The restaurant waiter had the deepest baritone I’d ever heard. ‘Welcome!’ he boomed, ushering us inside. Menus were battered and the decor looked like it hadn't been updated for decades, but we took our seats with the promise of a good meal.
My partner was a regular diner here when she lived in Beirut more than 15 years earlier. And to our delight, the staff remembered her, overjoyed she’d come back to order her favourite dish.
The experience sums up Beirut: a bit worn around the edges, but keen to welcome you in with an optimistic smile, and feed you until you burst with a succession of tasty meals. I didn’t start to understand the city properly until I began to explore the place on foot.
On any given street, I’d come across extraordinary buildings, ranging from Ottoman mansions to 1930s art deco, and concrete brutalism to gleaming modern glass. A new apartment block seemed to float over the remains of a painstakingly reconstructed Roman bath, uncovered during its construction.
Some of the facades of these buildings show the pockmarks of bullet holes from the civil war, but my guide on one of my explorations, Marc Ghazali, was keen to dispel the notion that everything still revolved around a conflict that finished nearly 30 years ago.
There is so much else to talk about, he insisted, and pointed out how the celebrated reconstruction of the ravaged downtown had pushed locals out of the centre, but it had also helped spur creative life in districts that are now buzzing with cafés, galleries and bars.
Beirut has existed for 5,000 years he implied, but it’s a city that’s always looking forward. Beirut is also the centre of a country that’s so small most parts of it can be reached from the capital within little more than two hours.
Throw in its location (less than a five-hour flight from London, with a minimal time zone shift) and pleasing climate, and the city becomes surprisingly ideal for an adventurous getaway…