Eat and Drink in Damascus, What the Lonely Planet left out


On the plane in my last two trips to Syria, Western to Syrian passengers ratio was more than 8:2. On both occasions not a single free seat on the plane. I can't explain how happy this makes me. Since 2005 Syria has been in a relative isolation. The Bush administration stupid strategy of "you are with us or against us" leading to class Syria within the Access of Evil really damaged Syria's image in the West. Over these few years Syria has been unfairly represented in Western Media leading to further stigmatising the image of the country.

Now this tide has turned. Western visitors tourists and politicians alike are queuing to visit the country. Tourism is on an all time high and the country's image in the media and people minds has significantly improved. Positive articles and reports of beaming tourism are published almost every week on the BBC website. A quick search of the national papers travel pages over the last year showed 7 articles in the Guardian, 6 in The Times, couple in the Independent and the Telegraph and even the awful Daily Mail published 5 articles since the turn of 2009. Even Jamie Oliver's magazine featured Damascus and Beirut in its third issue.

This high rise of tourists influx into the country was not matched with a much needed improvement in tourist information. For the Western visitor information on the net or on print is rare and hardly reliable. The leading traveller's guide to Syria remains The Lonely Planet. Every other person including myself is carrying the blue book in the Old City. Typically everybody is doing what the book is telling them to. This is most obvious in Laila's restaurant case. The place got major praise from the guide and when I went there everybody inside was a tourist. To my great disappointment the place was awful. Food is cold and tasteless, service is slow and the dining room (inside yard) was cold and uninviting.

That disappointment brought this post. If you don't know where to eat in Damascus hopefully you will look here and get some ideas. These places are not all for the average two days visitor. Some of them need a special trip and some are only for the most adventurous of gourmets but all of them are local favourites. Here is my pick of the best food in Damascus:

1. Narenj: To me this is by far the best restaurant in Damascus. They serve a very good collection of modern Syrian dishes. Their menu show case some local specialties from different regions of Syria. You would never have the chance to sample these dishes if not for this place. What makes this restaurant a cut over the rest apart from the great food is the attention to details. The restaurant is located in the middle of Medhat Basha St. (Straight Street) By the Roman arch.

2. Fateyer Al-Shaalan: Although there is hundreds of Fatayer ovens all over the city this one remains the locals favourite. They serve all the usual Pizza-like breads with different toppings. The place may not be easy to find, the best place to get there is taking a taxi to Al-Shaalan and wounder about to see the "Tanabel" market (Lazybones market) where all vegetables are ready prepared and wrapped in individual plastic bags ready for the pot, Fatayer Al-Shaalan is around the corner. Check the photos below and I am sure you will make the trip.






3. Bouz Al-Jedi: Don't let the shabby exterior fool you. The place is always packed with the full spectrum of the Syrian society, from workers and builders to arty-type Higher Institute of Theatre students. The place serves Foul and Fatteh. If you don't know what these are, watch this space I will be writing about them soon. The restaurant in Al-Shaalan around the corner the Fatayer place.




4. Midan Jazmatiyeh: This is foodies heaven in Damascus. The street is lined start to finish with food shops and restaurants selling all kinds of stuff. Arabic sweets in shop windows in huge 5ft piles. Cheese, olive, Falafel, Shawerma, Fatayer, grills, camel meat kebab all in one place, you will never know how to start and where to finish. The place is open day and night but don't go there before 10 in the evening when it is busiest and most atmospheric. The next two places are in this street.

