“ AKA The Ruins / Address: Tripoli Old City / Marcus Aurelius Arch / Tripoli / Libya „
The Athar restaurant is a top tip in any guidebook listing for Tripoli. I don't have a guidebook to Libya but I didn't really need one - there must have been a dozen copies of the Lonely Planet circulating amongst the members of our tour group. I'm not a fan of the tendency many people have to navigate the world by following a set of instructions in a particular guidebook but when it comes to some of the less well-trodden paths of world travel a few helpful hints don't go amiss. This restaurant was one example that it pays to sometimes listen to the so-called experts.
We arrived in Tripoli late in the afternoon on Sunday with little in the way of anything particular to do. One of the women I'd been chatting to at the airport had been doing her homework and had read in the guidebook that the restaurant next to the Marcus Aurelius Arch (the only bit of old Roman Tripoli still visible in the city) was supposed to be particularly good. We agreed to meet at 7 in the hotel lobby and head into the Old City and see if we could find it.
~Souk-ing up the Atmosphere~
At seven o'clock five of us set off to follow our noses in roughly the direction where we believed the restaurant lay. Walking through the markets and souk of the Old City we really were making it up as we went along and I'm sure our route was a lot longer than it needed to be due to all the zigging and zagging along the way. The streets are very narrow in places and it was quite hard going. I think we had all been a bit nervous about heading off without a clear sense of where we were going because most of the group had been to Marrakech or Istanbul and knew how easy it was to get lost and how obviously five white tourists would stand out amongst the locals. There was no need to worry - the only comments we got were friendly greetings and people shouting out 'Welcome to Libya' although on the way back, a guy did tell me he loved me and gave me some sweeties.
Eventually we found ourselves at the edge of the Old City just by the Ottoman Clock Tower. I checked my map (which had been pointless inside the city) and then we headed along the outside of the Old City to find the Marcus Aurelius Arch. The Athar restaurant was right beside it.
The weather had been bad all afternoon so it was immediately apparent that eating outside wasn't on the cards but when we headed into the restaurant it was equally clear that they weren't going to have any problem fitting us in because the place was completely empty. The waiter asked if we had booked which seemed a bit odd when there were no other customers and then gave us a table for six. Moments later, two more of our group turned up and they moved us to a larger table for eight. (We didn't know at the time that the other two had been following us through the souk assuming that we were heading to this restaurant - they were a lot more subtle than the security man who'd been assigned to 'keep an eye on us' all week).
The menus arrived and once we'd figured out that the back was the front and vice versa due to the Arabic standard of writing from right to left, we settled to the big issue of choosing something to eat. The menu is a mish-mash of local and Italian influences and there was plenty to tempt us. One of the group was a gluten-intolerant strict vegetarian and she had brought a sheet of paper with an Arabic translation of what she could and couldn't eat and an explanation of her slightly unusual dietary issues. At least that's what she thinks it was - I suspected that the Arabic probably said 'Here's a fussy woman. Give her some rice and vegetables and you can charge her double'.
Typical menu options included tagines, couscous, al garra (a dish cooked in a clay pot that's broken at the table before serving), fish and meat dishes and pastas. My husband and I ordered fish soup followed by penne Arabiatta. It was probably pretty silly since everyone else went for more exotic (and expensive) choices but I wasn't in the mood for anything too complicated. We also ordered alcohol-free beers and a bottle of water. You can get used to alcohol-free beer but it's not brilliant.
~Food Fit for an Emperor?~
The waiters were trying to 'hard sell' starters but only about half the group chose to have soup. This was probably a wise choice since the waiters started bringing lots of nibbles which I assume we were charged for, but I have no idea how much they cost. First to arrive were baskets of small puffy flat breads, straight from the over just outside the entrance. Next they brought plates of dips including baba ghanoush (aubergine and garlic mush), yoghurt, tahini (sesame seeds), shocking red chilli paste and black olives. Finally they brought small plates with little squares of tuna pizza and some kind of Spanish-style omelette.
