For a small country, Lebanon packs a big punch: in flavor, hospitality, culture, and in so much more. It is, consistently, one of the places most travelers report being endlessly surprised and enchanted by – and one that is often embroiled in the tensions of its region.
Anthony Bourdain visited Beirut three times, to film season 2 (episode 13?, “Beirut”) of No Reservations, season 6 (episode 21, “Back to Beirut”) of No Reservations, and season 5 (episode 8, “Beirut”) of Parts Unknown. As you might expect, these three episodes sought to create a full picture of Tony’s experience in the city, which was truncated during his first trip.
The Beirut trilogy of Anthony Bourdain shows is often considered his tour de force, and rightfully so. Visiting the beautiful city as he did three times between 2006 and 2015, Bourdain not only experienced the tremendous heart of its people, but also their incredible hospitality and a dazzling array of food.
If you’re planning a trip to Lebanon, you should absolutely use this guide to the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Beirut to inspire your own discovery of this city’s (and country’s) incredible culture and cuisine. Read on to learn about each place and what Tony ate there.
Want to watch the episodes where Anthony Bourdain visits Beirut?
The “Beirut” No Reservations episode is available on Max, the “Back to Beirut” No Reservations episode is available on Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV, and the Parts Unknown episode is available on Amazon and Apple TV.
No Reservations (2006)
Anthony Bourdain’s first visit to Beirut is notorious: he arrived and filmed as the city fell into war. Instead of turning off the cameras, Tony and the team decided to document what they experienced, including the purgatory that came before their evacuation. Here’s where they ate before that happened.
Beginning his first trip in 2006, Tony’s first stop is Le Chef, an establishment, he notes, not too dissimilar to a New York diner in terms of its friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
A mezze of starters is produced, including hummus, various tapas, and the meat of the day. Tony is also introduced for the first time to two items that will feature recurrently – arak and kibbeh.
Arak is a distilled Levantine spirit of the anise family, giving it a sharp taste akin to ouzo, and it is drunk before (and during) meals as both an aperitif and palette cleanser served with a single ice cube and topped up with water.
Kibbeh, a bulgur like wheat, is served in a myriad of ways. In Le Chef, the preferred method is stuffed with mincemeat and baked in the oven like a pizza, then served with yogurt sauce and pitta.
Following a contrasting night of vodka Redbulls and jets swooping low across the sky, Bourdain meets with local journalist Ramsay Short, as they visit Restaurant Barbar, a legendary juice and shawarma bar catering to the late-night crowd.
Shawarma is a Middle Eastern version of the gyro – marinated roast lamb, veal, or chicken is shaved off a spit, wrapped in pitta, and served with hummus and vegetables. One of those perfect night-time meals that is designed around soaking up any excess alcohol in one’s system.
Overnight, however, the political situation escalates, and the team was relocated to the Royal Hotel overlooking the city for the duration of their trip. Bourdain is given access to the kitchen to cook for the crew his version of French comfort food.
For this, he selects a recipe immortalized in his Les Halles cookbook – daube provençale. This timeless dish marries the rich flavor of seared lamb with layers of aromatic garlic, onions, and spring vegetables, all slow-cooked in a Dutch oven with potatoes to perfection, before being served.
Following this, the crew enjoys a final meal aboard the USS Nashville as they are evacuated, a less inspired but equally well-received tuna noodle casserole with macaroni and cheese. Comfort food which Bourdain remarks has “never tasted so good.”
No Reservations (2010)
After the political situation calmed down, Bourdain was eager to return to Beirut and tell the story he wanted people to see: not of Emmy-award winning war documentary footage, but of welcoming people and incredible food. His second trip included some of the same spots as his first, as well as others he meant to visit but was prevented from doing so.
Returning to Beirut in 2010, Anthony Bourdain begins his second visit to the city much like the first, in the legendary local spot of Le Chef, still open and still famed for its simple, straightforward homestyle classics.
In addition to the arak and kibbeh, on the menu, this time is also hummus with pine nuts and ground beef, and maghmour, a velvety eggplant dish with tomatoes, chickpeas, and onion.
Pierre & Friends Beach Club/Souk el Tayeb Green Market
After meeting with old friend Ramsay Short at the Pierre & Friends Beach Club for a couple of cold beers, Bourdain’s next stop is the Souk El Tayeb market. This pioneering project, headed by Kamal Mouzawak, aims to bring sustainable food sources to the forefront, as well as allows a forum for local producers to share their wares.
The market trip turns into a pre-lunch smorgasbord, as Bourdain samples in-season figs and mulberries, seaweed pie, carrot kibbeh, olive bread, potato kibbeh, kibbeh with spinach, and a unique sandwich made with locally grown roasted thistle plants.
Tawlet Mar Mikhael
As part of the same project, the next stop is the restaurant of Tawlet Mar Mikhael. Here, experimental local cooks are allowed free reign to contribute to the ever-rotating buffet menu on offer.
For Tony’s visit, the dishes are indeed varied. There is lahmajoon, a type of Armenian meat pie, served with a seasonal salad of artichokes & fava beans, and a delicious array of pickles, as well as fal (a type of medame) and balila (Lebanese warm chickpeas).
There is more kibbeh, as is to be expected by now, but this one is slightly different. Not for the faint-hearted (which thankfully, Bourdain is most definitely not), this variation is slices of raw meat and raw liver, with thick creamy dollops of raw fat on the side, served together with pitta bread.
And of course, there is plenty of arak to wash everything down!
A different flavor now, as Tony visits Onno, a restaurant specializing in Lebanese-Armenian fusion cuisine. With such a rich joint culinary pedigree, the dishes are as spectacular as one might expect.