5. Al-Mouselli Shwerma: I will let you read what Tim Franks from the BBC wrote:
"Two unreservedly happy memories. I ate the best shawarma I think I will ever have... It came from al-Mousali, a road-side emporium with a few plastic chairs, in the Jazmatiyeh district of Damascus. The meat was beef, unusually. It was as flavoursome as the roast at the Savoy Grill. It came in a delicate sauce of sour pomegranate. It was wrapped in evanescently thin laffa bread, and came with fresh vegetables and tankards of just-squeezed fruit juice."
6. Mahabeh, Midan Al-Sham and others: These places are not for the faint hearted. These various size restaurants are located at the start of Al-Jazmatiyeh St. They specialise in all kinds of offal dishes as well as the usual kebabs. Food range from the absolutely gorgeous to bloody awful depend on how far can you go. Here you can sample Sej'aat (rice stuffed lamb intestines), brains sandwiches, trotters or the all time "classic" of testicles and spinal cord fatayer. This Syrian style "Nose to Tail" eating.

7. Al-Halabi Restaurant: Although this restaurant was in the Lonely Planet, I couldn't leave it out. It is the place of a very special evening. The poshest ( and priciest restaurant in Damascus) located in the Four Seasons Hotel. Read my review here.

All photos are courtesy of my friend Tammam, Thank you.

40 comments:

Chow and Chatter said...

thanks for the recommendations would love to visit one day Rebecca

Kano said...

You absolutely should go Rebecca. Not because it is my home city but it is a great place to visit and explore.

أُمنيّة said...

what a lovely article, your optisime about the condition in syria is interesting to read.

really enjoyed knowing more about best dishes i can get here..
i have been lusting for a good shawrma for few days now, but it just the smell coming out of the resturants is making me sick... i'll go and try mouseli's one,
by the way , i disagree with u regarding alfatyer, i think there is no one in damascus is making good fatayer, it's all 3jeen , the best thing is to make الحشوة and take it urself to any local oven.
but the way , there are new lebanese bakery branches opened in damascus like , تفاحة ..it offers good fatayer and pizza... u might like to try them on ur next visit. - i know u back up only syrian products:P-

quite lovely
thank you

Kano said...

Hi Omniah

I like to think that the situation in Syria is improving. I think things are getting better. Regardless what we politically think, I hate it when people talk the country down. It is so easy to find faults and even easier criticising everything that is going on, but we need to be able to see the good.

Regarding Syrian products, you absolutely right I only eat Syrian products especially if I am in Damascus.

Sasa said...

You are absolutely right about the flights being full of English tourists. I'm guessing you went on BMI. They now fly daily London-Damascus and every time I've been on there it has been full (sometimes overfull, to the point of turning customers away at check-in at LHR and DAM).

Nice food choices too! I've seen that fatayer place so many times but never been tempted! I'd like to know what you think of Khawali, and Haretna. And my old favourite Shamiyaat.

Kano said...

Hi Sasa
On my last trip on BMI I was told more people are booked than the plane can take and they will turn people away and I should check in ASAP.

Regarding Khwali and Haretna, although they are really famous I haven't tried them. Me and my wife prefer to walk around and eat bits and bobs from stalls and small shops. So when we go for a restaurant meal in the Old City we head to Narenj straight away.

Which one is Shamiyat?

By the way are you based in London or Damascus?

Sasa said...

Both! Right now, in London, but I'll be back in Damascus in a few months probably.

Shamiyat is a tiny restaurant near Jisr Al Rais, near to Sahat An Najmeh - so if you walk past Rotana cafe along Abu Rumaneh it is in the first street on the right, the first building.

Yep, that's the BMI problem - I don't understand why this is happening on every flight. Although if they do refuse boarding, you get a £400 voucher or £200 cash!!

Your blog has made me hungry, again!

Kano said...

Mate, You reminded me of Shamyat. It is so Eighties !!

Back in the "bad times" there was Shamyat, Mroush and Sit Al-Sham, and that is it. This small restaurant model serving small menu of Fatteh, Foul and few meat dishes was the only restaurant facilities in Damascus. It was good though. I used to live these places. Maroush was my favourite out of the three.

Do you know they are still very popular. I went to Sit Al-Sham on a recent Holiday and the place was packed with people queuing outside.

Sasa said...

