Film Set Cities: Beirut
Sit down; we’ve got something to tell you and it might come as a bit of a shock… There’s life outside of Hollywood. There, we said it. And it’s true. Though we may obsess (just a tad) about the comings and goings of our fave international film stars, there’s a host of talent closer to home creating cutting-edge art for the big screen.
Queen of the Lebanese movie scene right now is director/actor Nadine Labaki. Her first film Caramel cost around $1.3 million (Dhs4.75M) to make, but took a whopping $16 million (Dhs58.7M) at the box office and had the Cannes collective foaming praise at the mouth. “No one believed the film would do that well – when it happened it was like a fairytale,” Nadine told us when we met her.
Her second film, Where Do We Go Now?, found equal acclaim, and her swarthy good looks landed her lucrative ad deals with Olay and Johnnie Walker; in fact she’s the first ever female to head the drink brand’s ‘Keep Walking’ campaign, which pays homage to people we should admire – people who are going places.
Lebanon’s movie scene is known for its pioneering have-a-go heroes. Lebanese director Danielle Arbid’s latest film Beirut Hotel, starring local poster girl Darine Hamze, was scheduled for a January release this year, but was banned before it made it to cinemas by Lebanon’s General Security censorship committee before it made it to the masses.
“I think in Lebanon we have a very delicate society,” commented Abrid at the time. “The security and politicians in this country always have this paranoia.”
Certainly, there’s an to edge to the city with its maze of redeveloped Solidere ‘souks’ resembling posh London shopping streets and starkly contrasting war-torn clusters of crumbling buildings that seem to barely be holding each other up. It’s so easy to get lost, but not that unusual to find a designer bargain in a quirky boutique or a Michelin-worthy meal in an award-winning building completely by accident.
So, get your culture on and come with us on a tour of Beirut to get up close and personal with some Arabic stars and their A-list hangouts…
WHERE TO… SHOP
Brace yourselves; we’ve got some bad news… A lot of stores are closed on Sundays! Despite this travesty, you can shop up a storm in Beirut, which stakes a claim to being the style capital of the Middle East. In Downtown (also known as Beirut Central District or BCD) you’ll find a branch of Boutique 1 on Park Avenue, plus designer stores galore and over 200 shops in the newly developed Beirut Souks (see www.solidere.com/beirut-souks for listings). Achrafiye is also host to a mix of local designer department stores and international designer and high-street shops, while Verdun area is all about high-end fashion, dahlings. Here’s our pick of the lot…
The entrance is a plain doorway on a side-street off Allenby – you have to walk up to the second floor before you see what might be a shop, sort of. Initially, we were a bit scared to enter, but our advice is feel the fear and shop anyway. We found a Roberto Cavalli bag with a 60 per cent discount, lots of half-price Gianfranco Ferre and some gold Fornarina heels for just Dhs110.
INFO: 2nd Floor, 146A, Allenby Street, Downtown.
“I love Piaff Beirut,” Leb celeb Nadine Labaki told us, so we went to see what all the fuss was about and found a half-price Hussein Chalayan among the collection of A-list designers on display and now we love Piaff too.
INFO: 71 Allenby Street, Downtown, www.piaffboutique.com.
Known for dressing the world’s most beautiful celebs from Beyoncé to Halle Berry, red carpet regular Elie Saab is a Lebanese designer with a five-floor emporium split into four departments: atelier, accessories, pret-a-porter and couture. Eye-wateringly expensive and astonishingly beautiful. Pop in and buy his perfume if nothing else – it’s gorge!
INFO: Elie Saab Building, Downtown, www.eliesaab.com.
Almost impossible to find, we had to hire a hotel chauffeur to take us to this boutique down an Achrafiye back alley, but we’re glad we went to the trouble. Owner Sarah Beydoun has garnered international acclaim for this designer project in which rural or imprisoned Lebanese women, who would otherwise have no source of income, make gorgeous handbags. French film star Catherine Deneuve and Queen Rania of Jordan are among the A-list customers. Pricey, but it’s for a good cause, which equals a good excuse to shop. (FYI: In Dubai, you can pick up a Sarah’s Bag in branches of S*uce.)
INFO: Liban Street, Achrafiye, www.sarahsbag.com.
Prada, Miu Miu, Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Dolce & Gabbana… you name it, you’ll find it in this acclaimed Lebanese luxury clothing chain.
INFO: Dunes Center, Verdun; ABC Mall, Achrafiye; Allenby Street, Downtown, www.aishti.com.
WHERE TO… HANG OUT
Beirutis eat late, so schedule in an afternoon siesta and then head out after 8pm and expect to party till dawn, so long as it’s the weekend – the city’s biggest nightclubs are only open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Most tend to be packed to capacity and if your concierge can’t get you on the guest list of uber clubs like SkyBar or White, try making a dinner reservation instead. These clubs won’t get busy until around 11pm, but at least you’ll already be past the militant clipboard-wielding door staff and in your seat.
