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.