It seems that every week in Beirut there’s a new café or restaurant and every other week, we see some of them close down. It’s not easy to keep up in such a small city and even harder when the clientele is as picky as the Lebanese. Some choose a place based on the vibe, some on the setting, some for the food and some want the entire package, which can be a difficult challenge to meet and probably explains the lack of longevity in today’s local hospitality business. But what if we told you that tucked away in the heart of the capital, there is a café that has been successful not for 7 years, not for 20, but for 70 continual years? A café that has served generation, upon generation: welcoming people of all backgrounds, social status and income. A café that has survived wars and celebrated weddings… Which café is that? Café Rawda (or known to some as Café Shatila).
Café Rawda is hidden behind the Ferris wheel on the Corniche Manara and boasts the unique position of having a direct and unobstructed view to the sea. As you walk through its iron gates, you’re greeted with a sprawling setting of trees and greenery that lead all the way down to the ocean’s edge. A simple array of plastic chairs and tables are dotted around, filled with people smoking arguile, playing backgammon or just enjoying the view of the horizon.
Built as a family business and stayed as one. The current owner, Souad Shatila, has put her life and soul into this business. Her father and uncle were the café’s first owners and she grew up in the restaurant until it was her and her late husband’s turn to take the reigns. We met up with the lovely Souad and you could tell that owning this café has been her passion for many, many years. She has raised her children here, she has built lifelong friendships here, and she personally greets the many faces that come to her café day after day. But how exactly has this café has survived a rocky 70 years of Beirut history? She expressed, “There were always up and downs throughout the economy and the war but we stuck through it because we believed the reason why this family business worked was because we all worked together.”
When we asked about the type of customers that come to the café, Souad explained, “We don’t have a specific clientele: everyone, from every class comes here – no matter their income. There are very few green public spaces in the city and we are reasonably priced, so everyone feels comfortable coming here to spend time on their own, with friends or letting their children run around in the safety of our café.” She isn’t the only one whose life revolved around the restaurant; her late husband had the same perspective – he put his heart and soul into this place and even after his passing she feels his presence lingering around Café Rawda. Simply put, it’s their home. Souad describes it as her own little village inside the extravagant city of Beirut. But it’s not just the setting that people come to enjoy – Café Rawda has an extensive, traditional Lebanese menu, including of course, a wide variety of fresh fish – which is always a customer favorite.
Souad doesn’t only have a passion for running Café Rawda but also for cooking. She makes a variety of home-cooked dishes as her ‘plat du jour’, giving her customers her personal touch on the menu. She is currently taking a short break from cooking – but come Ramadan, she will be back in the kitchen, making dishes every night for all the families that come to the café to break their fast.
So, if you’re wondering whether in 70 years the café has seen a few familiar faces, you’d be right. Rafik Ali Ahmad and Abd Al Ghani Tlais are regulars. UN Ambassadors and other diplomats have their “usuals” – and notable architect and activist, Mona Hallak even had her wedding there (although it was an exception, since Café Rawda don’t usually hold weddings).
Café Rawda’s simplicity definitely has its own charm, but we couldn’t help but ask about any renovation plans. With such success it would make sense for any restaurant owner to upgrade to keep the flow of customers coming in and out. However, Souad smiled and said that, that would be exactly the opposite of what they want. “People come here to relax and clear their mind and get lost in the view, if they wanted entertainment this wouldn’t be their first choice. As for renovations, we of course will update certain parts of the café, but our aim is to keep the same spirit we’ve had since our first day of opening. This is what customers love and crave; they want the Café to stay like this even more than we do.”
We wanted to know if it were possible to grasp one favorite memory in 70 years of business. Souad grinned and her eyes lit up as she said, “Its not just one memory, it’s the fact that my husband and I grew up here, my children grew up here and we all share the same love. It’s been in our family for so long and we enjoy that we get to share it with other people and see them happy with what also makes us happy – it’s the reason why we’ve kept going for so long. We’ve had some of the same customers from the moment we opened until today and that tells us we’re doing something right. The major key to running this place is to not care about the money being made as much as you care about your customers. We have over 50 employees and they all have families – to see them working this hard to keep this place running is also rewarding. Work from your heart and the money will follow.”
While some advertising slogans can be simply empty words, the sign that greets you at Café Rawda has some of the truest ones: From old generations, till future ones. Young, old, famous and not, thousands have spent time at Café Rawda over the decades, making it more than just a café, but a surviving icon of Beirut’s past that will hopefully continue to be part of its future.
If you would like to visit Café Rawda, you can find it directly behind the Manara Ferris Wheel (next to Sporting Beach), or call +9611743348.