Pubs booming in traditional Jbeil souk
JBEIL, Lebanon, May 25 -- On a jazz music background mixed up with laughs, Frozia Khalifé, an 18-year-old evasive-look customer, is waiting for her drink at a small squared-shaped and dark-brown wooden table with a round candle on the top. She is looking at Jbeil's old souk setting, which appears even more picturesque than usual at the candle light. The tall and thin elegantly-dressed owner of La Paz pub, Tarek Hamdar, brings his tavern’s specialty: a colorful alcoholic cocktail called Sex on La Paz. The red-pink cocktail drink has a strawberry, watermelon and mint skewer on it, which makes the aroma of the cocktail even more appealing. Khalifé sniffs her drink with apparent apprehension, and tasted it shyly. Hamdar waits patiently.
After a brief pause, she smiles and says “That’s delicious.”
Since last year, four new pubs established in the city, said Zaher Abi Ghosn and La Paz is one of them, said Zaher Abi Ghosn, head of the Technical Office of Jbeil city hall
The two-week-old pub La Paz, located on Jbeil old souk was also one on the first ten bars of Jbeil to take advantage of city hall’s opening souk to pubs, added Hamdar.
Indeed, every year starting from May 1st until end of October, the city hall allow Jbeil’s pubs to rent a part of the old souk main street to lay out terraces and attract more visitors during the touristic period, said Abi Ghosn.
The city hall has a delicate task to accomplish because officials needs to the space need to be distributed according to the pubs’ surface but without blocking the way for people who want to have a walk in the souk, Ghosn said. This year each pub will have to pay LL400,000 (about $264) per month per square meter, he added.
Even though some pubs cannot afford to pay so much, the result is worth the trouble, said Pierre Rouhana, manager of Barbacane pub in Jbeil.
Barbacane has an average of 30 customers per day, Rouhana said, but in summer it can go up until 300 consumers. La Paz had 400 customers in one weekend, Hamdar said.
“Jbeil is a city full of promises,” Ghosn said. With 60,000 inhabitants, the city represents an important market for nightlife industry, he added.
Moreover, the city has a strategic position between Beirut and Tripoli, the two biggest cities in Lebanon, said Jean Younes, manager of Mint pub in Batroun. Jbeil is less than an hour's drive from each city.
“Jbeil might take an important part of our customers,” added Younes.
The city benefits from several advantages over nightlife areas such as Gemmayze or Batroun, and it could attract people from all over Lebanon, said Rouhana and Hamdar.
Jbeil has a beautiful, historic setting which attracts tourists during summer, said Rouhana. Usually people come have a walk in Jbeil, eat in a restaurant, and then they go in a pub to prolong the evening.
Jbeil’s pubs are favored to Gemmayze or Batroun because they are located in a pedestrian-friendly zone, and not along an automobile traffic-congested avenue, said Hamdar. This position allows the pubs to have terraces, which is attractive and practical in summer. The city also has several private and public parking lots.
All theses advantages work together to create a calm, restful and yet joyful atmosphere that does not exist in Beirut or Batroun, El Khoury said. The rhythm of life is less stressful because there are no traffic jams, and the music is relaxing and on a low volume compare to other nightlife spots.
“In Jbeil, nothing is in excess,” Ghosn said.
In Gemmayze, pubs close at 1:30 a.m. That means some customers extend their night out in Jbeil, Rouhana said. Ten days ago, seven people came from Sinn el Fil, a Beirut suburb, to continue their evening in Barbacane. They stayed until 3:30 a.m., Rouhana said. Pubs in Jbeil's souk area stay open until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., because they're not in a residential area, Hamdar said.
Jbeil’s constant pub development endangers Batroun nightlife, Younes said.
“I think that Batroun night activity is on a descendant curve because of Jbeil’s continuing nightlife growth,” he added.
Hayssam Khoury is manager of Switch pub in Batroun, which opened just weeks ago. Already, he said he regrets not having found a place in Jbeil.
“In two or three years, Jbeil will be the second major nightlife spot after Beirut,” Khoury said.
Jbeil nightlife does not necessarily threaten Beirut night activity. Not everyone chooses to continue an evening in Jbeil, said Rami Bitar, a customer of pubs in both Beirut and Jbeil.
Jbeil is exclusively dedicated to pubs while in Gemmayze or Batroun you also have the choice to go clubbing, Younes said.
Jbeil’s calm atmosphere can be seen as an advantage, but it also can do the city a disservice, added Bitar.
The sound level in Jbeil must be moderated to allow the different pubs in the souk to exist in close quarters, Ghosn said. Since all the pubs are outside in summer, each one must be able to create the atmosphere it wishes without being disturbed by the music of another pub, he added.
Jbeil also lacks nightclubs, which discourage some young people to come party in the city, Rouhana said. Many young people go to Gemmayze before going partying in a nightclub, so the fact that it closes at 1:30 a.m does not really bother anyone, said Tony Asmar, a former bartender at Melting Pot pub in Gemmayze. If people want to continue their evening into pubs, they also can choose other Beirut’s areas like Monot or Hamra, said Asmar.
Beirut attracts clients from the north, the center and even the south of Lebanon, said Asmar.
Another plus for Beirut over Jbeil remains in the fact that the customers usually are more open-minded than in other Lebanon’s areas, said Asmar. Parties in Beirut are well-known for their crazy atmosphere.
The lack of nightclubs is Jbeil does not prevent the nightlife activity to increase slowly yet surely, Ghosn said. People who come to Jbeil are looking for a special atmosphere they cannot find in Batroun or Beirut, said Rouhana. Jbeil vibes with peaceful but joyful ambiance, and not at a crazy partying atmosphere, said Ghosn said.
The atmosphere in Jbeil is more refined and subtle, said Hamdra. In some years, Jbeil will become the nightlife capital of Lebanon,” added Hamdar.