Look beyond the napkins and chairs for Lebanese culinary success

“Well, clearly there are two schools,” a former Financial Times correspondent in Beirut would say with the deadest of deadpan expressions, whenever confronted with a situation that flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Like the time a journalist at the paper on which we worked described, “tracer fire illuminating the Baghdad sky” from his desk in Beirut.

“You see Michael, most reporters would feel they should see what they report, but this fellow is clearly taking journalism to a new level of efficiency.” He read on, shaking his head in wonder. “I mean, why go to all the trouble of getting on a plane and risking your life to report a story when you can stay at the office and imagine it? It’s truly groundbreaking.”

The FT correspondent now lives in Ireland but I imagined his reaction if I were to suggest to him that most aspiring business owners should have a basic grasp of what it is they want to do. “You and I would think so Michael, but we’re not visionaries. Remember [add name of journalist]. He tore up the rule book.”

I mention all this nonsense, because two months ago in London I was talking to a successful young English restaurateur about the pitfalls of his business. “Don’t think I just walked into it,” he said, reeling off a mind boggling list of potential hazards that might ambush the inexperienced. “You need front line knowledge in all areas of the trade or you are most likely going to be found wanting. That’s why so many people come unstuck in this game.”

He then called over a waiter to ask why a couple on a nearby table had queried their bill. How had he noticed? He leaned back in his seat let out a sigh. “You’ve gotta be on top of everything; know every trick in the book”.

A few weeks later he and I were in the Lebanese coastal village of Batroun, enjoying grilled fish and octopus, hummus and fattoush at The Joining, a family-run restaurant, started by a man with zero experience and who no doubt figured that catering to 50 picky Lebanese diners wasn’t rocket science.

The Joining consists of a dozen plastic tables and chairs on a rocky promontory with steep access to the sea. (You can either jump off the 10-metre rock or take less of a dramatic but equally precarious route using a gnarled, nylon rope.)

It is very basic: packets of tissue paper masquerade as napkins and the waiting staff, local boys or family members as young as 13, will often have no clue what you are asking for.

And yet not only does The Joining work, it works in spades. “On Sundays you can’t find a table,” a woman from one of the area’s prominent families, who has lived in London, Munich and Rome and who surely knows her way around a Maître D’, assured me. “The place is packed with diplomats and politicians. It’s incredible.”

Further up the road, in the salt making town of Ante, is George’s Village Fish. George is a fisherman who also no doubt thought the restaurant game was a no brainer. His premises are classier than The Joining in that the floor is tiled. But there is still the same minimalist plastic, the same packets of tissues and the same sprinkling of adolescent waiters, with whom confusion reigns if you go slightly “off piste”.

But despite flouting every industry norm, the place was, and apparently is always, heaving. My dining companion motioned me to lean in, as he didn’t want to be overheard. “This is where [names prominent Tripoli MP] brings his entourage.” And then even more hushed. “Look around you.” I scanned the table off to our left where four bullet-headed men were smoking unfeasibly large cigars. “It’s a nest of mafia.” He leant back, clearing his throat and called over the young Syrian boy to bring us more nuts.

Back at The Joining, my English friend was already on first name terms with the chef who doubles as hostess. “Is everything OK?” she purred, lighting a cigarette while motioning a young boy to clear up the debris of lunch. He thought about this and asked if there was a backgammon set. “We will bring one,” she said, sashaying inside, leaving us unsure if there was a backgammon set or if she was dispatching one of the child labourers to find one.

He turned to me with a huge grin. “What a brilliant place.”

Like I said, two schools.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton


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