There's nothing orderly about Beirut. The traffic is chaotic, the music loud, the architecture piecemeal, bearing the decorative flourishes of 23 years of French rule, then the wounds of 15 years of civil war and, more recently, the growing pains of breakneck development.
This beachside city is my hometown. It's also the capital in a country of six million, nearly a quarter of whom are refugees and migrant workers. Despite the occasional difficulties of living here – against a backdrop of explosive regional geopolitics and entrenched domestic political divisions – so many of us Beirutis couldn't imagine living anywhere else. It's where I started an "ideas factory", Art And Then Some, working on cultural projects across the Middle East and publishing a biannual food-culture journal called The Carton.
In Beirut, your next-door neighbour might spend an inordinate amount of time prying into your personal business, yet never fails to send you a box of apples from her family's orchard at the start of each harvest.
A cabbie will throw the book at you if your car breaks down and blocks his way, and another will stop his day's service to help you fix it. It's a city of raw energy, where old-fashioned hospitality is deeply ingrained, where creativity – in arts, research, music – thrives. And where all debates are conducted over share plates of raw fava beans, mixed nuts and, of course, arak.
Here's a handful of my favourite places, where Lebanon's food traditions and the capital's special brand of hospitality are a way of life.
I met Athanasios Kargatzidis, known to all as Tommy, a decade ago. The Greek-born chef had moved temporarily, or so he thought, from a job in China to work for a restaurant group in Beirut. But then he married a Lebanese and stayed. In 2016 he and local business partner Etienne Sabbagh opened Baron, a restaurant in boho Mar Mikhael with the aim of celebrating distinctive Lebanese produce – daily catches from Tripoli's fishing boats, sea salt from Anfeh, wine from Zahlé – in a relaxed space that harmonises with the arty, creative character of the neighbourhood. Choice seats are at the bar, close enough to eyeball the kitchen team at work, and out on the back terrace.
At least half the menu is focused on vegetables and seafood, and all of it is perfect for sharing. My standard order is the spiced butter cauliflower, baked whole then topped with crushed walnut, pomegranate seeds and rose petals and drizzled with tahini yoghurt. Or soujouk sausage and whole dates wrapped in pancetta, dressed with roasted tomato sauce and pomegranate molasses and sprinkled with pistachio nuts and herbs. The kitchen smarts and an extensive list of Lebanese wine by the glass makes Baron a great place to introduce visitors to Beirut dining.
Building 125, Pharaon St, Mar Mikhael, +961 1 565 199, baronbeirut.com
Widely regarded as one of the city's finest booza parlours, this tiny family-run shop has been making its mastic-based ice-cream since 1949. Commonly referred to in Beirut as "booza arabiye", or Arabic ice-cream, the sticky, elastic texture is created by adding mastic resin and salep to milk and sugar.
One of Mitri's most popular ice-cream flavours is "milk", which simply adds rosewater to the milk-sugar base. Other favourites, served in a cup or wafer cone, are classic pistachio, studded with crushed roasted nuts; almond croquant, loaded with a crumble of dried caramel and house-made ground almond praline; and amareddine, based on the apricot fruit leather and topped with crunchy, cold pine nuts. The most photographed detail in the shop isn't the ice-cream but the impressive 1960s gas oven in which the praline is baked.
Mar Mitr, St Nicolas, Ashrafieh, +961 1 322 723
Kalei Coffee Co
When master roaster and barista Dalia Jaffal returned to her hometown after a stint working in agricultural sustainability in Africa she wanted to make great coffee and support farmers in the most direct way possible. In 2016, she opened her specialty roastery and café in an abandoned 1950s house in a backstreet in Mar Mikhael, and has succeeded on both fronts.
In my view Jaffal and barista Shant Ghazar make the finest coffee in Beirut, buying beans direct from growers around the world and selling their roasts online as well as in the café. They've also added a bar offering local craft beer, a list of small-batch Lebanese wines, and signature cocktails made with freshly brewed coffee. The simple menu includes playful takes on popular farmhouse dishes, such as awarma, a lamb confit, and ambariz, rolled balls of fermented goat's cheese.
I met Jaffal in 2015 when she was scouting locations for her café and roastery and I was looking for a place to open The Carton Shop, a retail extension of my print food journal The Carton. Now we share space; The Carton Shop's range of small-production Lebanese wines, our own arak and olive-oil soap, and limited-edition prints fill what was the original kitchen. A second branch of Kalei opened earlier this year in the western suburb of Ras Beirut, in a distinctive 1920s mansion. Above it is our first guesthouse, The Carton Townhouse, overlooking Beirut's old lighthouse.
Rue 54, Impasse 18, Mar Mikhael/Rmeil, kaleicoffee.com
If you're an aspiring actor trying to get discovered by a film director, Molo, in the recently gentrified district of Badaro, is the place to be. The venue's terrace, reasonable prices and a fusion soundtrack of modern and classical Arabic music and jazz attract an arty crowd. The owners – musician and artist Raed Yassin, scriptwriter and film director Bassem Breche and his partner Sarah Nohra, who runs Metro Al Madina, an entertainment venue I frequent on Hamra Street – hire new migrants (Molo is the name of one of the bar's long-standing employees, who comes from Ethiopia), and the staff create a neighbourhood bar full of character. There's a large collection of gins and single-malt whiskies, and a menu of pizze on which Italian sausage is replaced by merguez, oregano by za'atar and hot sauce by pomegranate molasses.
