Boats pull into an old stone harbour lined with seafood restaurants and the people in the restaurants watch the people in the boats while the people in the boats watch the people in the restaurants. This is Byblos, about half an hour from Beirut in Lebanon.
The Byblos harbour
Chez Pepe: Byblos Fishing Club
Smack bang in prime position on the waterfront is Chez Pepe: Byblos Fishing Club. The restaurant has been going strong for over 40 years although Pepe himself passed away in 2006 at the age of 95. In its hey day Pepe’s was a major celebrity hang out and faded black and white photographs of Bridget Bardot and Frank Sinatra on the walls are a reminder of the legacy. There were no celebritys on our visit (perhaps partly due to the fact that Lebanon is still seen by some people as a no go zone) but the place was rammed on a sunny Spring day.
Sky blue painted chairs and white cloth covered tables line the wide stone verandah with fishing nets hanging from the ceiling. All the traditional mezze are on offer and we scooped up tangy hommus (4750) and creamy moutabal (4750) with piles of khoubiz, the paper thin Lebanese flat bread. Nuggets of brown fried kibbeh are a little dry but still deliciously moreish while plates of crunchy deep fried calamari rings are simplicity themselves served with a squeeze of lemon. Huge bowls of tabbouleh add some greenery along with fattoush (8000) a ‘peasant salad’ of tomatoes, cucumbers and chickweed topped with crispy, fried khoubiz.
We select our seafood ourselves from an ice filled tray and it is char grilled and filleted at the table by the waitress. The fish almost pops with freshness as you would expect from a restaurant that has its own fishing fleet. Then we finish our meal in typical Lebanese style with a glass of arak. The drink is created by mixing the clear arak with water and magically the liquid turns a milky white. It is possibly one of the harshest drinks I have ever tasted with a strong aniseed flavour and I find it hard not to gag while drinking it. Clearly an acquired taste! Apart from the arak, dining at the Byblos Fishing Club is an absolute treat and our long lunch their is one of my favourite meals of our trip.
Whole grilled fish
Details: Byblos Harbour, Ph: 09 540 213
One of the main reasons you go to Abou Walid is for the panoramic views. Located on the top floor of a six story building, a 10 minute drive out of Byblos, when you eat at Abou Walid you can see all the way along the coast back to Beirut. That is, if you eat there during the day. Not realising that one of the main drawcards was the fabulous views we had a night time dinner at Abou Walid and spent the night looking out onto inky blackness punctuated by the occasional twinkling street light in the distance.
Whole vegetables to accompany the salad
The menu is set and the same every night apart from seasonal variation in the seafood on offer. It kicks of with a vast array of mezze. There is hommous, moutabal and the ubiquitous flat bread, khoubiz. Next, the salads which are piles of vibrant green tabbouleh and large bowls of fattoush. The salads are served with a big plate of whole lettuce, cabbage and other vegetables. The idea is to use the lettuce and cabbage leaves to scoop up the salad although I am not sure what we were supposed to do with the whole tomatoes.
The seafood course comprised whole fried and grilled fish along with simmering bowls of octopus, sashimi like slices of raw fish and the huge mollusks pictured above which seemed somewhat like a scallop. Please let me know if you know what they are. Of course we had totally overdone it on the mezze and salads and so struggled to do the masses of seafood justice. To finish, fresh fruit and thick, dusty Lebanese coffee. We stayed away from the arak this time. While none of the cooking was particularly refined it was certainly a feast and a real locals restaurant packed with chain smoking groups of Lebanese men. As a visitor to Lebanon though it is probably best to visit during the day when you can actually see the view.
Details: Bouar Main Road (just off the road from Beirut to Byblos), Lebanon (Ph 961 3 794563)
Gourmet Traveller Tips
We stayed at The Private Hotel in Beirut which is half an hour from Byblos. Don’t make the same mistake that we did. It is dingy, drab and a little bit dirty. The only things going for the hotel are that it is in a great location and it is pretty cheap (about £40 a night).
In Byblos you can explore the ruins, hang out at the seafood restaurants or sit on the beach.