Beirut: 25 years ago, jewelry designer Carole Bitar traveled to Paris and became enamored with every part of it. Returning to her homeland, she wanted to create a Parisian escape for herself and for other people in Lebanon. That’s how French Café 1994 was created as the first concept of this particular café in Lebanon.
“Six months in Paris were a fairytale for me; I wanted to taste the same flavor daily. Despite the bad economic situation in Lebanon at that time, nothing could diminish my plan of creating a Parisian café getaway,” said Bitar.
After months of reading books and researching recipes, Bitar officially launched French Café in December 1994. At first, attracted to the new idea, people hurried over to the café for a quick cappuccino before or after a movie or a dinner. Then, it became a second home to many who had breakfast, lunch and dinner there.
“The more the customers, the more the requests. At first, I used to serve only drinks, cakes, and simple sandwiches, nevertheless, people started to ask for more and we had to adapt to the market. We made a “plat du jour” and included additional international meals to satisfy all tastes,” she told Annahar.
Sandwiches were made with baguettes which was a new concept back then; desserts such as brownies and tiramisu were homemade from scratch with no added chemicals.
In 2005, the café closed due to many factors including the economic and political situation in Lebanon. Bitar continued to pursue her passion for cooking by developing menus of fusion desserts in Kuwait, yet, a French café remained her nostalgic fairytale experience.
12 years later, triggered by the ongoing Lebanese longing for such a place -- and her own --- Bitar decided to start French Café again as a family business along with her business partner Najla Khalaf.
“When I tasted Carole’s food I was blown away and upset that her café no longer existed. Hence, when she decided to open it again, I was thrilled to be part of it and to feel productive doing something I love,” partner Khalaf said.
French Café today in Jal El Dib, opened in 2017, feels like a new home to many. To start with , just like mothers, both Najla and Carole, wearing their aprons, welcome their guests with warmth and joy. The setting transports you to Paris with classic bistro chairs and tables centered with flowers. Simplicity yet elegance.
However, what attracts customers the most is the food specialties. Apart from cold and hot beverages, the menu includes sandwiches such as Chevre, Pizzaola, Dinde Gouda, Tuna Artichoke and Rosebif. In addition to that, the place serves salads including Asian Quinoa, Thailandaise Maison, and Chicken Olives and soups like Cremes du Tomatoes, Crispy Bacon, and Roasted Pumpkin. Additionally, homemade specialties are offered, as an example: jams and marmalades, energy cakes, sugar-free vegan cakes, brookies, and lemon poppy seeds.
Besides table service, the café does a brisk takeaway business for busy young couples, who want to chill at home over a gourmet repast after a busy day at the office. The same for those getting lunch delivered to their office.
“I can’t get enough of their freshly-baked sandwiches, and their shrimp linguini and marinated grilled chicken Caesar salad are mouthwatering,” said Carole Matni a loyal customer.
Bitar noted that one key to good food is designing the texture as solid, soft or gooey depending on the dish.
“I’ve been visiting French Café for lunch ever since they opened, and not only do they have the best homemade food, but they are the best to be around because they became family, ” Sonia Abou Jaoude told Annahar.
Beside an eating hangout, its a writing type of café, with persons searching for the muse upon their laptop over a café au lait and croissant, and there are always an impromptu business meeting going on, the café seems to foster this synergy.
The venue is in evolution, having recently added a new room next door after a neighboring delicatessen closed, and was finished just in time to boast a brightly lit holiday tree. Recently added is a bar top, much on the bistro model which in additions to wines, champagnes and beers will eventually serve a full menu of drinks.
And, no matter what, eaters will not want to forget ending their repast for themselves and guests with rich, chocolate, gâteau for everyone.
Original paintings adorn the walls by niece Alexandria Bitar who exhibits in NYC and Paris.
The French Café is located in the Mallah & Yammine Center, GF Shop, Abouna Hanna Street, Jal el Dib, Metn.
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