Kfoury St, Badaro, +961 1 381 185
Anise is the long-lost Lebanese brother of a New Orleans speakeasy, and I often come here for the textbook Vieux Carré. But, as the name suggests, the house specialty is arak, in this case craft arak from all over Lebanon. "This one is from Zahlé, that's from Jezzine. The one next to it is from Bhamdoun," says one of the bartenders, Avo, running through an impressive collection lined up behind the wood-panelled bar inset with a smoky old mirror.
Dapper in black ties and waistcoats, the bar staff remember patrons' names and what kind of gin they prefer in the bar's signature cocktail, the Last Word. Anise is also known for its range of absinthe and, not for the faint-hearted, its own moonshine. Happy "hour" runs nightly from 6pm until 9pm, and the bar closes at 1.30am. Night owls and regulars, meanwhile, stay for the single dish on the menu: kibbeh stuffed with labneh.
Alexander Fleming St, Mar Mikhael, +961 70 977 926
Falafel Al Nawwar
Never discuss politics or falafel with a Beiruti – raising either topic will spark hours of heated debate. I'll add fuel to the fire by naming my current favourite falafel shop: Falafel Al Nawwar, a modest shopfront barely large enough for a half-dozen customers to stand in, with summery white and blue tiles wrapped around the prep counter. It's one of about 50 in the city serving variations on the falafel sandwich: hot falafel balls, chopped parsley, sliced tomatoes and red radish, turnip pickles and tarator – the essential tahini, lemon and garlic sauce – all wrapped in pita baked that morning. The family-run shop may be small, but the balance of crispness, tang and punch makes their falafel sandwich just right.
Latif St, Ain El Remmaneh, +961 1 283 355
Kamal Mouzawak founded Beirut's first farmers' market, Souk El Tayeb, in 2004. The farmer's son and former television host wanted to support producers and preserve food traditions in a city that had largely lost its celebrated bazaars during French rule and a long civil war. The market was the first step in a slow-food movement that is still gathering pace, and Mouzawak now oversees a network of markets, lunchrooms, guesthouses and community projects around Lebanon.
Among his most popular initiatives is Tawlet, a canteen off busy Armenia Street that aims to bring authentic home-cooked meals to city dwellers. Home cooks from villages around Lebanon are invited to prepare dishes that express their heritage, on a roster that changes weekly. The generous buffet includes a bottomless glass of homemade lemonade, arak or house sharab, and a range of savoury and sweet dishes – perhaps mjaddara, a southern dish of lentils and bulgur topped with fried onions, or kibbe Zghertewiyye from the northern village of Zgharta, the minced lamb and bulgur patty stuffed with a lump of fat, which melts during frying and oozes out at the first slice.
Branches of Tawlet have since opened in Ammiq in the Bekaa Valley, the historic city of Saida in the south, Deir El Qamar in the Chouf mountains, and there's a summer pop-up version at the organic farm, Biomass, in the hills of Batroun, in northern Lebanon. Most of these regional canteens have a guesthouse attached to them. Last year Mouzawak's team opened Beit El Tawlet, a stylish guesthouse of five rooms on the fifth floor above the original Tawlet. His next project? To revive the dekkeneh, Lebanon's traditional neighbourhood grocery store.
12 Rue Naher, Armenia St, Mar Mikhael, soukeltayeb.com
Beirutis like to boast that they can swim in the ocean in the morning and ski in the afternoon. But some of the best daytrips from Beirut are to regional wineries – the revival of the industry in the past few decades has spawned more than 30 in Lebanon. My favourite wine destination is the Batroun Mountains just north of Beirut and, in particular, a biodynamic vineyard and winery called Sept. With the aim of celebrating the diverse terroir of Lebanon, maverick winemaker Maher Harb works with vintners around the country. He uses viognier grapes grown in Riyaq, the indigenous grape obeideh grown in Zahlé (once popular only in arak distilling), cabernet franc from Ain Treiz and tempranillo from Deir El Qamar. With his own winery's syrah and cabernet sauvignon grown in the hills of Nehla, Harb is making some of Lebanon's most interesting wines. Sept is a two-hour drive from downtown Beirut, but feels a million miles away.
Nehla, Batroun Mountains, +961 70 570 170, levinsept.com
Armenian cuisine is an important and much-loved part of the Lebanese table. Every couple of months we gather a group of friends and head to Restaurant Varouj, a tiny and very popular eatery in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian quarter in the city's east. It's named after its recently deceased owner, whose son, Kevork Hagopian, now runs the place. Just five tables occupy a room decorated with Armenian antiques, and Varouj's portrait hangs beside a collection of antique pistols.
There's no written menu – the day's dishes are recited and diners are meant to nod when they hear the dish they want. Fried hunting birds are dressed in lemon and garlic or doused in pomegranate molasses. There's generally Armenian sausages and basterma, a sun-dried beef dish, on the menu, and sides such as fried okra, mouhammara, a hot-pepper dip, and itch, the Armenian version of tabbouli, heavier on the bulgur and without the parsley. But the place is best known for offal: boiled and sautéed cow's tongue, raw chicken liver and boiled intestines stuffed with rice and ground meat, fragrant with cinnamon. Cojones are required when eating here (no pun intended).
Alfred Novel St, Bourj Hammoud, +961 3 882 933
How to get to Beirut
Emirates flies one stop to Beirut from five Australian cities via Dubai. Emirates operates 91 direct flights a week to Dubai from Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.