As any cabdriver navigating the disconcertingly sign-free streets will tell you, the Lebanese economy remains unsteady, burdened by more than $30 billion in debt, thanks to loans from abroad. The $3 billion annual payments dismay Lebanese high and low, but it's nonetheless apparent that local and foreign investors are banking on Beirut's future. Luxury hotels are sprouting along the waterfront, such as the Monroe, where the retro-chic lobby is decorated with a constellation of George Nelson starburst clocks. The once-genteel, now-gritty neighborhood of Gemmayze, a couple of blocks north of downtown, is slowly becoming a SoHo by the sea, as colorful cafés like Adam and Food Yard open on Rue Gouraud amid dilapidated 1950's apartment buildings and hole-in-the-wall spice shops. To underscore the city's rebirth, Solidère has approached some of the world's great architects, including France's Jean Nouvel, the mind behind Landmark Riad Sohl, a $150 million mixed-use complex going up on a landfill near downtown. Prada-clad Muslim beauties in color-coordinated hijabs (head scarves) lunch at People, the recently opened restaurant at the upscale Aïshti department store ("the Barneys of Beirut," Reem Acra calls it), where executive chef Franck Paulmier serves up nouvelle cuisine in a glass-walled penthouse with all-white décor. Another hot dining room is the Khoury-designed Centrale, with prime seating beneath angular tented pavilions on a garden terrace. And the dozens of raucous bars and moody nightclubs lining both sides of Rue Monot are the best in the Middle East (the happy-hour margarita ritual at the Tex-Mex restaurant and bar Pacífico is a society darling). But take note: nobody would dream of showing up until 11 p.m. or heading home until three or four in the morning, often with new friends in tow.
"Beirutis are very social," says Amer El-Masri, a 23-year-old bartender at Zinc, a seriously cool restaurant and lounge housed in a remodeled Ottoman villa in Achrafiye, a largely high-rent residential neighborhood that has its share of places to eat (like the opulent Al Mijana), fast-food spots, and antiques shops. "You sit down next to somebody at a bar and the next thing you know, you're going to dinner with them."
So, who's scooping up the latest Manolo Blahniks at the department store Aïshti and packing the dance floor at the B-018 disco?Not many Americans; at least, not yet. U.S. tourism in Lebanon, historically the most laid-back and secular of Middle Eastern countries, has all but disappeared in the last two years. But visits are up from Gulf Arabs, who are attracted as much by Beirut's party-hearty reputation ("Even during the war, people went out and had fun," says Rawya El Chab, manager of Adam restaurant) as they are by its brand-name blandishments. Downtown outposts of Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Bulgari, along with blue-chip jewelers like Aziz & Walid Mouzannar, have made the city a must-stop for oil-emirate sybarites.
It's not all flash, though. The junk shops in and around Rue Basta serve up a satisfying smorgasbord of Victorian opaline lamps, funky mid-century light fixtures, and Art Moderne furniture. Over on Rue Abdel Al-Ras in Hamra—a leafy district that has been home to the American University of Beirut and its gloriously neo-Gothic buildings since 1866—is XXe Siècle, a sunny two-story gallery where pioneering young dealer Souheil Hanna showcases mint-condition furniture and lighting from the 1940's and 50's. Maria Hibri and Hoda Baroudi's design firm Bokja keeps the bohemian set happy by upholstering old furniture in vintage textiles and selling it at invitation-only exhibitions (Hibri also co-owns Aloha, an elite flower shop with outposts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai). A couple of blocks from Hotel Phoenicia, a 1960's-swank landmark near Avenue de Paris that was restored in 2000 with wincingly bright crystal chandeliers and acres of gilt, Artisans du Liban et d'Orient sells sophisticated updates on local handicrafts, including filmy caftans that any Paris couturier would envy, modern chairs made of woven reeds, and sleek polished-steel occasional tables.
Sure, the shopping's great, the food is top-notch, but what really keeps Beirut from becoming just another storied tourist trap is the reclamation of its pre-war soul. Whatever their religious, ethnic, or political background, Beirutis are just as likely to send visitors to check out the hand-embroidered bed linens made by Muslim widows (sold at Ashghalouna, a charity shop and tearoom in the Zarif neighborhood) as they are to recommend similar wares made by refugee Palestinian Christians (you can get them at Al-Badia in Hamra). Even Lady Cochrane admits that though the buildings and gardens of her youth may be gone, the cultural cohesion of Beirut still survives. She proudly points out, "I have a Muslim daughter-in-law and an American daughter-in-law." Small wonder the proprietors of the Hard Rock Café have emblazoned a particularly resonant Beatles phrase on the building's façade: "The time will come when you see we are all one." In Beirut, that time is now.