Todays tip: La Brioche, Yafet Street Hamra
This little French Patisserie is amazing. The small storefront is smack dab in the middle of the chaotic Hamra neighborhood of Beirut. It sits across the street from a grocery store and next to a hotel and it seems out of place packed in with all of the trappings of modern Beirut.
With a small black and white sign that reads “la Brioche” in pretty cursive lettering, the understated shop stands out in the sea of flashy clothing stores and high street coffee shops that line the streets.
The bakery has display windows holding a selection of pastries and little ceramic figures, with delicate lace curtains hanging behind obscuring the view of the interior. I couldn’t tell if it was open or not so I got a little closer and when I peeked through the glass door I saw an old woman standing behind the counter looking back at me.
Once through the small doorway, the decor was bizarre and hard to place. The interior is all dark wood paneling with a big ancient cash register and scale, dark green vinyl banquets and chairs.
We were the only customers and I still couldn’t tell if the place was open, but the woman behind the counter who seemed to be about 70 years old with short brown hair and pink lipstick, looked at us expectantly and asked in French if she could help us. Once we established that she served coffee, we ordered some pastries and sat down.
She disappeared through a doorway and then we heard some clanging and a few minutes later she emerged and shuffled over to us with a tray holding a matching coffee pot, creamer full of hot milk, cups and saucers. It seemed like the weight of the tray was too much for her old hands and I felt like I should stand up and help, but she had a look of determination on her face and soon enough our table was laden with fresh pastries and steaming cups of coffee.
The coffee was perfect. Hot and strong and plenty of it and the milk was piping. The almond crescent was delicious. Like a tightly wrapped croissant filled with rich, creamy almond paste.
My fascination with the place continued to grow as I watched people rush though the door to pick up Christmas cakes and heard the woman taking orders over the phone.
When we stepped up to the old glass counter to pay, I made the Englishman ask her how long the bakery had been there and try to get some history.
It turnes out that Mrs. Knechtle’s youthful looks belie her age. She proudly told us that she is 91 years old (91!) and that when she and her late husband opened this bakery over 60 years ago, there was nothing but vegetable fields surrounding it. Hard to imagine now looking out over the crowded sidewalks and cars whizzing past.
So many restaurants try to create an atmosphere of authenticity. But this place is the real deal. There is no substitute for quality and La Brioche is a rare example of a place that got it right and stuck to it.
La Brioche +961-1-347614