I must say I felt a little let down when I was told we would be going to Beirut tonight.
Though I heard repeatedly from locals that Beirut was “fantastic” I’m in Panama for the first time and only for a couple of days. The last thing I want is some tabouli after enduring the six flights it took me to get here.
The signage was predictably Orientalist:
Except the Coke bit which was refreshingly funny/ original:
I couldn’t say the same for the menu cover:
Nor the interior’s obligatory ode to Baalbeck:
But the food told a different story. The hummus was spot-on rich, the kibbe neye full and flavorful and the taouk so tender, I didn’t want to waste any time taking pictures of it:
The kafta, which I was also too busy eating to take pictures, had a nice minty taste.
But most impressive of all was Beirut owner and chef-in-chief, Bilal Ali Darwiche:
He came to our table several times, not only to greet us but to serve food himself. In fact I watched him scurrying throughout the entire restaurant all night, holding trays, managing the staff in impressively accented Spanish and even wiping down the tables.
This type of hands-on management is so sorely missing in Beirut, where notions of shame and bigotry prevent much of the country’s elites and major business owners from ever getting their hands dirty.
A Zahle native, Bilal told me he landed in Panama around 1991, fleeing the lawlessness of the civil war and its aftermath.
For the first eight years, he worked for $300 per month he said, before “God helped” and he was able to purchase “Beirut” which has been around for 20 years.
And owing perhaps to his humility, Beirut was jam-packed this Wednesday. There were dozens of tables, both locals and tourists, in the sprawling indoor and outdoor sections.
Who could imagine the irony that the power went off momentarily in one corner, providing a true taste of home:
Bilal laughed it off, assuring me it was just a faulty light bulb, before delivering complimentary baklawa to our table. Like much of the rest of the food, it was soft and delectable.
Years ago I wrote about another “Beirut” restaurant, this one in Hong Kong. So just how many Beiruts are out there?
Like Bilal, the staff of Beirut Hong Kong told me they felt dejected by their homeland– the wars, the cheating, the driving.
It’s a pity because Lebanon needs more self-made men like Bilal. Perhaps they could inspire others into believing success can be achieved through hard work and perseverance and not just inheritance, pandering and knowing the right people or “wasta.”