Beirut is an approachable, accessible jewel box of a city these days. It's said, mainly by the smug locals, that if you can't find your niche here, then it doesn't exist... There's a wonderful combination of French chic and Arabic hospitality, and despite the sometimes shocking state of the infrastructure, there's currently a real sense of purpose about this often-overlooked city.
I was lucky enough to spend just over 48 hours in Beirut, and I already know I'll be back. The city has a late-night partying culture, so you may spend most mornings here recovering from the night before. Shopping, however, is also a major attraction. After a savoury pastry and a coffee from one of the many vendors that line the often chaotic streets, I hit the relatively new Beirut Souk (with its big brand designer labels) and Saif Village (for smaller, local designers) in downtown for some sophisticated retail therapy.
For lunch, I headed over to Indigo at the Le Gray hotel, nestled between the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the shopping district. A perfect mix of new and old, sandstone and marble merge with glass and steel to slot Le Gray into its surroundings. The views from the rooftop restaurant stun international visitors and the local business crowd alike. Try and get one of the tables overlooking the Mosque if you can.
A large portion of fresh calamari came grilled with artichoke and new potatoes, smokily satisfying with a hint of saline from the preserved lemon and caper dressing. The wine, Lebanese of course, was a crisp and minerally Aixir. It was a perfect accompaniment to the calamari, singing with notes of Voignier, Muscat and Semillion.
The well-drilled brigade in the open kitchen specialise in beef: Australian grain-fed Angus from Dimantina in Stanbrokes, to be exact. On recommendation I rooted for the large rib-eye (the Lebanese may do mezze, but they suffer no small plates), served with rich gratinated potatoes, though they also stock buttery, marbled Wagyu from the same source. Defeated by the steak, I was forced to pass on the delicious-looking desserts and retire to the cigar lounge for a digestif of fresh mint tea.
The bar scene ebbs and flows swiftly in Beirut, with new openings every week. Gemmayze Street in the East, and Hamra Street in Muslim West Beirut have been the real hubs of activity in recent years. For chic international drinking, stick to the hotels (the sumptuous red velvet space at the Four Seasons has to be seen, particularly during colder winter months), but for buzzy bars and clubs, you can't go wrong with Gemmayze Street.
After a wash and brush-up (necessary in notoriously chic Beirut) I started early with some local friends at Dragonfly, one of the many dark, narrow bars on Gemmayze serving excellent cocktails you'll find within five minutes walk of Le Grey. Check for their changing special cocktail, this week a Continental twist on a Whisky Sour, topped with the excellent local red wine, too good to waste on a cocktail according to my Lebanese host!
Whatever you do, don't leave without sampling some of the local wines. Fruitful reds come with Syrah notes while clean fragrant whites often blend Viognier and local grapes such as Clarette and Aubaidi. Ksara and Kefreya are good names to look out for, but if you get stuck, then pop into Le Gray and ask for a lesson from the enthusiastic sommelier.
Dinner that night was at the Albergo, just up the hill on the outskirts of Downtown, and playfully designed with a local twist on layers of gilded French opulence. Muted by the padded furniture, there is a constant murmur of multilingual conversation from smartly dressed local crowd who triple kiss and parlay in the comfortable rooftop Italian restaurant.
We shared hot, fresh breads, a pitch-perfect grilled halloumi and pomegranate salad, and the signature Albergo salad. The latter is a mix of creamy local Akawii cheese, marinated to reduce its salty tang, with morsels of chicken and beetroot on mixed leaves. This was followed by slabs of tender veal with green beans and buttery mash, barely leaving room for the dessert recommended by our friendly Maitre D': a cryptically named Phoenician Delight. This local rosewater ice cream, studded with homemade Turkish Delight and served on a biscuit base, was the perfect end to a sumptuous repast.
Rolling back towards Gemmayze Street, we found another proliferation of bars and clubs on Monot Street, a cobbled pedestrian courtyard. Western Europeans will be happy with the home-from-home brown bar Hole in the Wall, while we chose to linger over the delightful daiquiris at Leb-Mex fixture Pacifico. Make sure you head to the unmarked metal door at the back of Rococo opposite, though: it opens on a comfortable speakeasy with live music most evenings. Locals tend to eat after 9 (or at home with friends and family) and chat over turkish coffee before hitting the bars, so it doesn't get lively till late, and most places will still be going well after 3am.