Clock ticks for traditional Lebanese restaurant in Hamra
By Dalila Mahdawi
Friday, August 08, 2008
BEIRUT: In a city seeking to re-invent itself as modern and chic, there are few restaurants left in Lebanon’s capital that aspire to provide diners with the “warm and cozy atmosphere, just like home” – an environment Walimet Wardeh, also known as Wardeh, promises. Thirteen years ago, Wardeh Hawaz and two friends opened Wardeh in a former residential house on Makdessi Street in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood.
Amid a market dominated by Western fast food, Sushi and French cuisine, Walimat Wardeh al is a throw-back to “the good old days” when the taste buds of the Lebanese were still content with the fuss-free food of their grandparents.
According to Elissar Loghmaji, Hawaz’s daughter, the restaurant’s two chefs not only serve up many of the traditional Lebanese dishes ordinary people might prepare at home, but also dishes that have bizarrely been shunned by many other Lebanese restaurants.
One such dish is fawarigh, intestines stuffed with rice, spices and meat. Freek, wood-smoked wheat or barley ears served like a soup, is another.
Everyday there are three main meals on offer, with the menu set at two-week periods.
“Wardeh makes traditional, home-made food. This is the food of our mothers and grandmothers,” says Loghmaji. “My favorite dish here is molukhiya,” chopped Jewsmallow leaves cooked into a thick soup with tomatoes and chicken and served with rice, she says.
The Walimet Wardeh building is heavy with the atmosphere you might find in a Naguib Mahfouz novel, oozing with the character of a traditional Arab house – well lived in, snug and instantly comforting.
Stained glass windows give the main dining room a soft glow and traditional tiles pave the floors, with each of the restaurants four rooms boasting their own unique pattern.
“Walimet is like my baby,” says Hawaz, who says the best thing about owning a restaurant is that she constantly meets “new people from all sorts of different places.”
The scope of Wardeh goes beyond serving up hearty meals.
On Thursdays, people crowd in for Tango night, instructed by a qualified tango teacher. “He was a customer who used to come, and suggested doing the night,” Loghmaji says.
“The first night was a huge success, so we continued it,” says Loghmaji. Ziad Sahab and his band Shehadine Ya Baladna play Arabic tunes on Fridays.
A number of non-governmental organizations use the premises as a meeting point, too. Wardeh hosts the Committee of Lebanese Families in Support of Palestinian Families (CLF) for a monthly charity lunch, which raises hundreds of dollars for needy Palestinian families in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Helem, a gay and lesbian rights organization, has also used the facilities.
It seems Wardeh’s charisma has bewitched some of its customers, too.
Loghmaji recalls the first time she ever waitressed at Wardeh. “I was serving someone kibbe bi labban [a meat dish served in yogurt sauce], and I dropped it all over him.”
Rather than getting angry, “he just laughed at me,” she said.
But the restaurant’s charm comes with an expiry date.
According to Hawaz, “Wardeh is going to close in about 16 months.”
The premises, along with the greengrocer next door, will be torn down to make way for the new luxury high-rises that are rapidly eating up Beirut of its traditional architectural charm.
“We’re sad because we have been here for a long time,” says Loghmaji. “Actually, the customers,” many of whom come on a daily basis, “are sadder than we are. It’s hard, but this is life,” she says, adding that they are currently searching for a new place to re-open.
“We hope, with the current economic situation in the country, we can find a place similar to this house,” says Loghmaji.
“But really the only place with similar architecture is in Downtown,” which will cost Hawaz much more than her current $1,500 monthly rent.
“I feel a sense of loss and sadness,” says Ikram Shararah, head of the CLF.
“Wardeh was a special meeting place because of its unique, Beiruti architecture. It also served typical national dishes, in a homely, intimate setting. When it closes, we will lose one of Beirut’s beautiful faces. Lasting friendships have been formed here,” Shararah says.
A glass case near the entrance shows off photographs of Walimet’s notable guests. Among the smiling faces are the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, the late journalist Joseph Samaha, who was Hawaz’s “best friend,” and a number of politicians, artists and other public figures.
“We might find another place with good services, but nowhere will have the same homely atmosphere and beautiful architecture as Walimet Wardeh,” says Shararah.
As the saying goes, all good things come to an end.