Before hitting a club, our first choice for dinner and drinks is Centrale, and not just because their sweet buttery Bearnaise sauce is the most delicious we’ve ever sampled. A-list architect Bernard Khoury designed the venue with dinner tables on the ground floor patio among jasmine trees and a main building that looks like a period home on the outside and a timber warehouse on the inside. What could pass as a car from a Victorian fairground ride elevates diners up to the top floor where a train carriage perched up there acts as a bar and the roof opens to the heavens. Bizarre and utterly brilliant. (Tip: If you like this, you’ll love Beirut’s Bernard Khoury-designed B 018 club too.)
INFO: Mar Maroun Street, Saifi, +961 (1) 575 858, www.centralerestaurant.com.
Behind the Green Door
After a night in Beirut’s most famous party district, Gemmayzeh, this is where the late-night revellers go. Despite the name, we’re pleased to report no one played any Shakin’ Stevens when we were there (didn’t stop us singing a few lines though!).
INFO: Nahr Street, off Gouraud Street, Mar Mikhael, +961 (1) 565 656.
Like a burlesque theatre, the city’s lavish one-time cinema is now its most famous variety performance club, a minimum-spend cabaret where local singers rock classics from all corners of the world with breaks in between for some Eighties-inspired DJ sets. It’s hard to know whether to do the Agadoo or dance the salsa – an average night will see guests doing both. INFO: Starco Centre, Omar Daouk Street, +961 (3) 807 555.
The ‘beach’ club is king in Beirut where there isn’t actually any sand along the shore to lounge on, so open-air venues with pools have cropped up and the bikini classes congregate. One of the most renowned, La Plage, offers seafood, pasta and Lebanese grub for lunch and diner, as well as day passes to pose around the pool and purvey the range of plastic surgery that’s been had in the capital. In peak season it’s worth a visit for the people-watching alone.
INFO: Ain El Mreisseh, +961 (1) 366 222.
One word: wow! Voted best bar in the world in 2008, this posh multi-level rooftop club attracts Beirut’s glitterati with a restaurant, light shows, flaming torches, the world’s best DJs and ocean and mountain views. Seriously, this place sends a tingle up the spine. INFO: Biel Pavillion, off Mir Majid Arslane Avenue, Minet El Hosn, +961 (1) 995 555, www.sky-bar.com.
WHERE TO… STAY
When choosing your bed in Beirut, there are three hotels that should be top of your wish list…
Le Gray Beirut
Slap-bang in the heart of Downtown, Le Gray made it into Ahlan!’s Hot 100 Hotels 2012. The luxury 87-room hotel is also praised by locals for its crowning glory Bar Three-Sixty boasting 360-degree views of their beloved Beirut. One floor below, the bar has another floor which leads out to the rooftop pool area and there’s neighbouring Indigo on the Roof restaurant, which has views overlooking the landmark blue-domed Mohammad Al Amin Mosque and a terrace so you can dine al fresco. Try the signature Wagyu beef and something from the ‘We’re mad about potatoes’ section of the menu – from Lyonnaise to olive oil mash, there’s a carbfest to be had. If you’ve any room left, the ‘rosemary parfait glace with chocolate financier and balsamic honey reduction’ is something you’re unlikely to have ever experienced before.
Further down the building there’s a PureGray spa, and on the ground floor there’s a bright and breezy café. Owner Gordon Campbell Gray (who became a hotelier when he opened One Aldwych in London) designed the sleek interiors – visiting celebs like to stay in the Corner Suite. A haute hotel for style-savvy travellers with avante garde art on every wall.
INFO: Downtown, +961 (1) 971 1111, www.legray.com.
Four Seasons Beirut
Walking distance from the shops of Dowtown, right at the start of Corniche, you’ll find the Four Seasons, one of our fave Beirut hotels. It’s as bling as the UAE’s finest five-star establishments and it boasts Ahlan!’s favourite bar in Beirut, The Roof, plus the sandwiches served at the Grill Room are among the best we’ve tasted in the capital. Try the short rib on sunflower bread with caramelised onions and manchego cheese. Mmmm!
INFO: Minet El Hosn, +961 (1) 761 000, www.fourseasons.com/beirut.
Want to be immersed in history? This charming collection of 28 Ottoman-style rooms, a rickety old vintage lift, the colonial-feel Al Dente dining room and roof terrace is the place for you. In the Achrafiye district, it’s handy for shopping too. Even if you don’t stay there, try breakfast on the terrace or dine at Al Dente – this is one Beirut institute not to be missed.
INFO: 137 Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Str, Monot, +961 (1) 339 797, www.albergobeirut.com.
Let’s Do Lebo Lunch
Tawlet is a little canteen off a side street in Gemmayzeh and one of the most talked about lunch venues in Beirut. Your reward, should you find it (good luck with that!), is authentic regional specialities created by leading chefs from across the country. Think lahma bil-khal (low-cooked lamb and vegetable stew) and freek ah (a risotto-style dish of cracked wheat and chicken).
INFO: Chalhoub Building, Nahr St, Mar Mikhael, 01 448 129, www.tawlet.com.