Guest article by Jaimie Eckert.
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The Best Vegan Food and Vegan Restaurants in Beirut Lebanon
When my husband and I moved to Beirut in 2013, I had only two questions: (1) would I have an electric washing machine; and (2) would I be able to find vegan restaurants in Beirut, or any vegan food at all?
We had both been involved in the nonprofit sector for some time, but most of my previous international experiences were with short-term projects in places like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Belize.
In every case, I had washed laundry by hand and struggled to find plant-based food. Now that we were making the leap to become long-term expats, I felt anxious. I’d never visited the Middle East before. How was I supposed to know what I’d find after relocating my entire life?
Transitioning to expat life as a Highly Sensitive Person was tough. Thank goodness for vegan ice cream when I needed it!
I’ve now been living in Beirut, Lebanon for almost seven years. I have an electric washing machine, a lovely little flat with a sea view, and amazing memories. But perhaps best of all, I’ve become well versed in vegan food in the area.
Middle Eastern cuisine includes a number of vegan dishes, and there are even a few fully vegan restaurants in Beirut. So, if you’re a vegan planning a visit here, I’m pleased to share with you my all-time favorite dishes and restaurants!
Breakfast in Beirut
It’s 9 am and you just woke up in your downtown hotel. After a long night of transatlantic travel, you’re starving.
But what do Lebanese eat for breakfast? And what’s more, how can you find something plant-based?
Breakfast in Lebanon is generally very low-key and is usually a carb-and-dairy combo. Some of the most common options are:
- A cheese or chocolate-filled croissant with coffee
- Manaeesh (an oven-baked disk of dough with various toppings) with laban, a thick milk drink
- Labneh (savory strained yogurt) eaten with Arabic bread, olives, and vegetables
- A purse-shaped, sesame-seed covered bread called kaak, eaten with labneh and olives and hot pepper paste
Your hotel will likely offer these key breakfast items, along with sliced meat, sliced cheese, and squares of halawa — firm, sugared tahini that is eaten with bread and is usually vegan.
The most fool-proof vegan breakfast option in Lebanon is zaatar manaeesh (pronounced ZAA-tar man-a-EESH). Unlike cheese manaeesh and kishek manaeesh, which contain dairy, the zaatar topping is a dairy-free mixture of olive oil, thyme, sesame, and other natural spices.
It has a sharp, sour taste that most people either love or hate, and Lebanese bakers serve it hot out of the oven on a thick, filling crust.
It’s a comfort food, it’s a breakfast food, and you can buy it at any bakery at any time of the day. It’s perfect.
And if it’s lunchtime, you can also ask them to load your zaatar manaeesh with vegetables and roll it like a burrito.
Pro Tip: for a GPS-friendly bakery, type in my favorite chain, Wooden Bakery. You’ll find it all over the city. If you’re on foot, just ask for the nearest “furn” and they’ll direct you to a local bakery.)
If you don’t fancy a Lebanese breakfast, you can also go the American route. There are a few pricey restaurants — mostly in touristy districts like Hamra, Gemmayze, and Achrafieh — where you can get avocado on toast, granola with almond milk, or chia pudding.
The Best Vegan Breakfast in Beirut
Now, just before we move on from the topic of breakfast, I’ve got to tell you something. There’s this place that serves the most amazing vegan breakfast in the entire city, and it’s very cheap. But the vegan breakfast they serve is kind of an acquired taste. Assuming you are an adventurous, open-minded traveler, I’ll bet you want to know about it, right?
Good. Because I saved the best breakfast for last.
Although most Lebanese are low-key about breakfast, there’s one dish they make when they are ready to take breakfast seriously. It’s called ful, sometimes called ful mudammas.
Yes, you pronounce it like “fool,” although you might see it spelled “foul.” It’s a delicious blend of soft, mashed fava beans with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. Most people enjoy it with cumin or red pepper. This juicy bean dish is served with sliced vegetables and scooped up with fresh Arabic bread.
Ful is the ultimate Middle Eastern breakfast. My husband and I have come to enjoy it so much that we eat it 3-4 times per week. But not everybody is up to eating beans for breakfast.
Unless you’re from the UK, perhaps. When we first arrived, beans for breakfast did not fit into my American paradigm.
But now it does. We’re crazy about ful for breakfast.
You can load up on fava beans to start out your day, too. In an unlikely back alley just off the highway, as you drive east out of downtown, a tiny restaurant sells the best ful in Beirut.
It’s called Abu Abdallah’s. Ful is basically all they sell — their menu is a list of hummus, labneh, and ful combos. Fava beans, fava beans with yogurt, fava beans with tahini, fava bean special, etc. Despite the restaurant’s small size, it’s almost always full of customer
So, if you think breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you’ll want to head to Abu Abdallah’s to eat with other people who think the same way.
