Junkyard tapas

Deliberately unpolished dining in Mar Mkhayel

What do you do with your plot of land waiting for a delayed permit from the Ministry of Tourism to build a new restaurant on it? Options vary from converting it into a parking lot to watching the weeds grow as the space goes unused.

Mario Junior Haddad and Chef Tomas Reger, respectively owner and executive chef of Le Sushi Bar, however, had other ideas, and decided to have fun with their space by turning it into the ‘Junkyard Pop Up’ — a temporary outdoor restaurant located in the alleyway next to the United petrol station in Mar Mkhayel. They plan to build an Italian restaurant there when the permit comes through — hopefully, they say, early next year — but in the meantime, the Junkyard is great publicity for their restaurant consultancy company Food for Thought, and a trendsetter in Beirut’s restaurant scene — being the first pop-up restaurant in the city.

With Christmas lights hung all above a flooring of grass and gravel, the restaurant has a Mexican backyard party feel. Divided into two areas, on one side there is a square bar set on oil barrels that seats several dozen people around its four sides, and to the other a seated dining area. Even on the weekday Executive visited, the bar started filling up around 8 p.m. and was packed an hour later, while the dining area required reservations ahead of time.

For a place with relatively little publicity, the Junkyard is surprisingly popular. “As this is a temporary project with a low budget, we did not want to spend too much on promotions,” says Guy Salame, brand developer at Food for Thought. “We used word of mouth, and some social media, therefore creating some mystery, as well as a snowball effect where people tell each other about the place and create a buzz.” The temporary nature of the restaurant also created a sense of immediacy, that one needs to try it at least once before it shuts down.

In terms of décor, the Junkyard lives up to its name. Broken-down 1960s style televisions lead the way to the bathrooms, which are themselves housed in cargo containers rescued from the Beirut Port. The kitchen is located in a similar, yellow container, which has led some to dub the makeshift restaurant the ‘Yellow Container’. Charming, junky decorations — such as the old fashioned blender still used to make drinks, lights hanging off a helicopter blade above the bar and the antique water heater lying on the grass — provide nostalgic conversation cues to clientele, and also come at a low cost to the owners. Salame again talks about the low budget in relation to the décor, which he says inspired the architect to use rescued and recycled items.

In keeping with the idea of having fun with their place, Chef Reger changes the menu daily. While chicken, meat and seafood are always on offer, the methods of preparation and type of fish will differ depending on what is fresh in the market, and what the chef’s mood is that day.  Executive tried the wild mushrooms dish, the teriyaki chicken and the steak with butter sauce. Though it sounds like a hefty plateful, the portions are small and are meant as tapas to share, rather than full meals. The wild mushroom plate was a medley of tasty fungi garnished in a light soy-esque sauce, the pepper-seasoned steak was rare and juicy, though the chicken was a touch oily. The average bill per person — for a drink and three tapas — was approximately $40, thus don’t come on an empty stomach unless you’re prepared to pay $120 to get full. At such prices, this ‘fun’ restaurant, with little overhead to speak of, likely also leaves the owners counting cash with a smile.

“The pop up concept is an idea Food for Thought might repeat next summer in other locations,” says Salame. “We could just take our yellow container and set up somewhere else.” In the meantime, he says he wouldn’t be surprised if other restaurateurs began copying the “pop-up” formula. While it is yet to be determined how popular the idea will be, the Junkyard is currently providing a unique and rustic dining experience — and one that will only last so long.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.