EIRUT: Lebanon’s Civil War left much of Downtown Beirut in ruins, where once traditional Levantine cafes characterized the heart of the capital.
Many elderly residents of Beirut still yearn for the good old days when they used to gather with friends and relatives to play cards or backgammon at Qahwet al-Ezez, or “Glass Cafe,” in Martyrs’ Square, one of the many joints that once operated in Downtown.
Kahwat Azmi, which opened in April, has become wildly popular and often remains crowded well after midnight even on a weekday. (The Daily Star/Khalil Hassan)
The 15-year conflict destroyed these old haunts, and in their place luxurious modern cafes and restaurants mushroomed after the area was reconstructed, providing little in comparison of spirit and ambiance.
But Mohammad Hallal and Rami Rizkallah decided to bring back a taste of the past through a pioneering renovation project: Kahwet Azmi.
Located in Azmi Bey Street, perpendicular to the nightlife hub Uruguay Street, Kahwet Azmi, which opened in April, has become wildly popular and often remains crowded well after midnight even on a weekday.
“We want to restore the heritage of this place and that’s why we opened a cafe in this location,” Hallal said.
The cafe’s terrace is lively and always full of people playing cards and smoking nargileh.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Hallal said that the cafe was named after the Azmi Bey Street.
“We did some research on Azmi Bey and he turned out to be one of the notables living in Beirut before Lebanon’s Civil War. He was wealthy and lived in a beautiful traditional house,” Hallal said.
He added that the concept of Kahwet Azmi was influenced by Azmi Bey and the place he lived in.
Everything about Kahwet Azmi is reminiscent of the past. An old TV, radio, closet, typewriter, Pepsi fridge, couches and other antiques are on display on the first floor while the second floor includes a collection of photos from pre-Civil War Downtown Beirut.
(The Daily Star/Khalil Hassan)
“We began to gather old things that were present at the houses of our grandparents, like old radios, sewing machines and TVs, so that we can recreate the coziness of our old houses again,” Hallal said. “We did not seek the help of an architect when designing the cafe, we wanted the design to be natural. The thing I hear the most from my clients is: ‘I feel like home.’”
Kahwet Azmi’s wooden chairs were bought from Tripoli, and are similar to the ones used in old cafes.
Hallal explained that Kahwet Azmi is also a restaurant with a bar, and that it is open 24/7.
“It is doing very well. There are a lot of reservations, people love the place, love the menu and its variety,” he said. Kahwet Azmi offers Lebanese, Italian and international food, along with sushi.
Hallal, 27, and Rizkallah also have a sushi place, M Gourmet in Hamra, and Ink* & Dagger pub in Uruguay Street.
Unlike many other restaurants in Downtown, the price of the plat de jour at Kahwet Azmi is not expensive and ranges between LL11,000 and LL18,000, including dessert and salad. “The kitchen operates 24/7, even if you come at 3 a.m. you can eat anything you want, the entire menu is open,” Hallal said.
Asked about the point of having a traditional cafe near the pubs of Uruguay Street, Hallal said that Kahwet Azmi’s location was its point of strength.
He said that nowadays, Lebanese either go to a cafe to have dinner and smoke nargileh before clubbing or they finish clubbing first and head to the cafe for the rest of the night.
“We chose this location because it is surrounded by rooftops in the summer and you have pubs on Uruguay Street that also operate during the winter,” Hallal said. “Now the patron does not have to take a long ride to go to a place to smoke nargileh after clubbing.”
(The Daily Star/Khalil Hassan)
But the restaurant is busiest at lunch time, when corporate and business patrons in the Downtown area come in to have a meal. Kahwet Azmi offers a 15 percent discount for employees working in the Solidere area.
“There is rush hour again from 6 p.m. till 2 a.m., when empty chairs are scarce,” Hallal said.
The cafe will celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, which starts next week, in its own way.
Besides offering iftar and suhour meals, clients will be able to feel the ambiance of the fasting month in the cafe. It will be decorated with lanterns and a man will be offering liquorice syrup to remind people of vendors who used to sell the drink in Beirut decades ago.
Admirers of old Arabic songs from the 1960s can have suhour Tuesdays to the tunes of a singer who will perform an old repertoire.
But Kahwet Azmi is not the end of the story for Hallal and his partner. In a month, he plans to open Boutique Umm Azmi. The new shop will sell traditional candies seldom found in Beirut.
“It will sell old candies ... and some Ghandour factory products which we all liked when we were kids,” Hallal said.