There was Horse Shoe, most notable for being Ghassan Tueni, Raymond Edde and Charles Helou’s favorite watering hole in Hamra. And Dolce Vita, the sidewalk brasserie that was the hangout for exiled political figures from Iraq and Syria. And Bliss Street’s Faysal’s, the restaurant where the leftists — many of whom became ministers in their countries — used to meet. Today, however, they have been replaced by a Costa Coffee, a Pizza Hut and an anonymous apartment building, remaining only in memory.
Though these places had their fair share of the limelight and stayed in operation for more than 20 years, many other food and beverage venues rise to fame only to shut down some years later. Over time, this scenario has intensified, and lifespans have shortened as Lebanon trundles through its various political situations. Every time the country stabilizes for a couple of years and the tourists roll in, hopeful young entrepreneurs pool their resources to open a bar. A few years later, the situation deteriorates, the tourists leave and the bars shut down.
Despite this dismal picture, some bars in Beirut have persevered through the political crises, reaching and surpassing a decade on the scene. The question is: what makes these bars special? What has led them to remain in operation while around them new and more exciting places are opening? Executive analyzed a selection of 10 bars and nightclubs that have been in operation in Beirut for more than 10 years to find out what keeps them in business.
Serving 30 or 300
Brewing the right formula for success depends on the size of the bar. The smaller venues all have a couple of points in common. Their overhead costs are less than the bigger establishments, and they have no marketing or events budget to speak of.
They do, however, enjoy strong customer loyalty, as evidenced by the number of patrons who have been visiting them ever since they were old enough to drink. Nostalgia mixed with a sense of belonging is a strong motivator, and there is something touching about knowing that these little pubs will always remain the same and everyone there knows who you are. Loyal customers don’t have to come every night, but their loyalty is enough to keep these bars afloat. Naturally, good quality, friendly service and nice music have to be maintained. Loyalty can only take you so far.
The larger establishments profiled in the selection have each managed to carve a niche for themselves that has remained unchallenged — pioneers of entertainment. Each venture is built around the type of music they play or the bands they host. Others have attempted to copy their concepts but customer loyalty, added to their years of expertise, makes it hard for newcomers to grab a seat at the table.
Both the large and small venues have been touched by Lebanon’s harsh conditions and all have seen their business fluctuate, with some having more bad days than good. But the fact they have remained on the scene is a testament to their resilience. In these profiles, listed alphabetically, each bar’s owner offers advice for those thinking of following in their footsteps and establishing their own venues.
1. 37 Degrees
Location: Monot Street, Ashrafieh
Customer profile: Laid back, loyal customers who enjoy cozy and comfortable setting
Drink of choice: 37's Heat, a whiskey-based drink ($8.50)
Owner's advice: “Have a strong concept; choose a good location and good elements to manage it. Only then might you have a chance of succeeding as the market is not as easy as before"
Opened in June 2001, 37 Degrees was among the first bars to open in Ashrafieh’s Monot area. Ideally located in a then-deserted alleyway, 37 Degrees had a wide outdoor terrace where drinks could be enjoyed al fresco.
The street on which 37 Degrees is located was the Hamra or Mar Mikhael of its time in the early 2000s, but it is much calmer these days. Few bars have survived to tell the tale, and others sporadically opened only to close soon after.
37 Degrees is one of those surviving bars and retains the warm and friendly spirit it’s had since it first opened. Its claim to fame, according to the main partner Toni Rizk, is that it introduced the well known Lebanese shot, the “dodo” — named after the barmaid Dana — to the public. The shot was adopted from the “Mexican hootch” shot which 37 Degrees served with some adaptation, such as the olive, and vodka instead of tequila. Not knowing what to call it, people referred to it simply as the dodo shot.
Location: Abd al Aziz Street, Hamra
Customer profile: Foreigners seeking an 'authentic' Lebanese experience, fans of the leftist movement or belly dancers
Drink of choice: A tall glass of Arak ($6)
Owner's advice: “Don’t go into the bars business unless you really love it. Otherwise, it’s difficult and it’s just not worth it”
With Ziad el-Rahbani songs playing in the background, and posters of Mahmoud el-Darwish and Samih el-Kassem — both nationalist Palestinian poets — on display, Barometre clearly capitalizes on the image of leftist Lebanon in the 1980s, even though it opened in 1998.
