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Hidden history in Hamra's Captain's Cabin, hamra pubs restaurants beirut
BEIRUT: In the days of flashy pubs and pounding music, the dimly lit wooden facade of Captain’s Cabin stands out as a relic of a bygone era. Now over 50 years old, the ramshackle bar is one of Beirut’s historic landmarks. Tucked away along Sadat Street, a few meters off the main Hamra Street, Captain’s Cabin has weathered the storm of decades of war.
Andre Toriz, an amicable man of Mexican origin, had just been born when his father and three Middle East Airlines pilots begun looking for a place to drink and play cards away from their wives’ reproachful looks.
It was 1964 when the four men rented an old fish shop, covered its yellow tiles in wood, and transformed it into their new getaway.
“My father was the only one among them not to be a pilot, but they all called him captain,” Toriz told The Daily Star. As more men started spending their layovers there, the place was expanded, and opened as a fully licensed bar and restaurant in 1972.
Alongside its original decor, which includes wooden bar stools and a dartboard from the late 1960s, the pub displays a number of objects collected throughout the years. An old telephone is still beside the entrance door while World War II-era machine guns hang on the walls. Above the counter, hats worn by MEA pilots in the 1970s stand as a tribute to the pub’s first customers.
As a kid, Toriz, now the owner, used to spend his afternoons after school at his father’s bar. “I watched everything that was going on behind the bar, this is how I learned the job,” he said. His routine was interrupted by the start of the Civil War in 1975. “We thought [the fighting] would last two or three months, my father kept telling me that things would get better,” he said.
But the war raged on for years and the constant power cuts made life difficult for restaurants, which struggled to keep large quantities of food refrigerated. “We were the first ones to buy a generator, but it was so loud that we could barely hear each other talking,” Toriz recalled.
The security situation obliged all businesses in the Hamra district to close by 6 p.m., allowing pubs to work no more than four or five hours a day. But they were determined to remain open, only closing in 1982 when the Israeli invasion forced them to briefly relocate to the eastern part of Beirut.
“When we came back, it was a beautiful moment. Foreigners were coming back to Lebanon, business picked up again, the place was so full of clients that I was constantly busy serving beers,” Toriz said.
Soon, however, things escalated again in the mid-1980s. He remembered how on one occasion he was peering out of one of the bar’s tiny windows with his brother when an army official spotted them and dragged them onto the street, holding them at gunpoint. “Luckily a higher rank officer who knew us arrived in that moment and told him to let us go. The lesson there was, never look out of the window if there is a shooting,” Toriz said with a grin.
However, he said the years leading up to the 1989 Taif agreement were the most difficult. He looks back fondly at the countless nights he spent holed-up in the bar waiting for the sound of gunfire to subside. He would sleep on the tiny corner couch that still sits in the pub, his legs resting on one of the bar stools. At times, clients would also spend the night waiting for the streets to be safe enough to make the journey home, as the picture of four burly men staying through the night that hangs on a wall still testifies.
When his father died in 1997, Andre Toriz ended his two-year stay in Venezuela to return and take over Captain’s Cabin. “He worked here his whole life, I could not throw it away,” Toriz, who also holds a degree in business management, said.
Nowadays, most of those who he shared his “experience of the war,” as he calls it, with are either dead or abroad. But among his most affectionate customers are the sons of those who used to hang around the bar back in the day. “Once a couple came back to tell me that this is where they met,” Toriz said.
Thanks to his persistence, Captain’s Cabin is now past the 50-year landmark. When asked why, unlike many, he did not give up on his business in the hard times, his reply echoes his father’s words: “The earth turns and you turn with it, nothing is constant. Those who give up do not have the patience to think that it will get better.”