If the entire extent of your knowledge about "The Lebanon" comes from that awful '80s track by The Human League, then we hate to break it to you, buddy, but you're old. Like, really old. Lebanese food is something that should really be very much on your radar. There's not many eating experiences than can match dipping a piping hot pita into a mass of smoky baba ghanouj. And, thankfully, in today's day and age, you won't struggle to find a restaurant specialising in the best of Lebanon's traditional food and drink in the capital.
London hasn't always been such a vibrant and welcome melting pot of different cultures, however. It wasn't until the escalation of Lebanon's civil war in the mid-1970s that thousands of Lebanese people were forced to move to the city in search of a new life. Displaced from their homeland, many sought to establish roots back to Lebanon through various restaurants, cafés, coffee shops, and bakeries purveying the dishes they grew up eating. For the benefit of, well, pretty much everyone.
Heaping tagines introduced eaters to exotic spices – such as cardamom, za'atar and saffron – while offering a new savoury context to familiar ingredients like dried fruit. The British palate soon found itself embracing these robust flavours in full-force. Hummus has since become part of the nation's culinary and cultural lexicon. The unfortunate consequence of that, of course, being that dessert hummus is now regrettably a thing. It's an abomination compared to Lebanese sweets like kunafi, baklava and ma'amoul, but if you ever needed concrete proof that levantine food has hit the mainstream, all you have to do is gander at an over-earnest pot of choco-chickpea spread.
As a cultural meeting point between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds, Lebanon is itself no stranger to a clash of convention, having successfully bridged the gap between the two cultures and earned its moniker as the "Switzerland of the Middle East" back in the '60s. We're a while away from the '60s now (again, sorry you're so old), but if you do want to experience some of the best Lebanese food that London has to offer in 2019, we recommend that you look no further than the following list of restaurants and cafés. Yallah.
75 Westbourne Grove, W2 4UL
"Al Waha" literally translate to mean "the Oasis" – which, if you've recently found yourself in a bit of a food desert, is rather fitting. Open from noon till 11pm every night of the week, Al Waha is chef and owner Mohammad Bader-Alden Antabil's ode to Lebanese cuisine. The express set lunch menu that runs till 5pm is a great way to taste a range of the region's finest food. Available for £13.50 per person, it's also an absolute bargain considering the quality of the spread. If you opt for the a la carte we'd highly recommend plucking up the courage to order the kibbeh nayyeh (minced raw lamb mixed with spices, finely ground bulgur wheat and topped with raw onions) – a dish that will remind you of the outstanding flavour potential of raw meat. It's best enjoy spooned onto fresh breads as a scorned plate of claggy beef tartare stares on enviously from outside the window. Cooked meats and lovingly singed mixed grills are still available for the less brave, mind. Colin Firth once named Al Waha as one of his favourite restaurants in London. And when has lovely, dreamy Colin ever been wrong about anything before?
21 Edgware Rd, W2 2JE
Maroush restaurant was first opened on Edgware Road by Marouf Abouzaki and his wife Houda back in 1981. The restaurant has since expanded into something of a mezze empire; encompassing multiple Maroush, Ranoush, and Beirut Express outlets across the city – all serving fresh Lebanese cuisine to London's hungry hummus lovers. Although the bakehouse in Earl's Court has a strong case for having London's finest manakeesh, it's the original Edgware Road location (affectionately referred to as Maroush 1) that remains Maroush's most must-visit Levantine locale in our books. Spread across two floors, the restaurant can seat over 150 people, yet you'll still the find the place packed to the gills most nights of the week. And for good reason, too. Perfectly spiced soujok sausages and rich, full-bodied foul moudamas round out a hard-to-top hot mezze selection. Maroush also work hard to ensure that landfill usage is kept to zero in all of their production kitchens and that the restaurants' waste food materials are recycled and used in energy generation. It's a good deed to match a damn good feed.
Abd el Wahab
1-3 Pont Street, SW1X 9EJ
Authentic can be a funny old word. It's not easy to tell what food actually counts as 'authentic' (or whether that even matters) when there's so many varied options out there. And it's getting increasingly more difficult to ascertain who has the right to dole out that 'authentic' stamp of authority. Regardless, Abd el Wahab is a restaurant that appears to be firmly in the ilk of traditional Lebanese cuisine. The restaurant, which originated on a street of the same name in Lebanon's capital of Beirut, is all about Middle Eastern feasting: expect bountiful mezze, charcoal-grilled meat and a lengthy list of Lebanese wines. You'd be a fool not to get the lamb shank ouzi somewhere near your table, too. Tender lamb meets a rich liquor of parsley and allspice, while the accompanying rice is lifted with toasted pistachio and almond. This isn't complex or purposefully fancy dining, it's straight-up Arabic comfort food – the kind of food you can eat in spades.
