The district of mechanic workshops turned fashionable bar and restaurant scene is still going strong. But what’s behind its continuing success and can it last?
The opening of the Italian wine bar L’Osteria in April 2009 marked a turning point for Mar Mikhael. Gentrification followed and the district emerged as one of the most fashionable places in Beirut. Fast forward to 2017 and art galleries, design and vintage shops, fashion boutiques, bars, restaurants and cafes line the maze of streets, with a promise of more to come.
The continuing success story of this traditional quarter is down to the law of attraction, according to Chadi Chidiac, managing partner of Protocol, a hospitality management and consultancy firm.
“Step into the strip [Mar Mikhael] and you immediately fall in love with the French colonial style houses and gardens. They also represent a pure reflection of the authenticity of Beirut," he says.
Over the years many new restaurants, cafes and bars have opened their doors, increasing footfall to the area. Tavolina, Prune, Baron, The Bohemian, Junkyard, Mario e Mario and Train Station are just several names whose venues attract the crowds. Other venues like Organic Sisters and Home Sweet Home have recently opened their doors. And there’s more in the pipeline.
Chidiac says: “This gathering of venues creates an economics of proximity − or clustering, as known in the science of the restaurant business − whereby similar concepts exist next to each other to create an F&B and nightlife destination.”
Not all venues have been successful, with restaurants and bars opening and then closing over the years. But others have stood the test of time and are still here today.
Chidiac says professionalism and location help to underpin a restaurant’s continuing success, as does the conceptualization of an entity, strong business plan, and brand strategy and identity. There are other aspects too, such as the architecture and interior design, and communication strategies that include marketing and public relations (PR).
But is this enough to guarantee the success of Mar Mikhael as a dining and nightlife hub in the long term? To ensure its continuing popularity, Chidiac believes the answer is in the attractiveness of rental fees and leaseholds.
“It was the less expensive rents that attracted businesses in the first place,” he said.
The fact that rents have shot up over the years hasn’t been enough to dampen Mar Mikhael’s vibrant spirit or prevent newcomers from continuing to open businesses.
Another reason for the area’s success is down to its traditional architectural fabric of low-rise Levantine buildings that give the area its bohemian feel. Yes, new high rises have appeared or are in the process of being built, but these tend to be on existing vacant lots, with just a small number of traditional buildings being lost to regeneration purposes.
Chidiac believes if developers keep out, then Mar Mikhael will continue to boom as an F&B and nightlife destination. “The interest of major developers remains at its lowest. Any regeneration will massively change the identity of the neighborhood and negatively affect any current investments in the area,” he says.