Mention Hamra Street in front of anyone familiar with Lebanon and they will surely have an opinion or story to share about one of Beirut’s most well known and cosmopolitan areas. Referred to as the “Champs Élysées” of the Middle East in the 1960s and early 1970s, this street has played a role in influencing Beirut’s culture and hospitality life and continues to do so today, despite the ups and downs the country, and the street itself, have been through.
Hamra back in the day
Once a calm residential area with a few villas and vast lands for planting owned by Beiruti families (such as the Itanis, Chatilas, Bikhazis, Rubiez’s), Hamra Street emerged on Lebanon’s social map with the establishment of Cinema Hamra in the late 1950s, which was followed by a quick succession of other cinemas and theaters such as Eldorado, Strand, Saroulla and Élysée in the 1960s. In parallel to this influx of theaters, there was a surge of sidewalk cafes or café trottoirs (Wimpy, Café De Paris, Negresco) in the late 1950s and early 1960s following the opening of Horseshoe Cafe.
At the same time that Hamra was undergoing this boom, the regime overthrow in Iraq in 1958 and the unification of Syria and Egypt in 1958 until 1961, brought many of these countries’ intellectuals to Lebanon and mainly to Hamra Street which, because of its proximity to the American University of Beirut (AUB), provided an intellectual ambiance for them to share their thoughts.
[pullquote]“At the time in the 1960s, Hamra was the ‘in’ place of Beirut or the brand new image of Beirut with its café trottoirs and theaters”[/pullquote]
Hamra rapidly became a destination in Beirut, attracting Lebanese, Arab and international tourists alike. “At the time in the 1960s, Hamra was the ‘in’ place of Beirut or the brand new image of Beirut with its café trottoirs and theaters, such as the famous Piccadilly Theater. We were the first coffee roasters on Hamra Street with a stand up bar where people would enjoy coffee on the go or buy roasted and ground coffee to use at home,” says Amin Younes, CEO at Café Younes, speaking of when his father opened the original Café Younes coffee roaster shop which today is still located next to the first Café Younes outlet near the Commodore Hotel.
Hamra Street’s “glory days” in terms of its hospitality appeal were in the 1960s and early 1970s. But, as the Civil War took its toll, activity in Hamra’s hospitality venues decreased and was restricted to the brave Beirutis who remained in the area and to the foreign journalists who were hungry for some conversation and a bite to eat.
Picking up after the war
After the war, focus on the development of hospitality outlets in the country was low, and while Hamra’s existing F&B outlets were still somewhat active, the pre Civil War buzz which dominated the street hadn’t been revived yet, and by nighttime the street was almost deserted.
In 1994, Malek El Batata (which translates to King of Fries) moved from its then location on Baalbek Street near the Commodore Hotel to its current outlet towards the end of main road Hamra, which offered a more financially lucrative location according to its owner Georges Moujaes. “We had a big opening which was attended by the Minister of Tourism at that time and many guests. People were surprised that a minister would come to the opening of a snack shop, but investment in Hamra Street was low during that period and anyone willing to invest in the street was highly encouraged,” he recalls. He adds that while the first few months in the new location were tough, business rapidly picked up due to home delivery services and increasing footfall in Hamra.
[pullquote]“This café will never have the same feel as Horseshoe or Modca, but at least I can still read my newspaper while enjoying the sunshine”[/pullquote]
Out with the old
The 2000s were a bittersweet decade for the eateries on Hamra’s main street, with the closure of some well known restaurant-cafes such as Wimpy, Modca, Café De Paris and Horseshoe Cafe, which had survived the Civil War only to find that the number of their customers had dwindled and it was no longer financially viable to stay open.
At the same time, new hospitality venues were popping up on Hamra and its neighboring alleys, especially after 2005. Despite initial protests from the old loyal customers of Hamra cafe, the new cafes on the street were not short of clientele. As one elderly gentleman who was reading a newspaper while sipping coffee at one of the international coffee houses on Hamra Street said, “This café will never have the same feel as Horseshoe or Modca, but at least I can still read my newspaper while enjoying the sunshine.”
In with the new
The period between 2012 and 2014 was that of regional turmoil and internal instability, which affected the hospitality and tourism sector as a whole as previously reported in Executive. Although Hamra’s hospitality venues were also affected by this situation, Hadi Fadel, corporate marketing manager of Boubess Group which operates four venues on Hamra Street (Kaiten, Napoletana, Café Hamra and Laziz), says that the effect was less drastic than in other areas of the country.
“Our venues on Hamra saw a drop, although not drastic, between 2011 and 2014, which was also seen across the country in our venues. Interestingly though, our venues in Hamra were performing comparatively better than our venues in other areas of Lebanon during those years. Fortunately, according to our numbers for the first quarter of 2015, there is positive growth versus last year in our four venues on Hamra Street in terms of revenue or covers,” says Fadel, declining to give actual percentage growth figures.
A sign of the challenging period Fadel was talking about is the closure of restaurants in the area towards the end of Hamra Street in the past two to three years — including Applebees, El Battal Snack and others — although this is more related to the oversupply of restaurants in that area than to footfall. “There was an economic rush for people to open a restaurant or a bar in Hamra, but many opened and closed. It was a bit rough because it was too big of a rush and it cannot last,” says Abdul Rahman Zahzah, partner in T-Marbouta.
The universities’ effect on Hamra’s eateries
Hamra has been through a series of ups and downs when it comes to the hospitality sector, but several factors ensured that the food and beverage outlets in Hamra would always have a supply of customers with a variety of tastes and preferences likely to be met in one or another of these outlets.
All of the hospitality venue owners interviewed for this article believe that the presence of major universities — such as AUB, the Lebanese American University or Haigazian — and schools — International College or Saint Mary’s Orthodox College for example — create a steady flow of day time customers to many venues on Hamra Street and the vicinity.