Ahhhhh! Good description, it is very very kitsch! Even the menu is the standard government menu!

What about Maroush and Sit Ash-Sham, where are they?

Joshua Landis said...

Wonderful - This blog is going to be a BIG hit. It is with me. I came to it from the article copied to Ayman Abdalnour's all4syria. Tell him to include a link next time!

Love it. The fataiyer place in Shaalan is indeed magic. I have eaten there for years and cannot get enough. Thanks, Joshua

Kano said...

Hi Joshua

I am so glad you are here. I am a keen follower of your blog. Thank you for the kind words.

I asked all4syria guy to add a link but nothing was done about it which is a bit cheeky.

Fatayer Al-Shallan as well as Shawerma Arabi are the two things I miss the most in terms of food.

simonfc said...

Nice article, and quite right about naranje! My partner and I were there for 2 months earlier this year and apart from Damascus being generally an amazing place the food is truly incredible. We spent several fantastic nights on the naranje terrace enjoying the best food in Damascus (and that is really saying something).

Kano said...

Hi Simonfc

Welcome to my blog. I can't even explain how much I like Narenj restaurant. Can't wait to get to Damascus to get there for a nice dinner.

Anonymous said...

Narenj!

Anonymous said...

I lived in Syria for four years (2002-2006). These are the only places that I ate at, particularly Bouz al-Jedi. I am still craving their Fatta to this day.

Kano said...

I haven't been to Bouz al-jedi for ages. good old days.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Damascus in the early 1990's and have returned regularly ever since. I love the place. On my latest trip, a few days ago, I discovered that my old haunts, Beit Jabri, Leila's, Al Khawali etc were all now almost exclusively populated by large tour groups sitting at long tressle tables clutching Lonely Planet guides. Also some restaurants not in the LP seems to be populated entirely by French tourists so I can only assume they are in the equivalent French guide.

Narenji is a welcome exception and the food here is great. Conversely, at Al Khawali I had a very bland experience - surrounded entirely by tourists. In Aleppo, Beit Sissi was fully booked with barely a Syrian face to seen....

Whilst I cannot deny that tourism is injecting much needed prosperity into the economy it is clear that a listing in LP, although no doubt great for the owner's bank balance, is the kiss of death for food quality and service.

But, as this article remarks, move away from the guide books and you can easily find wonderful food in Damascus.

Kano - thanks for a great blog - keep up the good work. Best wishes from Peter in London.

Kano said...

@Peter in London

Welcome to my blog. I am so glad you like it and even more happy that you like Syria and you visit regularly.

I totally agree with you, it is great that tourist boom is helping local businesses but I wish they maintain high standards.

ricercar said...

wish i could go visit! i was born there but have never been back. i read your blog to get a virtual taste :-)

Jean said...

Great blog! I was in Syria in November, and totally fell in love with the people and food. I wish I'd found your blog earlier since I was always looking for great restaurants. So true about Laila, and thought I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Al-Halabi, I found it a little too... Four Seasonsy. ONe of the best meals I had was actually right across from Krak des Cheveliers. I thought it would be a touristy nightmare, but it was delicious! Anyway, thanks for your blog - I'll visit often.

Kano said...

@Jean

Thank you for the nice words. Now you found my blog it is an excuse for another visit to try these places.

Few people actually mentioned that place in Krak des Chevelier. I need to try it next time I am in Syria.

Kano said...

@ricercar

You difinetly should make the effort to go back. It is a wonderful place.

Amy said...

Thanks so much for the recommendations. My husband is from a town near Damascus and when he takes me to visit Syria for the first time I will definitely ask him to take me to some of these restaurants to eat. :) Your advice is very helpful

Kano said...

@Amy

you are the same Amy I emailed yesterday, aren't you?

I hope you visit Syria soon. I am sure you will love the place, the people and the food.

kestypes said...

