A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Seating dilemmas at Beirut restaurants

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 7, 2008

My social calendar is filled with dinners out. I do know how to cook, but as a former Manhattanite I try not to make too frequent use of that knowledge.

Dining out in Beirut bears some resemblances to dining out in New York, but I find that there are a few key differences – all of which I have experienced this week.

The first is a global issue: that of the vast gulf – or perhaps reservoir – separating well-watered Americans from the rest of the world. You may die of thirst before a Beirut waiter brings you an additional bottle of water (or refills your glass) – but of course the same thing can happen anywhere in Europe.

Americans must be the most hydrated people on earth, I remember A saying one afternoon while visiting me in Paris in November 2005. We were lunching at a place he knew from Beirut, oddly enough, and I had just finished asking for yet another piché d’eau from our rather amused waiter.

Amused at ourselves as well, we toasted our aquatic innards and sloshily carried on our merry way, wandering through A’s favorite Paris haunts.

When it comes to water consumption, I recognize that my high-volume compatriots are in the minority, world-wide. Its the other differences that give me more trouble: differences of size and location, or what I like to think of as “seating dilemmas”.

Dilemma one: location.

On Tuesday, H and I tried a new-to-us Thai restaurant in Achrafieh, Monk’s. For those of you in Beirut who love food with real flavor, we cannot recommend Monk’s highly enough. In fact, we are seriously thinking of going back there tonight.

And if you are wondering where the restaurant is, let me tell you. Monk’s is quite easy to find: its across the street from the mosque.

Tee hee hee. That sentence is funnier if you know Beirut: Achrafieh is a very – some might say aggressively – Christian neighborhood. As far as we can tell, there is only one mosque: the Beydoun, with an architectural motif that might best be described as “fortified against attack”. So when you find the mosque, look across the street for the bamboo poles, and voila, you will have found Monk’s.

We arrived just before 8 pm, which is rather early for dinner here. The restaurant was empty, save one table of three pashmina-clad, French-speaking women.

One table full, seven tables empty (most seating six diners, to accommodate Beirutis’ preference for large-group dining – which I’ll get to below). Where did the maitre d’ suggest we sit? At the one table located right next to the trio of women, naturellement.

This is where I must, as a New Yorker, protest.

In New York, politeness dictates that if there is space available, you do not crowd up against a stranger.

Why? Because if you are riding an empty subway car, or sitting on an empty park bench, and a stranger comes up and sits directly next to you, he or she is most likely CRAZY. Maintaining a polite distance is a way of signaling that you are NORMAL.

So I made disgruntled, I-might-be-a-bit-crazy-myself noises until H and the maitre agreed that yes, we could sit at the six-top a decent table’s space away from the be-shawled trio.

Monk’s food is so good that it would still have been worth it to dine cheek-by-jowl with the French speakers, but … I like elbow room. Not to mention the chance to visibly reaffirm my sanity to total strangers.

Dilemma two: size.

Real estate in Manhattan is brutally expensive (although of course it pales next to London). Between the small tables and the difficulty of getting reservations at hot boites, going out for dinner is an activity for two, four, or at most six people. Anything larger requires a major logistical effort, involving set menus and separate rooms.

But my preference for small group dining goes beyond the planning stages: its a personal quirk as well. I find that groups of eight and above seated at the same table tend to have a series of confused half conversations, as my fellow diners’ attention gets pulled back and forth across the table. And if you are seated in the middle, you can find yourself in a dinner no man’s land: too far for drinks refills and the mezzeh plates, and near-but-not-in the conversations.

I wish I were better tempered about large group meals – I wish I were, in the language of our family, a “good sport”. But I’m not: I’m a total grouch when it comes to dinners of ten and above.

Thank goodness my more sociable Lebanese friends put up with me: much as I kvetch about big group meals, I would be a sad little diamond if I had to dine alone :)!

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One Response to “Seating dilemmas at Beirut restaurants”

  1. intlxpatr said

    i’m with you, Little Diamond, I go out to dinner for good conversation as well as a good meal, and when it gets more than six, it’s hard to keep conversation central enough.

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