Finding Vegan Kibbeh
It seems like every culture has their own version of a crispy, savory, fried appetizer. Lebanon is no exception: let me introduce you to kibbeh.
The dough is made with coarsely ground bulgar wheat, formed into an oblong ball, and stuffed with onions and ground beef or lamb before deep frying to golden perfection.
But wait! There’s a vegan version!
On the east side of greater Beirut is a restaurant called Al-Mazar Resto. It sits at a busy intersection and billows white barbecue smoke into the air from morning till night.
Passing a 3-meter high statue of the Virgin Mary, you’ll enter either the take-away part of the restaurant — where you can pick up a sandwich made with sheep brains or livers or any other kind of meat — or the casual dining area.
Getting a dish of hummus is a no-brainer. And, of course, vegan kibbeh. A plate of four pieces — each the size of a large kiwi — costs about $4. Instead of walnuts and ground beef, it’s stuffed with a lemony mixture of spinach and chickpeas.
Biting into a steaming hot, tender-yet-crispy kibbeh is basically the vegan version of fried chicken comfort food. You might regret only ordering a plate of four.
Where to Get a Non-Greasy Falafel Sandwich in Beirut?
Most people immediately associate the falafel sandwich with Mediterranean countries like Lebanon. This association is a true one, but each country has its own special spin on the famous falafel.
Egyptians tend to base their recipe on fava beans, which makes the end product denser, while Lebanese use a mixture made from fava beans, chickpeas, and tahini.
The Syrian falafel is less intensely flavored and lighter — almost fluffy — and can be shaped like a small donut.
But despite these nuanced differences in falafel recipes, there is a near-ubiquitous quality found in all of them: oil. And lots of it. Falafels are deep-fried in a large vat of reused oil, left on the side of the pan to drip, and loaded directly into your flatbread.
It’s true, you can get a $2 falafel sandwich at any hole-in-the-wall establishment bearing the word “Snack” over the door. But it’ll be cheap, greasy, and of questionable hygienic standards. As a warning, I vomited once after eating from one of these places.
To get a clean, healthy, non-greasy falafel, your best bet is the star restaurant chain Zaatar W Zeit.
Zaatar W Zeit, translated into English, means “thyme and oil.” Translated into American terms, we might say “peanut butter and jelly” or “meat and potatoes”, since these two ingredients are eaten almost every day by Lebanese. Zaatar W Zeit is one of our favorite restaurants because of its cleanliness standards and healthy food.
Their falafel — get this — is actually baked.
That’s right, you can get a baked falafel sandwich and eat it on healthy oat bread. Who said you can’t have your cake and eat it, too? This healthy version will cost more — just over $5 — but your body will thank you.
Oh, and one more reason Zaatar W Zeit tops my list of best restaurant chains in Lebanon: you can order online and they get your order right every time.
Vegan Versions of Traditional Lebanese Dishes
Since then, a few other fully vegan restaurants in Beirut have popped up, but Luna’s remains the clear favorite.
The restaurant is cozy and personal enough that the owner stops by every table to greet her guests while serving up smoothies, salads, and vegan sandwiches.
You can eat outside in the garden or hang out in a back corner to play board games. There’s even a ping pong table! Students from the nearby American University of Beirut frequent Luna’s Kitchen, as well as Beirut’s most open-minded crowd.
Veganism is still growing in popularity here in Lebanon, and in this little corner of the capital, it has a loyal following. Luna’s is open 24/7 and is also animal-friendly, so people often come with their dogs or cats.
Note that the fish tank was inherited from the previous owners. Luna’s staff are now giving the fish the best life they can and are not adding any new fish to the tank.
As for the food, all the Lebanese classics have gotten a vegan makeover here. You can order a shawarma sandwich made from seitan, a creamy rice-based labneh sandwich, or a tawouk sandwich made with tofu.
Plus, if you’re feeling a bit homesick for western food, you can get classics like veggie dogs, veggie burgers, and vegan fajitas. There are lots of vegan cakes and other desserts on offer as well.
Did you know that many traditional Middle Eastern desserts are naturally vegan? Here are seven vegan desserts to look for when traveling in the region.
Best and Worst Vegan Burgers in Beirut
After nearly seven years as an expat vegan in Beirut, I’ve done my rounds tasting veggie burgers. Surprisingly, there’s quite a range of quality.
To save you the pains of ending up with a terrible burger, let me share my list of best, worst, and runner-up vegan burgers in Beirut.
Worst: Zaatar W Zeit’s Vegan Boom
I know, I just got done raving about how much I love Zaatar W Zeit. I honestly don’t know how this product snuck onto their menu, because it’s literally the worst vegan burger I’ve ever tasted.
Actually, take that back — the Burger King bean burger we ate in Antalya, Turkey was worse. So Zaatar W Zeit’s Vegan Boom is the second worst I’ve ever had. Dry, tasteless, and heavy, its only appeal is the pretty presentation of being baked inside the bun. Please, avoid the Vegan Boom at all costs.
