For the past two years, more restaurants highlighting Syrian culture, both in their cuisine and interior decor, have been popping up in Beirut, mainly in Verdun and Hamra.
Some of these restaurants, such as Sit El Sham in Verdun, are owned by Syrians while others are owned by Lebanese but play up the Syrian concept. One such venue is Verdun’s Ward El Sham, named after a traditional Syrian dessert, which opened a year ago and is owned by Achour Development.
Jean Habis, Ward El Sham’s manager on duty, says the concept was chosen because the owners wanted to “try out the new trend of Syrian cuisine” as a change from Lebanese style restaurants. Though Ward El Sham has modeled its interior after an old Damascene home, Habis believes what distinguishes them from other Syrian themed venues is their traditional Syrian cuisine rather than the decor. While the Lebanese and Syrian cuisines are very similar, Ward El Sham offers Syrian staples such as hara b asabo’, a kind of lentil soup with lightly fried dough, on their daily dish menu and is known for their unique Aleppo kebabs such as fattet kebab, a yoghurt and bread dish with meat.
Souraya, a Syrian woman who settled with her family in Lebanon six months ago, says she visits Ward El Sham on a weekly basis just to enjoy these dishes that remind her of home. “I come here because they have the food items from Damascus which I love but find difficult to cook at home. I can’t find them in other restaurants in Beirut,” she says.
Feeling at home
Bandakji Cafe, a 1,000 square meter parking lot in Hamra which was turned into a cafe in late 2013, has duplicated the setting of the traditional Syrian harrah, or neighborhood, from the calligraphy on the walls to the tiles and even the waiters’ outfits, comprising harem style pants and a traditional skull cap.
Owned by the Petit Café group, the focus in Bandakji Cafe is on the ambiance more than the cuisine. Ahmad Bandakji, the manager at the cafe, says the goal was to attract Syrians residing in Lebanon and make them feel at home. “When the Syrian crisis first began, we decided to create Bandakji to cater to our Syrian brothers in Lebanon, so that they may feel that, at least at Bandakji, nothing has changed and they are at home,” says Bandakji, adding that half of their clientele are Syrians.
“I come here because the design and layout create a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia in me. Also, as there are many Syrians like me, it almost feels like home if I close my eyes,” says Bilal Ghadi, a regular at Bandakji Cafe.
Other venues, such as Set el Hesen in Ain el Mreisseh, took on a wider scope and focused on a Levantine concept, which helped them attract the Iraqi community in Lebanon as well. Taking advantage of the idea that many of the traditions and designs are very similar among countries in the Levant, the venue highlighted those similarities creating a space that everyone can call their own, explains its manager. “We are not Syrian or Lebanese themed, we are from the whole area and our menu reflects that,” he says, explaining that their menu has traditional Damascene dishes such as basha wa asakro as well as Lebanese ones.
A successful strategy
This strategy seems to be working well for Set el Hesen, as the manager says 70 percent of their clientele are foreign — including Syrians, Iraqis and Europeans. The venue’s seaside location could also be a factor in its popularity.
This rise in Syrian themed venues in Lebanon could simply be a well-timed development of the latest trend in the country’s hospitality sector, which is constantly seeking novelty to attract clients of any nationality.
It is more likely, however, that the sector is attempting to increase its client base by attracting those Syrians residing in Lebanon through catering to their culture, thereby gathering more of their community in one place and making them feel at home.