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Area Guide: Mar Mikhael, Beirut

Beirut’s reputation as the playground of the Middle East during the 1960s and early 1970s was largely destroyed – along with much of the city – by the long civil war (1975-1990). And with huge swathes of modern-day Beirut under the control of militant Islamic group Hezbollah, it’s a description that has seemed distant for some time.

Yet in the liberal north of the city, a new spirit has risen from the rubble that shows signs of Beirut reclaiming its former role as the fun and fashion capital of the Arab world. Centring around the Mar Mikhael district in the north east of the city, the main strip that forms the central artery through the district is packed with stylish bars, cafes, restaurants and independent boutiques.

At the weekend a cocktail of locals and expats spills out onto the streets from these bars and cafes before moving onto nearby warehouse parties that continue through to the following morning. ‘It’s easy to get caught up in it,’ says lighting designer Ghassan Salameh. ‘There’s a view among young people in the city that if we go out and party every night you don’t have to think about what’s happening.’

When Courier visited just before Christmas there was a huge Winter Wonderland-esque market filled with street-food vendors and craft breweries selling pumpkin beer; representing a huge departure from the image many in the West may have of the city.

Tawlet

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Considered one of the best restaurants in the city, this lunch-only ‘farmers’ kitchen’ (opened in 2009) was an evolution of the Souk el Tayeb farmers’ market, which has been held in the city centre since 2004. Like the market, it showcases food from across the country with a rotation of 30 chefs from different regions cooking up food from their locality. The company also has a scheme teaching Palestinian and Syrian refugees, alongside poorer Lebanese villagers, new cooking techniques and food safety to enable them to set up their own catering and street-food businesses.

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Anise

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Taking its name from the main ingredient in Arak – the traditional home-brewed aniseed-based spirit popular across the eastern Mediterranean – Anise stocks a huge range of the spirit that’s made in family distilleries across Lebanon. If the bitterness is too much, however, the small bar also boasts some of Beirut’s best cocktails, all designed by co-founder Hisham Alhussein. The space has a Middle East-meets-New Orleans feel with a grand purpose-built oak bar sitting at its centre.

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Dabbous

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This local spice and herb shop on the border of Mar Mikhael and Geitawi is stocked with every conceivable spice needed for an authentic Lebanese kitchen.

Beirut Cafe Racers

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A large proportion of Beirut’s residents ride motorbikes and Rami Bishara opened up this custom bike shop after rebuilding his prized Honda. Rather than actually being a cafe, it’s named after the ‘cafe racer’ motorbike – the name given to the model of lightweight bike popular across the city.

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Plan Bey

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Gallery space and bookshop Plan Bey stocks a variety of prints and art books by Lebanese artists, many of which are limited-edition releases printed and bound by the store’s sister workshop and publishing house.

Smoking Bun

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Inspired by a love of London’s indie burger chains, gourmet burger hatch Smoking Bun launched in 2014. Open all hours, it’s the only place to end a night out in the bars of Mar Mikhael.

Papercup

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Located on a side street, Papercup was opened in 2009 by Rania Naufal, helping to invigorate a quieter, dejected-looking corner of Mar Mikhael. It stocks a mixture of art and design books, a huge range of international and Lebanese magazines as well as serving coffee.

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Tweeter Music Shop

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Opened in 1977 by Harout Sourdjian, who continues to run the shop to this day, Tweeter Music Shop is proudly analogue. Having made it through the switch from vinyl to cassette and CD, it limped through the early digital age but with the renewed global interest in vinyl, Tweeter is now experiencing a new lease of life. Sourdjian is even in the process of transforming the basement into a vinyl showroom.

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The Food Dealer

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Doubling up as a homeware store, this neighbourhood deli-cafe features a simple menu of sourdough sandwiches, mac and cheese, and salads.

This story originally appeared in Courier April/May.