Syrian restaurants

Restored courtyard restaurant in Aleppo (Beit Wakil)

One of my favorite things about living here in Syria is the food. It’s delicious, unique, healthful, and there are tons of good restaurants around town willing to serve it up for cheap. Some of these restaurants are located in beautifully restored courtyard houses within the walls of the Old City. In fact, I think that eventually the Old City is going to be filled entirely with restaurants – there are new ones opening up all the time.

Sometimes, you can make a meal entirely out of appetizers: hummus, muttable, baba ghanoug, muhammara, etc. This is especially delicious when the restaurant serves the appetizers with fresh, hot flatbread to dip in the various bowls. The best part is that at certain restaurants, the appetizers are the cheapest things on the menu, sometimes costing as little as 60 cents per bowl.

If you need more than just appetizers, there’s always the soups: lentil, vegetable, French onion, or cream of chicken or mushroom. Each restaurant does their lentil soup a little differently. Sometimes it’s dark, chunky, and heavy on cumin; other times it’s a lighter yellow and pureed to a smooth texture. Either way, it’s served with broiled pita chips and lemon wedges. You can also get yolangi (rice and spices wrapped up in grape leaves), kibbe, burak, French fries, and garlic bread to complement the appetizer dips.

The meat dishes are next. You can order grilled meat by itself, or a more standard European-style “main dish” with meat, sauce, rice or potatoes, and vegetables on a plate. My favorite is the Syrian shish tawouk – they call it barbequed chicken in English, but it doesn’t have barbeque sauce on it. It’s skewered chicken roasted over a fire or coals.

For dessert, you can order fresh fruit or some kind of pistachio-based pastry drizzled with honey.

You can get all of this for far less than in America, and the eating atmosphere is very unique.

On Thursday, the University took us out to dinner at a restaurant in Jebel Qassioon, looking over the city. We were part of a large group of visiting professors and a few students of Arabic. We were served a set menu – basically, the waiters brought out the restaurant’s best, course by course.

First were the appetizers. Besides baba ghanoug and muttable, there were salads of every kind: Greek style, Caesar style, fattoush, olive salad, and plain freshly chopped onions, parsley, and pickles to serve with it. They brought out fresh bread to enjoy with all of it, as well as fried potatoes, seasoned chicken wings, and garlic-roasted eggplant wedges.

I was full already just from the appetizers, but there was more to come. Next was a savory chicken dish, with seasoned rice and a yummy gravy sauce. The chicken was very tender and absolutely delicious – I only wished I could have enjoyed it more, but as it was, my stomach hardly had room.

Then, they brought out another main dish – this time, some kind of lamb creation with creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. I could hardly touch this one, though I did manage to eat a lot of the vegetables and some of the potatoes.

Finally, dessert arrived. Fresh cherries, peaches, and apricots as well as pistachio-laden baklava variations. A perfect end to a fabulous meal.

As we left, we asked one of the waiters how much the set meal cost. It turns out that for all that (and a nargileh, if you smoke), you pay 750 lira (about 15 dollars). Certainly the most expensive meal I’ve eaten since being in Syria, but it was also one of the nicest restaurants I’ve seen, with a gorgeous view over all of Damascus. From what I remember in the US, it’s getting harder to spend less than $15 per person even at a place as ordinary as The Olive Garden.

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