I am not going to review any of the restaurants that I visited in Tunis, primarily because reviewing restaurants has never struck me as being a legitimate genre of blogging. When bloggers venture out to investigate certain restaurants, they will only ever review as much as they can eat, which is invariably a single meal. To make their work a science, they should order everything on the menu. They would not come to a conclusion about Tunis based upon a single visit to the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul, so how can they review an entire restaurant on the basis of one item?
Nonetheless, I found the cliché about Tunis to be true: that the cheaper the meal, the better it often is. The priciest and most tourist-conscious of the restaurants that I visited featured stay-at-home menus of pizzas and pastas, although these meals were still haunted relentlessly by the seafood which is characteristic of the region. The best dinner that I enjoyed in Tunis was eaten at lunchtime during an emergency, when I was lost and carrying all my baggage. The restaurant was set out under a canopy, with a man cooking all of the meals one by one in a frying pan. My lunch cost six dinars. It was nothing to look at – chunks of meat in swirling spinach – but on the palate rather than on the plate it was rich, fresh, and elaborately spiced.
What a tip I have given the man with the pan – am I trying to buy his restaurant? The only advice that I can give about eating out in Tunis is that tipping, which the majority of Britons tend to look upon as a barbarian custom, is seldom expected outside of the tourist centres. The Tunisians are themselves stingy tippers; I have heard of business lunches which have run into hundreds of dinars, with only a couple of coins being left on the table for the waiters afterwards. I am not recommending that you do not tip, but how to hit the correct stratum of generosity need not be a source of anxiety and bitter self-recrimination.
Let us move from food to drink. Is it possible to go out partying in Tunis, in the same way that a group of friends in Edinburgh will periodically embark upon a night as long as a day, in which many housebound weekends of pent-up energy are wiped away in an explosion of debauchery? Is the infrastructure available?
My hosts would like to rectify some erroneous ideas that I might have gotten about Tunisia. They have heard the complaints and questions which will be woven together into my article “Alcohol.” I suspect that Tunisia is not a well-lubricated country. It appears to me that Tunisians only ever drink to admire the experience of drinking and never to get drunk. Social life in Tunis is, in my assessment, rather too plastic. Where there should be a great sea of partying, the Tunisians have all withdrawn to the beach, or else they are paddling forlornly in the shallows.
(In truth, I have been interrogating some of the rather thoughtless assumptions in “Alcohol.” I previously scoffed at the name of Lac 2’s faux bar “So British” which did not serve any beer. Yet I would never joke that any of the mosque-run restaurants in Edinburgh were “not so British,” even though these establishments are normally dry.)
My hosts promise me that many Tunisians like to party. Indeed, they claim that the section of the educated class in Tunis which likes to drink is frighteningly uninhibited, and lacking even in a British teenager’s cursory education about alcohol consumption. We go out driving around Tunis and Carthage on a pub crawl. What follows is a brief recap of this, along with some other bars in Tunis that I have visited.
Two hotels in central Tunis, the Hotel International and the more down-on-its-luck Hotel El Bahy, both have excellent bars. The bar in Hotel El Bahy has an agreeably seedy ambiance but also some worthwhile live music (courtesy of Syrian performers the night that I was there). El Hana International has a bar on the ground floor, another next door, and a third on the roof. The last of these, the Bar Jamaica, has a clientele so touristy that the bar, in floating above the overlapping city rooftops, has the atmosphere of the deck aboard a cruise ship. With its view of all views across the city, the Bar Jamaica can be additionally borrowed to ascertain the true scale of the political demonstrations down in the Avenue Habib Bourguiba below.
To the north of central Tunis is a miniature palace called Villa 78. This is supposed to be a youth hostel, but when we arrive it resembles a house party at its peak. There are countless young people spilling out of the doors and windows into the garden, where two beach-style bars are distributing the lagers. There is pounding music and a big bunch of happy dancers. A passing student who is acquainted with my host stops with a grin to explain that “everybody” is here on Sunday night. If you were forced to choose between rounding down to nobody or up to everybody, then without a doubt everybody is here.
I feel preternaturally calm or even drained when drinking at Villa 78. It is very seductive to sit back and be immersed in the sheer roar of the place.
On the other side of Lac de Tunis, in the La Goulette neighbourhood, the Hotel La Jetée offers a second lively rooftop bar. When we are driving through La Goulette, I exclaim at the stout, shiny fish which are hanging up bigger than fur coats outside one restaurant. La Goulette has an edge to it which might merely come from your excitement at being on the wharfs, just around the block from the sea air. I am told that this neighbourhood rears a lot of young jihadists but La Jetée appears to be frequented by people who are equally fanatical about partying.
I sample a strange concoction of these flavours in the elevator up to the bar. A peevish-looking man in an imam costume is coming up behind us in the entrance but he suddenly veers away from joining us in the lift. So up he plods, up the stairs. My host’s wife supposes that he does not want to be in a lift with a woman who has bare legs. When we are in the La Jetée bar, however, the cocktails on offer include a candidate named “the blowjob.” This triggers an inevitable string of unathletic jokes from me: “e.g. if that imam guy comes in, I’ll make sure that he gets a blowjob.” In reality, we try a shot of something blue and delicious, which wraps itself around me like a friendly bite.
Bar workers do not use standardised measures in Tunisia, so unless I feel as if the moon has crashed down on to my brain, I am jealously suspicious that the person making my drink has not given it enough welly. Perhaps this occurs in the bar of the charming Dar Zarrouk restaurant in Sidi Bou Said. This restaurant is, incidentally, a place to make your home for hours on end. There is the view of the sea which the dinner in front of you has to strain every sinew to wrench your attention away from. Inland, the bar spreads itself over a tranquil courtyard and a terrace.
I order a mojito and then rest an interrogative eye on the man who is working on it. The drink is being painstakingly built but did he splash in quite enough rum? I am, in the end, appeased. The mojito is superbly crafted, and whatever is in it is blinding enough to obscure what might not be in it. So British is once again worthy of a mention here. The differently flavoured mojitos – none of them alcohol-flavoured, alas – are drinks that you are meant to invest in and admire at length, rather than just sluice down the drain with the day’s bottled beers.
In Le Carpe Diem, on the highway to La Marsa, my worries about alcohol measures receive a firm reproof. I go for the Long Island Iced Tea, a drink which contains virtually no mixer. It proves to be one long ear-splitting screech of a drink. As always, it rehabilitates every other drink in the world with the word “tea” in the title. Maybe this is the drink for Tunis.
At first glance, Le Carpe Diem looks like any other UK nightclub, but the worldly eye can soon begin to pick out where it wanders. Despite the decks, there is no dancefloor and people were dancing in their seats or between tables. This spirit of improvisation was, I should add, running very high. Another curious detail which I noticed was that the security staff will not admit single men or women, presumably because they don’t want to replicate the classic meat-market vibe of a UK nightclub. This means that single men will have to take a female friend along with them to guarantee their entry.
There are some more interesting venues to visit, including the exhilaratingly grimly-looking Plug’s Pub in La Goulette, which is at the top of the list for when I return. But for now, after being so abundantly refreshed, it is time to call it a night.