Speaking about Dunkin’ Donuts, which has a big outlet with a terrace and a study lounge in the basement, the cafe’s marketing manager Martha Zarazir says that 60 percent of their sales in the afternoon shift are from high school or university students who gather with their friends at the venue to study or socialize.
The schools and universities in the area hire a high percentage of foreign professors or staff and their presence in the area is felt by the hospitality venue operators on Hamra, with Fadel saying Napoletana has a good number of Europeans as regular customers that they have not noticed as much in their other venues in Lebanon.
[pullquote]“Ras Beirut is one of the only areas in Beirut where both Christians and Muslims coexist happily and this will never change in Hamra.”[/pullquote]
Hamra’s leftist crowd
Another customer type that is generated by the presence of AUB and LAU in the area is a more secular or leftist clientele who tend to favor local, organically developed and authentic venues of which quite a few are to be found on Hamra Street. T-Marbouta’s Zahzah believes Hamra Street is varied with its clientele having many identities, one of which is the cultural identity he attributes to the the presence of the universities in the area. The universities historically have played a role in developing this identity, according to him, and also to the leftist Syrian/Lebanese/Iraqi intellectual movement that was most active in Hamra during the 1960s and 1970s.
In line with Zahzah, Younes says: “The presence of major universities which host cultured or leftist thinking, in the cultural and social sense, is very well represented in Hamra Street. Ras Beirut is one of the only areas in Beirut where both Christians and Muslims coexist happily and this will never change in Hamra.”
In addition to the universities, explains Zahzah, publishing houses, newspaper offices, bookstores and theaters in the vicinity create the right environment for outlets catering to the leftist crowd.
This clientele tends to favor authentic venues reminiscent to a certain degree of the cafes of the 1960s and as one of the partners in Mezyan recounts, in addition to his passion for food, he first thought of developing Mezyan around 2008 when Hamra’s old restaurants and cafes, which he used to frequent, were closing down and he felt that there were no real restaurants in Hamra (which are not part of a chain) anymore. Zahzah likes to believe they, along with similar venues on Hamra, are a modest extension of these cafes.
The operators of such venues — Café Younes, Mezyan and T-Marbouta interviewed for this article — say they are a part and product of the Hamra community and believe they practice leftist or liberal principles, not only by the layout and design of their venues, but by applying equal employment and fair wages to all nationalities, by giving back to the community through social initiatives and by hosting cultural activities or musical events in their venues.
Businesses and banks
Universities aside, Hamra Street is also a major commercial hub with the Central Bank at its beginning and most of Lebanon’s major banks having a branch on the main street or in its vicinity. In addition to the banks, several businesses have their offices in Hamra. All of these factors combined create a vibrant daytime crowd.
“Because we have a lot of banks around our shop, we have a lot of bank employees who come for takeout coffee in the morning, making 60 percent of our sales in the morning from takeaway. The average age of customers during this shift is between 25 and 44 years old,” says Dunkin’ Donuts’ Zarazir.
[pullquote]“Now we feel that Hamra is going back to its normal setting”[/pullquote]
After working hours
While such an environment creates volume during weekdays, Fadel says Hamra is getting busy during weekends as well, after a recent slump. “During weekdays, securing volume is easy because of Hamra being a hub, but we felt the decrease in footfall in Hamra when things were calm on the weekend and people were scared to go out [from 2012 to 2014]. Now we feel that Hamra is going back to its normal setting with the Lebanese coming to Hamra again during the weekends which is resulting in the growth we saw,” he explains.
Night time is also busy on Hamra street, as any traffic congested evening drive or peek into one the pubs in Estral Center or restaurants on the street will prove. Fadel says their venues get more footfall during the night shift and Mezyan, although a restaurant, is always busier at night with people enjoying themselves over drinks. Parallel to Hamra Street, Makdessi Street is also booming with pub crawlers.
Non Lebanese on Hamra street
Although the number of tourists from the Gulf region has declined across the board, Hamra included, the volume of the Iraqi and Syrian nationals in Hamra has somewhat made up for this, despite their comparatively lower purchasing power, explains Fadel. “This gap that was created by the absence of the Gulf tourists has been somehow filled by the local Lebanese and the Syrians and Iraqis who are spending, albeit less than the tourists from the Gulf, and creating volume in the market, especially around Hamra. They are outgoing and they are restaurant goers who we see mostly in Café Hamra and Laziz where they like to hang out in the afternoons and smoke argeeleh,” says Fadel. Mezyan and T-Marbouta both say they have a lot of Syrian customers, while Mezyan adds that they serve many Iraqis, especially at night.
Iraqi nationals are often in Hamra for medical treatment at AUBMC while the abundance of furnished apartments in Hamra has made it easy for Syrians escaping the war in their country to find a temporary home in Beirut. “There are a lot more Syrians around Hamra, especially artists and people who work in theater which has enriched Hamra. Also you have Iraqis who were already refugees in Syria and moved here, and these are again often the artists or writers in their community,” says one of the partners in Mezyan.
The presence of these two nationalities in Hamra is so significant that they have developed hospitality venues featuring their local cuisines on Hamra Street. One such venue is Beit Halab which was developed by Syrian Musaab el Hadri, who says that 80 percent of his clients are Syrian or Iraqi, while another is Iraq el Kheir, developed by Iraqi Mahmoud Amin, catering to “mainly Iraqis but also a lot of Syrian customers.”
The Hamra spirit
One late evening in Mezyan, there was a table with Iraqis, Palestinian–Syrians, Palestinian–Lebanese, Lebanese and a few Europeans all sitting together as an Iraqi was singing a melancholic song impromptu. This is Hamra, where almost everyone can find the environment and the crowd to suit their taste and feel at home.