Cup, by the way, is being broadcast for free in Lebanon by Al-Jazeera due to a government subsidy. Seriously, a soccer subsidy.
There is something really ballsy about a city so fully committed to moving on from war and finding a fresh start, hedonistic and ridiculous as it is. We moved on, though. Place d’Etoile. Pretty, yes. Tacky, yes.
Admirable – we think so?