Soup arrived in a big copper bowl and was served at the table with the waiter taking care to trawl around and make sure each person got a good lump of fish. The soup had a smoky tomato-rich broth that was slightly thickened with either couscous or rice. I'm not sure which it was but I wasn't about to go into a detailed dissection in front of a table of people I'd only met an hour or two earlier. Combined with the warm flat-bread, the soup was delicious. Our main courses of penne Arabiata were bit less spicy than I'd have liked but thanks to the presence of the killer red chilli sauce from our starter plates, I was able to give it a bit more fire. The pasta was well cooked, the sauce well distributed but there's not a lot to be said about such a simple dish. I was a bit jealous of some of the other dishes though. The fish tagine across the table from me included a whole head-on fish on a massive base of vegetables. The lamb al garra next to me came with an enormous bowl of couscous and chickpeas and someone further down the table had the seafood version.
The meal for the seven of us came to 160 dinar which is a shade over £80. We each put in 25 dinars, thereby netting the rather surly waiters a pretty good tip and we headed off to take photos of the Arch by night and to fathom our way back through the maze of muddy damp souks. We stopped to look at a church along the way, got comprehensively lost and somehow magically ended up back at the hotel.
~Back for Seconds~
On our last night in Libya we tried to book the whole group into the Athar but failed dismally. Not willing to believe that it really would be full, four of us set off to see if we could blag our way in. Luckily the weather was much improved over the first visit when it had rained horrible throughout our meal and consequently we were able to eat on the terrace, overlooking the ancient arch and close to the oven. On this occasion we didn't really want to order starters because we knew they'd bring bread and dips but we were slightly bullied into a salad, expecting something fairly simple and modest. After a good giggle at the typos in the menu description of the al garra ("The food is cocked in a clay pot and broken and served to the c**t at the table" - talk about rude food) we all opted to go for this option, the other two people going with baby camel and my husband and I with the seafood option.
The salad was not the modest dish we'd imagined. Instead the waiter brought an enormous platter with chopped vegetables, green salad, beetroot, baba ghanoush and a rather exotic mix of seafood bits including prawns and octopus. Knowing that we had large main courses to follow we attacked it a bit gingerly trying to make sure we'd have space for what was to come.
The al garra pots were assembled on a small trestle table next to our main table. With their bread dough seals on the top they did look similar to some of the ancient amphoras we'd seen during our tours of the Greek and Roman ruins. The waiter took a small hammer and delicately tapped his way around the top and removed the 'lid' from the main body of the pot and poured the contents onto a large plate. He repeated this with all four plates. Before serving he'd brought two large dishes of couscous and chickpeas to the table after checking who'd ordered the baby camel dish.
Our seafood al garra dishes didn't come with couscous and chickpeas and it's useful to know this if you go in a small group and nobody orders the lamb or camel variant. I have no idea why the more expensive seafood version doesn't get the extra dish with it but luckily the bowls were large enough that there was plenty to share and we didn't miss out. The sauce on the dish was delicious, quite hot and spicy and very aromatic but my main disappointment was discovering that 'seafood' meant 100% octopus. I don't think it was unreasonable to expect that seafood would mean a mix of different critters rather than a single type. If you're going to serve octopus only, then call it an octopus al garra. I do like octopus but this was a LOT of octopus. There are only so many tentacles you can munch before it all becomes a bit overwhelming.
For desserts, my husband and the other gentleman took ice-cream (don't ask what flavours, we really couldn't guess even though we tried) and the other lady had crème caramel. We all ordered coffees. The total bill for the four of us was 130 dinars (about £70) which seemed like a lot compared to our other Libyan dining experiences, but was still very good value by western standards. I was really pleased that we'd decided to go back and I would recommend Athar to anyone going to Tripoli. There's also a very trendy coffee bar next door that looked worth a visit, but by the time we left the restaurant we were too stuffed to be tempted.