See if you can guess where Sarah Jessica Parker had dinner last time she was in London. The Wolseley? Sketch? The Ivy? The answer, believe it or not, is Beiteddine.
No, I hadn't heard of it either.
Still, she is one of the most fashionable women in the world, so maybe she was on to something. There's a building on Perry Street in New York's West Village that stood in for Carrie Bradshaw's Upper East Side apartment building on Sex and the City and busloads of tourists turn up every day just to gaze at it. If a place associated with a fictional character played by Sarah Jessica Parker on television can excite that level of interest, then Beiteddine must be destined for the stratosphere. It seemed prudent to book a table while it was still possible.
After some detective work--an electronic search of all newspapers and magazines published in the last 10 years produced only two hits--I discovered that Beiteddine is a Lebanese place about five minutes walk from Harvey Nicks. The restaurant's name is embossed in white against a blue background and the entrance is sandwiched between two bamboo trees. Unlike Fahkreldine, the upmarket Middle Eastern joint on Picadilly, there's nothing flashy about Beiteddine. It's so authentic it could easily be situated in one of the nicer parts of Beirut. Indeed, the five brothers who own it learnt their trade in an almost identical restaurant back in the home country.
Booking a reservation, it turns out, isn't strictly necessary. On the night I went there with my wife--a Wednesday--only two other tables were occupied and within 10 minutes of arriving we were alone. As soon as we sat down, a waiter appeared with a silver bowl full of fresh vegetables--carrots, radishes, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber--and, as a result, Beiteddine immediately scored a huge number of points with my vegetarian wife. Presumably, this is the juncture at which you're supposed to order some hommos and Lebanese cream cheese to dip the vegetables in, but we were so hungry we attacked them like a couple of rabbits and they were all gone within five minutes.
The interior is very traditional: fitted carpets, white linen table clothes, chairs upholstered with red velvet. The only pictures on the wall are framed posters produced by the Lebanese Tourist Board. I imagine it remains completely unchanged since it opened 15 years ago. Nevertheless, there's something rather reassuring about the fact that so few concessions have been made to the tastes of the passing foot traffic. It's situated right next door to Baby Dior, but I don't suppose a single customer has come out of that shop and dropped in to Beitteddine for lunch. Sarah Jessica Parker is probably the only Hollywood movie ever to darken its door.
Is it possible that the food had something to do with it? My wife's hommos and haloum starters, accompanied by warm, home made pitta bread, were both exquisite and my mixed grill was perfect. The baclava, too, was among the best I've ever had. Earlier in the day, in a fit of uncharacteristic professionalism, I dropped into Beiteddine Express--a fast food branch of the same restaurant in Curzon Street--and had a shawarma lamb kebab which was light, velvety and fresh. If Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, then Beiteddine and its sister restaurant are the Lebanese equivalent of the Hotel de Crillon.
On the face of it, the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker chose to eat at Beiteddine, above any other restaurant, is rather baffling. (It's about as fashionable as a khaki safari suit.) But after having spent an evening there, I can't say I'm all that surprised. It's a well-run, down-to-earth restaurant serving unpretentious Lebanese cuisine. I'm not normally a fan of Middle Eastern food, but Beiteddine won me over. Next time my wife decides to drag me round Harvey Nicks, I might well sneak off for a quick kebab.