Runner Up: Fiber’s Veggie Burger
Hamra district is a favorite among expats and tourists. If you’re here and in the mood for something western, you can’t go wrong with Fiber’s 317-calorie vegan burger.
The patty is made from red beans, mushrooms, leeks, sunflower seeds, beansprouts, carrots, and eggplant. Although the texture is a bit crumbly, it has a pleasantly fresh taste and won’t leave you feeling heavy. It might, however, leave you feeling hungry in an hour or two.
Runner Up: Classic Burger Joint’s Quinoa Burger
You can find Classic Burger Joint in all the best and safest parts of the city: Hamra, Hazmiyeh, Dbiyeh, Achrafieh, Zaytouna Bay, Uruguay Street, and more. The quinoa burger is everything you expect a veggie burger to be, but will leave you $9 lighter — fries not included.
During Lent, they also offer a special falafel burger. Did you know that 30% to 45% of the population of Lebanon is Christian?
And both the Maronite Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Christians in Lebanon avoid animal products during Lent and other fasting periods. For more details, see the articles on this blog about fasting traditions in the Greek Orthodox Church and fasting in Serbia.
Third Place: Crepaway’s Vegan Burger
It’s a close tie for second and third place, but Crepaway’s Vegan Burger strikes a perfect balance between healthy, filling, and tasty. It’s served with a surprisingly peppy sweet-and-spicy chili sauce plus fries and a salad. And best of all, it isn’t greasy.
Second Place: Roadster Diner’s Vegan Mushroom Burger
Roadster Diner’s Vegan Mushroom Burger has great texture and a classic barbecue taste. This restaurant will give you the highest quality ingredients in a clean environment.
Although I’d rate the Crepaway and Roadster Diner burgers about the same as far as taste, Roadster Diner takes the lead in second place since they offer a ton of other plant-based dishes, like vegan tacos, veggie wraps, vegan pasta, and many different salads.
First Place: Sandches’ Vegan Burger Combo
If you’d like to get a 317-calorie, oil-free, guilt-free veggie burger, go to Fiber. But if you want a really tasty, lick-your-fingers-with-a-sigh-of-content vegan burger, you’ll want to stop by Sandches.
Sandches is a tiny restaurant with a constantly buzzing delivery service and three guys behind the counter. For about $6, you’ll get a gigantic, crispy-juicy-savory vegan burger with fries and a drink. And you’ll waddle away wondering how you’ll ever find a better tasting burger than that. Trust me.
Sometimes the best things are in lesser-known places. Sandches has the best vegan burger in Beirut.
Best Manaeesh in Beirut
If you’re in Lebanon for any length of time, you will probably end up eating a LOT of manaeesh. Manaeesh is to Lebanon what pad Thai is to Thailand.
But don’t imagine that all furns (bakeries) are the same. Some of them have better dough recipes, some are cleaner, some are cheaper, and some even have special flavors that you won’t find elsewhere.
My favorite furn is, once again, in Hamra district. Even though I don’t live anywhere close to Hamra, I went there several times per week for a year and a half when I was studying Arabic.
A couple streets over from Hamra Street is Sidani Street, where you will also find the aforementioned Fiber. Wander down Sidani Street until you see a big blue sign advertising “Berlitz Language Center.” At that intersection is a tiny, nameless furn that sells a hard-to-find manaeesh flavor: tomato and onion.
So simple, right? Yet so elusive. Soft-and-crackly dough smothered in a tender mix of chunky onions and tomato with a dash of salt and oil. Its simplicity is what makes it lovable.
You’ll probably have to ask for it in Arabic. Just say “banadura wa basal” (tomato and onion) and they’ll flash you a smile and give you an appetizer while you wait. Being right next to the language center, they’re used to students trying out new phrases.
Pro Tip: if you pronounce your “r” and your vowels like Spanish, you’ll be halfway to sounding like a local: ban-a-DOO-ra wa ba-SAL.
Finding Vegan Eats in Lebanon
After nearly seven years of living in Beirut, I can safely conclude that this city is rich with vegan treasures. Whether you plan on coming for a few days or a few years, your plant-based preferences won’t suffer. The vegan options here are almost endless.
The Lebanese people are extremely hospitable and happy to help you find food that suits your lifestyle. You might have to be a little proactive in explaining what “vegan” means, but once they figure it out, they’ll usually go to great lengths to help you.
This list of my personal favorites is only a start. Everywhere you go, you’ll find places that match your own tastes and preferences.
You’ll meet cool waiters and restaurant owners who will remember you every time you come back. Sometimes, they’ll even remember your vegan alteration requests and will predict your order for you.
Lebanon is a great country — for visiting, for living, for eating.
I guarantee that once you’ve been in Beirut for just one weekend, you won’t be able to leave the country without falling in love with one of its signature dishes.
Looking forward to seeing you here!