“Go out to the restaurants and then come to us after for drinks. Our bar is open until 4:00 am!”
We are sitting outside the Beirut Bunker Bar in a bustling Garema Place laneway. The thrum of a funky tune drifts out from its open door.
After another sip of my Beirut Express, I smack my lips together, thinking that if a more delicious cocktail has ever passed my lips, I cannot remember it.
A sudden crash behind us jars the serenity, and Soumi, co-owner of Beirut Bunker Bar, flinches visibly at the unexpected burst of noise.
“See, that’s what war does to you,” he says after a pause, shrugging it off with a smile.
Soumi has lived through six wars growing up in his beloved Beirut. He lost a quarter of his family in the process.
“In the 80s when Beirut was a war zone, its nightlife went underground to keep people safe,” Soumi says, explaining the origin of the bar’s name.
This underground nightclub scene flourished in literal bunkers, where the music and the dancing became a symbol of hope and mobilisation for peace and harmony as the bombs dropped.
Beirut Bunker Bar takes inspiration from the hope and harmony that came from these underground nightclubs. Soumi and co-owner wife Chantelle want to introduce Beirut to Canberra.
“No one else has done it,” Soumi says with wonder in his voice. “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. It is the second capital of nightlife in the world, with 7-star platinum nightclubs.”
Soumi and Chantelle are not interested in garnering platinum ratings.
“The Friendliest Bar in Canberra … I’m happy with that,” he laughs.
Soumi moved to Australian in 2014. He has been part of Canberra’s hospitality scene for five years after a short stint in the Riverina. Beirut Bunker Bar is his and Chantelle’s first fully-owned venture.
Its interior is as eclectic as the music playing, darkening to shadows towards the back. Graffiti covers some sections of the brick wall. A sign on the DJ stand reads ‘Drop beats not bombs’.
Each weekend, DJs spin underground hip-hop and deep house dance tunes.
The lure of late-night cocktails and a relaxed Beirut-inspired vibe where you can stay until 4:00 am entices varied patronage and all are welcome. While we sit enjoying our drinks, many patrons greet Soumi as they come in or leave and he seems to know each one by name.
Like many Lebanese nationals, Soumi is fluent in three languages. A conversation with him, even just in plain old English, is an experience as vivid, colourful and complex as the cocktails he is constantly creating and experimenting with. We jump across topics at the speed of light, nearly as fast as his story-telling hands are moving
“You need a story to create a drink,” he explains. “Anyone can make a drink, but what is the story behind it?”
The drinks here at Beirut Bunker Bar are all about curiosity and exploration.
“I burned the kitchen a hundred times,” Soumi says, talking about his lifetime obsession with cooking. He began collecting knowledge and experimenting with flavours from a young age. His experience and ingenuity can be found in every glass.
After studying French, Italian and Lebanese cuisine at Beirut’s Cordon Bleu, Soumi started at the bottom, working as a kitchen hand, chopping vegetables. Being hyperactive, he found he couldn’t stay in the kitchen. During a stint as a waiter in the same restaurant, Soumi discovered his skill as a salesman. He went on to become the manager of that venue.
At the outset, when experimenting with new cocktails, Soumi had no internet to refer to. He relied on trial and error.
“I failed and bumped into walls and made bad recipes and learned from them. I trained my palate with everything you can imagine.”
Soumi’s curiosity and flavour exploration continues untethered. This means that the cocktail menu changes on a weekly basis. Just as their website proclaims, these cocktails are lip-smackingly good.
The Beirut Express is 100 pure agave Espolon Tequila Blanco, chartreuse and fresh lime juice. House-made smoked salt encrusts the rim of the glass. The smoke and spice and tang of the salty rim is an intriguing foil to the refreshing summery sweetness of the cocktail.
My first impression of the Wasabi Martini is that it doesn’t taste like wasabi at all. Instead, I can distinguish its sweet notes, vanilla and muddled cucumber.
“Swirl a sip of it around your palate,” Soumi advises. I obediently swirl my second sip and HELLO! That wasabi smacks me right in the tastebuds!
Our final cocktail is Archie Visits Japan. Sweet and fragrant like an exotic liquid candy, this drink goes down way too easily. Think Archie Roe White Rye Whisky, sake and house-made rose water.
Each cocktail was uniquely delicious, but that Beirut Express is the one I think about long afterwards.
As well as expanding to Lebanese cuisine, Soumi and Chantelle are preparing to bring Shisha to Canberra, a trend that is already booming in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth.
Originating in India and used widely throughout Lebanon, “Shisha is fruit-flavoured tobacco for non-smokers”, Soumi says. A cultural and social experience, shisha comes in a wide range of fruity flavours. Soumi plans to pair cocktails and food with the Shisha.
When you go to Beirut Bunker Bar, you are guaranteed to have fabulous drinks. To enhance an already perfect night though, try to grab a chat with Soumi, he will be a big part of your amazing night.
Beirut Bunker Bar is located at 25 Garema Place in Civic.
It is open from 4:00 pm to 4:00 am Tuesday through Friday; and from 6:00 pm to 4:00 am on Saturday. It’s closed on Sunday and Monday.