I have been travelling quite a lot recently. Everywhere I have been, there has been talk of the credit crunch: friends losing their job, others losing much of their investments, companies going bust and property prices plummeting. Not so in Lebanon. I have been here for a few days and the place is booming. Cranes everywhere with luxurious (and not such luxurious) buildings going up wherever you look. Bentleys, Porches, BMWs and Mercedes galore; and valet parking in just about every shop and restaurant for all the fancy cars (often seen driving right next to seriously clapped out vehicles which would not be allowed on the road anywhere else in the world. All trying to get through the most awful traffic you can imagine).
And this brazen prosperity is best show-cased in the large restaurants where Lebanese families go for Sunday lunch.
This last Sunday, I went to visit my wonderful friend Reda at hisÂ house by the sea north of Beirut. We could have easily eaten on his terrace, just above the rocky beach. Saba, his housekeeper, had prepared tabbuleh with parsley from the garden and all we had to do was to order fish from the neighbouring fisherman. Am not sure why, with such a blissful setting, we decided to go out. Easier we thought. Hmm… We didn’t count on the Sunday lunch scene at fancy Lebanese restaurants, which they call casinos here. Reda lives between Paris & Beirut and I in London. I guess we forgot about that scene.
In any case, we had two choices: eitherÂ Chez Zakhia or at Mhanna sur Mer, a new branch of the famous Mhanna (in Zahle, and elsewhere), and their first with an accent on fish. I had been Chez Zakhia, several times, but never to Mhanna sur Mer. So, we decided to go there despite the fact that it was fancier than either of us would have liked. Here is the view of the entrance, going down the stairs to sea level.
Quite swish. When we got there, we didn’t even ask for a table on the terrace as it was already heaving.
Instead, we asked for a table by the window inside. No chance. So, we insisted on a table in the corner where we could still see the sea, and be somewhat away from the crowd. Lucky we nabbed it. The family who had booked it tried to reclaim it. Reda ignored them and hung on to the table while I was choosing the fish — Mhanna sur Mer, and all other fish restaurants for that matter, have a fresh fish display of fish for you to choose from. once you decide whcih fish you want, it is weighed, cooked to your liking and brought to your table, normally fairly quickly.
The waiter immediately brought us fresh broad beans, taken out of the pod and piled on ice cubes, fresh peas (v sweet) and delicious fresh green almonds. A nice change from the regular cruditÃ©s platter.
Great service, as you would expect in a Lebanese restaurant. But this was the first and last of it. After this, we were completely ignored, and when the waiter brought any food, he almost threw it at us. Highly unusual. I wondered if it was the way we were dressed: both in jeans, me in trainers and Reda in Birkenstocks, whereas the rest of the diners were all bling. It could have been our simple appearance — in Lebanon it is all about showing off — or it could have been a question of pre-tipping. At some stage, Reda noticed our neighbour, who was presiding over a table of twelve (all the same family and four generations of it), slip the waiter a 10,000 Lebanese liras note (less than $10) which meant the waiter was theirs and no one else’s. Once that money greased the waiter’s hand, no one else existed. Neither Reda, nor me were prepared to slip him any money, as a matter of principle. He was paid and we would have tipped him handsomely at the end had he been attentive.
At the end I called the waiter and in a sarcastic tone, which was completely wasted on him, I asked if he was especially assigned to the table next to us. He immediately replied: Abadan Settna, omerina (never our lady, just give the order — a respectful way of addressing middle aged ladies and older!). When I laughed and said we’d been trying to order for quite a while and not getting anywhere, he started running around trying to pay attention to us. This lasted 5 minutes! After that he went back to his patron’s table and waited on them exclusively. We finally got our food, ate it, paid and left, leaving him a paltry $3 tip.
Moral of the story: never again for Sunday lunch, at least not there. I don’t remember such bad service anywhere, even on busy weekend days. I will probably go back, on another visit to Lebanon but during the week when it is quieter. The restaurant location is divine. The fish is very fresh, and perfectly cooked. Shame about the horrible service.