Munching on memories: Syrian restaurants in Lebanon bring refugees together
Back in Damascus there used to be a restaurant where everyone felt at home.
Located in the heart of the capital, a short walk from the Old City and footsteps from the big hotels, Sitt Sham was a longtime favorite for locals who would meet for their morning beans and coffee and tourists who wanted an authentic meal near some of the capital’s historic sites.
Five months ago, following an 85 percent decline in business and months of patience hoping the violence in Syria would settle down, the family-owned restaurant closed its doors in Damascus and, like many of its longtime customers, found refuge in Lebanon.
Displayed in a lit-up sign above Sitt Sham’s new home in Beirut’s Verdun district are the words “Syrian and Iraqi food, open 24 hours.”
Everything about the new venue is nearly identical to the old one, from the hours the Syrian staff of 10 work to the food they make. The only exception is the freshly baked Iraqi flatbread made throughout the day by an employee from the eastern Syrian province of Raqqa. Even the customers greet one another with a familiarity reminiscent of the popular Damascus branch.
This is one of a growing number of Syrian restaurants that have relocated to areas across Lebanon, mainly in the capital. Their food offerings range from shawarma stands and home-style family cooking to desserts.
Although the food might appear identical to what is already found in Lebanon, the restaurant owners insist there are some notable differences, such as a larger selection of kibbeh and the orange flatbread made with cumin. But what really distinguishes these venues is their Syrian origins and their ability to do well in a new place in the midst of a recession and recreate familiar scenes from the country they reluctantly left behind.
“Syrian refugees see it and they’re happy. It’s something from home,” explains daytime manager Amer al-Halaqi. “Some of the same people who were customers in Syria are here now.”
Rakan Mahmoud, a Syrian who has lived in Beirut for three years, hasn’t seen the distinctive flatbread since his last journey home to see his family in Deir al-Zor – nearly a year ago now.
He rips apart a piping hot batch with relish. “I haven’t had this bread in so long,” he says.
Just over two months ago, Farouk, a Damascus restaurant that for years was frequented by Lebanese and Westerners working in Syria, opened up in Beirut’s Hamra district.
The original branch in Damascus, well-known for its mixed meat dishes, has slowed down. But as owner Ammar explains, they’re still trying to hold on as long as possible in the hope stability returns. Ammar declined to give his last name because he didn’t want his family to be associated with refugees, a term he finds both offensive and inaccurate given he has invested his own money in the shop and still returns to Damascus on a weekly basis.
Like several other Syrian restaurants who simply want to carry on with their business, he did not want a picture of his restaurant to be taken.
But not all Syrian eateries in Lebanon want to stay quiet – especially if part of their business is being over the top.
Last month, dip ’n dip, another Damascus favorite, branched out to Beirut – this time with a larger clientele because of its addictive dishes: chocolate. After it opened its doors on Bliss Street, the chocolatier was an immediate hit among Syrians who missed the swirling fountains of white, dark and milk chocolate and the large selection of desserts on tap.
Sitting at their usual spot, Walid Taleb Agha and Talal Douady, students at the American University of Science and Technology and Lebanese American University respectively, are sharing a large plate of vanilla ice cream and crepes topped with caramel and chocolate. They say they come every day – “sometimes two to three times a day,” Agha says. As they finish their first course, their next dish arrives: a plate of biscuits with chocolate dip.
When Agha arrived in Beirut last year, he says he and his friends were talking about opening a similar place to make up for the loss of their much loved haunt. Fortunately for them dip ’n dip arrived, and they now have their familiar – and addictive – place to meet up.
Dip n’ dip co-owner Abd Alsattar al-Haffar, who moved to Beirut after having to close three out of six of his branches in Damascus due to a near complete lack of business, says he knew the concept would be a hit with both Syrian and Lebanese customers.
“We knew it would work here because Lebanese like going out and trying new restaurants,” he says. He’s now looking at opening new branches in Verdun, Ashrafieh and Kaslik.
But this enthusiastic attitude to the Lebanese market didn’t come easily. It was after over a year of nearly no profits or hope that the security situation would turn around that he finally cut his losses.
The branches still open are not doing well, but he wants to keep them open for the day when Syrians start going out again for the guilty pleasure of the chocolate fountain. He also can’t stand the thought of laying off more employees with families to support.
Haffar chose Beirut instead of Amman, where he also has dip ’n dip branches, because he considers it the only city with a highway to Damascus safe enough for travel.
For now at least, he says he’s starting to feel at home in Beirut. Not only does he get to see some of his old customers from Damascus, he is also part of a new tight-knit community of Syrian restauranteurs in the Lebanese capital.