Owner Rabih el-Zahr is a self-proclaimed nationalist and proudly recounts how, during the 2006 war with Israel, foreign journalists would keep their equipment in Barometre and regroup there while he played the news in the background and served free shots every time Hezbollah hit an Israeli target.
Barometre’s concept has been replicated by several recently established bars in Hamra, but while they may have reproduced the image and music, they have yet to recreate the same delicious nibbles available at Barometre, which are family recipes passed down from Zahr’s mother.
More than 10 years since it opened, Barometre still manages to pack in a full house during the weekends, although it has had to introduce theme nights such as a “contemporary Arabic music dance night” to attract more customers.
3. Blue Note
Location: Makhoul Street, Hamra
Customer profile: Blues and jazz lovers
Drink of choice: Vodka or whiskey ($40-$55 charge including a la carte food and band)
Owner's advice: “Study the market and then carve a niche for your bar; be different and needed”
Established in 1987, Blue Note was Lebanon’s first jazz and live music club. Despite opening during the civil war there were already some interesting pubs in operation in the area, and Blue Note was a welcome addition to the mix. Years later, Blue Note is the only surviving bar from that period in the area.
Open all day, Blue Note offers a mixed menu of international and local cuisine. But it is not the rather average food that brings people to Blue Note, it is the jazz talent — sometimes international but mostly local — that regularly perform in the venue. Blue Note’s Khaled Nazha also proudly plays the role of cultural ambassador by promoting the international blues players he brings to play at Blue Note around the country. Though he would like to get more international players, their budget and the country’s situation does not always allow for that.
Blue Note launched Charbel Rouhana and Toufic Fadoul to relative fame and recently got Ziad el-Rahbani to play there for 11 consecutive nights. Understandably, the bar charges a cover fee for the music.
Customer profile: 18-25 year-old fans of house and alternative music.
Drink of choice: Naji's Mood, a vodka-based drink ($13)
Owner's advice: “Don’t think that this is a fast cash business, and only enter it if you have experience in the business or study it well beforehand”
B018 was borne out of Naji Gebrane’s dream to change the music in Lebanon and move it away from the typical disco tunes that were available back in 1995. During the civil war years, Gebrane would play his favorite music to whoever happened to be in his chalet — number B018 — and by the end of the war he was inspired to start his own club. B018 continues to be a pioneer in electronic music 18 years later, attracting DJs from around the globe. With the party only really starting well after midnight and ending with the rising sun, B018 is not for the faint of heart.
In 2005, Gebrane attempted to attract his older customer base to a new club, B018 Classic, on Old Damascus Road, Ashrafieh, which played the classics of the 1980s. It only operated for three years, before protests in the area in 2008 forced it to shut down. Gebrane’s older clientele now gets one night a week when B018 opens early and plays 80s hits.
5. Captain’s Cabin
Customer profile: Foreign expats looking for cheap drinks and a game of pool or darts in a place that reminds them of their little neighborhood bar back home.
Drink of choice: A bottle of beer ($3)
Owner's advice: “Don’t go into this business if you have no experience in it; reading about it and having a business degree are not enough because you need to live it”
Established in 1964 by a group of pilots looking for a place to play cards and drink gin while away from home, the Cabin’s glory days were in the pre-civil war period. It became a destination for international pilots, American University of Beirut professors and the occasional spy.
Today the bar has a more shabby and neglected feel, with the leather on its bar stools torn in places and writing scrawled on the walls. The owner, Andre, prefers to call it an “easygoing place” and says that when a bar stool is broken, he won’t necessarily fix it rapidly.
Captain’s Cabin has very few overhead expenses: it doesn’t provide food and the drinks do not contain anything perishable. Also, Andre serves the patrons himself and has no employees. Although in Hamra, considered a prime location, the owner pays on the old rent scale and admits that the bar generates enough income for him to live modestly and no more.
Location: Saifi area
Customer profile: People in their 30s or 40s who want to enjoy a well-mixed cocktail in a pleasant atmosphere
Drink of choice: Mona Lisa Smile, vodka-based ($12).
Owner's advice: “During difficult times and the low season, don’t sacrifice quality to save on costs as you will build a bad reputation that people won’t forget when the times improve”
Centrale was the first bar to open in the Gemmayze area, back in 2002, long before the neighborhood became the magnet for restaurateurs it is today. “We felt that Monot was out and that this was going to be the next happening area,” explains Talal Chehab, the main owner.