8-9 William Street, SW1X 9HL
Belgravia is so full of twee tea shops, florists and more embassies than we can shake (or should that be sheikh?) a stick at, that we never really know what to do when we're there. Don't get us wrong: seeing how the other half live can be a nice way to feel morose about our own dwindling bank accounts but, let's be honest, we're less about dainty mews and more about moutabel here at Foodism. Which is why we're glad Ishbilia has made itself a staple part of Belgravia's busy Middle Eastern dining scene since 1998. Because if you truly want to forget your financial worries and eat like a king, this is the place to come. Robust charcoal grills and kofta take centre stage alongside fresh sesame bread and pita delivered to your table straight from the Ishbilia oven. With over a hundred dishes to choose from, you might find it hard to narrow down your selection to a few choice plates. So don't. Just eat it all, overdraft be damned. There's even a mezze bar downstairs where you can swim your way through a sea of silky hummus. Which just so happens to be our favourite form of exercise.
6-8 Kenway Rd, SW5 0RR
Orjowan is a family-run restaurant that knows how to make sure you have a good time. Standout dishes include lahem bil ajin (aka Lebanese pizza) – a crisp flatbread that's topped with a mixture of spicy minced lamb, tomatoes, onions, and sprinkling of pine nuts before being baked in Orjowan's stone oven. Even if your pathetic spice threshold means you usually tap out around lemon and herb, you'll be well-catered for at Orjowan thanks to the restaurant's welcoming mix of milder and spicier menu items. Don't fear if you do go a little above your station with the heat levels because the banana shakes are made fresh to order and are without a doubt the thickest and fruitiest way to cool your palate. It's rather difficult to find fault with Orjowan. I mean, just how badly can things go wrong at a place where a vast selection of Lebanese wines and a karaoke lounge are both within such easy reach?
70 Mitcham Road, SW17 9NA
Meza rather unsurprisingly specialises in meza (or mezze). So, stop buying those sad little pots of reduced-fat hummus and make your way to Tooting for an arsenal of Lebanese small plates that will put even the most doting teta to shame. Baths of baba ghanouj, hummus, and moutabel are so soft you'll want to slather them on just about everything as tart salads of fattoush and tabbouleh provide the perfect hit of acid and sumac to cut through that creaminess. Also, a word from the wise here: if you get asked whether you want an extra flat bread? Say yes. Because you'll absolutely be pestering the staff for more once you tear your way into the first pillowy pita. It's really quite an a-meza-ing place (we're so... Not sorry).
101 Edgware Road, W2 2HX
If you've ever wanted to eat the physical embodiment of Lebanon's unique mixture of European and Arab culture, look no further than the lamb and chicken shawarma baguette sandwiches at Al Arez. They're crispy, tangy, greasy, glorious and...let's face it: you definitely want one now, don't you? Al Arez has been so successful that it's spawned a number of spin-off restaurants and express cafes throughout London. The primary sequel, Al Arez 2, is thankfully a lot more Godfather II than Speed 2: Cruise Control and just as worth a visit as the OG Al Arez. Even if mixed grills and shaved meat aren't your thing, vegetarian dishes like bamieh b'zeit stew (okra slow cooked with tomatoes and onions) are hearty and warming and given just as much attention as their carnal counterparts. Wash your meal down with a fresh fruit juice and enjoy the bustling atmosphere.
76 Jason Court, W1U 2SJ
Take a short detour from the tourist-laden Oxford Circus and you can find yourself safe and sound in Levant; a little slice of Lebanon on Wigmore Street. Sambouseks are stuffed with fragrant fillings of chicken, prawns, lamb, halloumi or spinach. All delicious, all guaranteed to have you thumbing at the pastry shards clung to your plate after you've eaten six of them in quick succession. Cocktails with names like 'Habibi' and 'Rihanna' sum up the feel-good vibe but it's still the food you should really be focussing on. Have no fear if you're on a budget, either. Levant's signature feast menus are an affordable way to eat your way through the flavours of Beirut with the help of a couple of mates. Eating at Levant is all about the shared experience of enjoying the food you love with those you hold most dear. Followed, of course, by a bitter fight to the death over the last piece of lamb kofta.
1 Rainville Rd, W6 9HA
Take your friends to Mes Amis. Take your family to Mes Amis. Take your enemies to Mes Amis. You'll be in for a good time regardless of who you take in tow. Simply entering the kitsch Hammersmith restaurant – where the clatter of cutlery spars with Elvis Presley's crooning dominance of the sound system – is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. A smile that won't leave your face until your plate is empty. The menu isn't the most expansive, or expensive, but just about every dish is done well. While you might come initially for the charming Instagram aesthetic, it's the lovely mezze that will ensure a return trip. Be warned though: Mes Amis has a pretty (read: very) small interior and is only open from 7pm - 11:30pm. Expect it to be absolutely rammed no matter the time and book ahead to avoid disappointment.
020 7385 5155