For starters, Bourdain tries cracked bulgur wheat with chili, more kibbeh of raw lamb, another kibbeh of lentils which is similar in texture to hummus, as well as boreg, filo pastry squares filled with sheep’s milk cheese, more hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and batata harra, spicy potatoes seasoned with coriander, chili, and garlic which are all fried together in olive oil.
The main course meats then arrive, consisting of spicy sujuk sausage, and a bone marrow dish wherein the marrow is lightly grilled and dusted with paprika, not too dissimilar to how they serve squid in Northern Spain. There are also tiny whole cooked sparrows seared and cooked in butter, then basted with molasses until crispy, meaty, and delicious, as well as fried chicken livers, and finishing with kebab karaz, lamb cooked in a sweet cherry sauce.
Frank Wurst Hotdog (CLOSED)
Despite the previous grandiose feeding, there is always time for street food, and as we know, Anthony Bourdain is a big fan of such things. Stopping first at the now sadly closed Frank Wurst hotdog, he requests the local variety favorite – a BBQ and chili sauce hotdog.
Musing as he chows down, Bourdain remarks that “street meat knows no borders, and requires only enough alcohol and the slightly lower standards of those who have had three too many Jaeger shots”.
Falafel M Sayhoun
Not feeling quite satiated, there is also a stop at the local Falafel M Sayhoun shop. Well, two shops actually. Reputedly owned by two brothers who no longer speak, these adjacent establishments offer similar menus, and there is partisan discussion as to which is best. Nevertheless, the basis of the dishes remains the same – falafel served with parsley, mint, radish, tomato, and chili, topped with yogurt sauce and served in a thin and delicate pitta
Unknown Food Stand (near the Ancient City of Baalbek)
A rare aside on No Reservations, as Anthony Bourdain visits some of the finest and largest preserved Roman ruins in the world at the city of Baalbek, formerly known as Heliopolis. The archaeological park has a selection of stalls and restaurants to feed the tourists, and at one such place, Tony tries sfeehas, a delicious Middle Eastern appetizer.
Made with a crispy dough and filled with a spiced meat filling (lamb in this instance), together with tomato, parsley, and spices including sumac and pepper, these are baked in the oven, ensuring an exquisite mix of searing heat and flavored lamb grease as you bite into them
Massaya Vineyard (Along the Syrian border)
A missed connection from his 2006 trip, Bourdain next visits the Massaya Vineyard, where they make high-quality arak, together with red and white tables wines, with a focus on young and fruity bottles.
In addition, there is a restaurant on-site where the food is cooked by “Lebanese grandmas”, traditional in every sense of the word. Served up are dishes of potato salad with parsley and nuts, spaghetti with yogurt, cabbage salad, grilled eggplant, sliced tomato and halloumi cheese, pasta with leban, a local sheep’s milk cheese, as well as labneh, another local cheese.
There are also fresh runner beans, chicken shish kabob, flame-roasted shawarma, freekeh – a type of roasted green durum wheat cereal –, and kibbeh bil sanieh – kibbeh baked in a tray to give it a delicious roasted flavor. And, as is now a running a theme, yet more arak.
Reflecting on his second time in-country, Anthony Bourdain sees a place that is seemingly everything all at once, with its verdant valleys and Roman ruins, international jet setters and traditional farmers, and, of course, amazing food and drink.
Parts Unknown (2015)
A third and final trip was always going to be on the cards, and Anthony Bourdain returned to Beirut in 2015 to film Parts Unknown. Stepping into one of his favorite places on the planet, he remarks, “there’s no place else even remotely like it. Everything great, and all the world’s ills in one glorious, messed up, magnificent and maddening city.”
Visiting a different side of things, this trip focuses more on the people of Beirut, but that doesn’t mean that the food takes a backseat.
Broasted Rizk (Beirut)
Similar to Barber from many years ago, Broasted Rizk is a traditional fried chicken and shawarma establishment that offers late-night satiation to its patrons. Accompanied again by Ramsay Short, as well as the long chapter of Harley Davidson owners, Tony enjoys some fried chicken and crispy fries.
Unknown Street Café
Tony’s next stop is at a streetside eatery near the Borj El Brajneh neighborhood, joined by Nick Paton Walsh, CNN international correspondent, where they discuss the local situation with a meal of lamb and chickpeas pressure cooked until tender, and served with an assortment of vegetables.
(If you know where this is, please let me know so I can add it to this post!)
Tony next meets with local author Joumana Haddad. Their lunch consists of lamb koftas with yogurt sauce and cranberries, stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbeh balls with ground beef, bulgur wheat, and pine nuts, and tabbouleh salad, made mostly of finely chopped parsley, with tomatoes, mint, onion, soaked uncooked bulgur, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and sweet pepper.
(Again, if you know the name of this establishment, please let me know in the comments.)
The final trip to this mesmerizing city ends at Abu Elie, a Communist-themed bar set in a tower block and considered by many to be the best in the city. Accompanied one last time by Ramsay Short, Bourdain meets with the owner’s son and wife who together serve up homemade shanklish, a type of cheese made by curdling yogurt, straining and fermenting it, alongside fresh vegetables and bulgur wheat, as well as more spiced lamb kibbeh.
Throughout his trips to Beirut, under strikingly different circumstances each time, Anthony Bourdain has shown a city that is burgeoned under the weight of its own beauty, replete with the full view of what humanity shows us. A place that can change the cramped cynical worldview of a man who had only seen life through the narrow prism of the restaurant kitchen, and a perfect encapsulation of the message that food and a few drinks always brings people together.
Have any questions about the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Beirut, or how to experience incredible Lebanese hospitality and cuisine? Let me know in the comments below!