I am so happy to have found your blog. We are visting Syria for the first time later in the year, and eating is one of our top priorities. Thanks for providing such great info.

Anonymous said...

Visited Syria at Christmas; the food, the people, the historic sights were amazing. We have traveled a lot but our vacation in Syria was the best we have ever had. The Bedouin mansaf, the fish dishes near the large inland lake, the wonderful mezes, including a salty one with chopped olives in a red paste (do you have a recipe for this?), the street food - the pastry stuffed with date paste, fresh roasted nuts, fresh bread and zatar for a mid morning snack...

Kano said...

@Kestype
Welcome to my blog. I am sure you will love Syria; country , food and people.

@Anonymous
Welcome to my blog. I am so glad you loved Syria. It is a great please.

Anonymous said...

Found this blog while looking for a Kibbeh machine on line! :-)

My husband is Syrian and I have been there four times now - I love Syria, the capital Damascus, the people, the weather and the food...it is so so lovely and I miss it very much when I am not there.

Looking forward to going back next year, Insha'Allah!

Kano said...

@anonymous

Welcome to my blog. I am so glad you like Syria and Syrian food. Hope to see you on the blog again and again.

Jasmin said...

We are currently staying in Damascus and love to try all your recommendations. Thanks!

Kano said...

@jasmin

I hope you enjoy all and every one of them. Welcom to my blog!

Mr Bryan said...

I agree about Naranj. It is also 30 seconds away (directly across Straight Street -two doors down lane) from arguably the best boutique hotel in Syria- Beit Ak Bit. Stayed there for 2 weeks this year - the staff are amazingly friendly and I couldn't imagine staying anywhere else. It's a bit more expensive but they are now friends - how could we possibly stay anywhere else? I am taking a tour of eleven friends around Syria in early January -Insha'Allah. Have made a booking at Naranj already. Your blog has great potential!

Kano said...

@Mr Bryan

Welcome to my blog. Hope you and your friends enjoy your stay in Syria.

Andy said...

Good Blog. We recently returned from a trip to Syria and its environs, and, as it happens, a meal at Naranj (recommended by our hotel). It was terrific - very good food and reasonably priced. We ate at Haretna the next night and were disappointed for the only time in Syria. Very busy, lots of tourists

Kano said...

@Andy

Welcome to my blog. Glad you liked Syria and Narinj.

Foodie! said...

Hi Kano,

Got to your page when I was searching for the location of Fatayer al-Shaalan on google maps! Awesome post and blog! I'm heading to Damascus next month and would love to try all these places you mentioned! (Getting hungry thinking about it :D)

Would you mind putting pins on these more unknown places like Jazmatiyeh St and Al Moselli shwerma on Google Maps?
Thank you so much in advance!

Kano said...

@Foodie!

Thank you very much for the nice words. I hoep you have a great time in Syria.

Al-Mouselli shawerma is now on google map. That street in Midan Jazmatiyeh. If you like your food please don't miss visiting Midan. An awsome experience.

Foodie! said...

Thanks Kano! It's weird how google maps doesn't show Jazmatiyeh, but calls it Midan St. I will definitely make an effort to find it. Thanks again!

Maysa said...

Kano...i am DYING to know how to make the mhamara fatayer (like the ones u have pictured) do u have any idea how to make the spicy red part. I was thinking of mixing red pepper paste and some halabi red pepper to make it spicy. I have officially not been to Syria in almost 4 years and dont know when i will go back but i NEED THOSE FATAYER...anyways if you know please let me know, if anyone would know its u. Thanks again

Kano said...

@maysa

I think it is just Dibs Flayfleh and may be little dibs rumman. Can you get Dibs Flayfleh in the states. It is very difficult to find here in the UK. Actually, it is the only ingredient I have difficulty to source. I keep some in the freezer brought from Syria.

I had a go at making my own in a slow oven. It worked all right to be honest with you. You can read about it in my muhammara post.

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