Intended to be a quality restaurant with an accompanying bar, the owners were surprised to see that people were more interested in the cylindrical bar area — along with its roof, which opens to reveal the star-filled night sky — than they were in the restaurant. Though the restaurant still operates on the first floor of Centrale, the bar on the second floor remains the main attraction.
Centrale is proud that they have had the same team since they first opened. Indeed, Michel Mhanna, the barman, has his own loyal patrons who come to Centrale especially for his freshly mixed drinks and innovative cocktails, served with a welcoming smile.
7. Hole in the wall
Location: Monot Street
Customer profile: International and local rock music lovers of different ages who enjoy a vibrant atmosphere where not a lot of talking is done.
Capacity: 50 (seated) 100 if standing
Drink of choice: Guinness beer ($8)
Owner's advice: "If they haven't worked in this business and know all its details, or if they haven't hired a professional to get things done for them, it is going to be tough"
Tucked in the narrow alleyway off Monot Street, Hole in the Wall is as its name suggests. Upon opening an unassuming door, one enters a lively bar with classic rock blasting through the stereo and high tables packed close to each other near the bar.
Hole in the Wall has been in operation since 1999 but Ziad Kordahi, its current owner, bought it in 2003. He already owned another venue, Rai, on the same street. It is still packed on most days, especially with the recent introduction of live bands and new talents.
Location: Starco Center,
Customer profile: International music lovers of all ages and nationalities.
Drink of choice: If at a table, MusicHall follows a formula of $60 per person, including the show and drinks within that amount.
Owner's advice: “Someone who starts a new business is usually called an entrepreneur; those who are starting their own bars/nightclubs in Beirut at the moment should be called gamblers. But maybe the world is nothing but a big casino, as the Italians say."
Following his success with the “Amor E Libertad” nightclub in Kaslik in 1998, Michel Elefteriades decided to bring the same concept of live musical shows to Beirut in 2003, and MusicHall was born. Originally an old cinema theater, the Starco venue was ideal for live music on stage and Elefteriades easily transformed it into a club with state-of-the-art lighting and sound system.
Ten years into its existence, MusicHall has launched such renowned musicians as the Chehadeh Brothers and has become instrumental in introducing tourists to the more diverse music culture in Lebanon. It is full on the weekend and requires booking in advance during the peak summer season and holidays. MusicHall recently opened to much success in Dubai, and there are plans to open an outdoor venue in Beirut by this summer.
Location: Hamra Street
Customer profile: Loyal patrons of Chez Andre and those who have heard about it from their parents (who may be few and far between by now).
Capacity: 60 people
Drink of choice: Vodka orange ($6.5)
Owner's advice: “Be correct with your patrons and always think long term”
Regusto’s history is interlinked with that of Chez Andre, the famed Hamra pub of the 1960s, which was owned by the uncle of Regusto’s owner — Arthur Chirvanian — who took over management in 1992. When Chez Andre had to close down in 2003 due to rent issues, Chirvanian decided to move the same concept into Regusto, which was being run as a nargileh place at the time.
Regusto’s location in Hamra Square means it avoids the neighbors and their noise, but it also sets it apart from the area’s other pubs, which tends to make people forget about it. The place is somewhat dark and dingy, though the music is good, if a bit outdated. Regusto, however, capitalizes on Chez Andre’s fame and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings of famous political and cultural figures who used to party at Chez Andre, which makes for interesting conversation.
Regusto’s owner has recently opened Belleneves, a small live-band concept bar, in one of the alleyways off Hamra’s main street.
Location: Sodeco, Ashrafieh
Customer profile: Loyal customers, between the ages of 30 to 40, who grew up with Zinc and still love it.
Capacity: 100 people
Drink of choice: Margarita ($12)
Owner's advice: “The bar business is a very detail oriented one that you should be constantly working on”
When Fadi Saba first decided to open Zinc in 1997, the bar culture in Beirut was wanting. Saba’s inspiration was the nights spent at home with friends enjoying a few drinks and music while waiting for the clubs to open; hours that can these days be better spent in one of Beirut’s many bars.
Despite its age, Zinc manages to maintain a trendy feel and stays loyal to the elements that creates a bar’s atmosphere, such as the vibrant mood, the soft lighting and innovative music.
Probably due to the prevalence of rooftop bars, Zinc has shut down during the summer for the past four years.
“Zinc’s image used to suffer in the summer when our customers went to rooftops. Though financially it is still the same for me when I close in the summer, my customers miss us and we miss them,” says Saba.