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Myrtom House, Beirut

I was amazed about Steve Somerville’s report of Beirut’s restaurants. Being the son of the former Myrtom House owner, some legends must be deconstructed and precision given to some points in this review.

Undoubtedly, Johann (nicknamed Hans) Maschek was a right-oriented restaurant owner and, retrospectively, with a very narrow-minded view and comprehension of Lebanon and Middle East politics. He despised Arab and Lebanese people. Socialising with them was a way to do business. An oxymoron in a “leftist” and then “Muslim” area like West Beirut from 1978 to 1990. How did he survived during these harsh years with such a mentality?

His customers gave him this informal protection to let him run his business. Walid Jumblatt and Marwan Hamade were some of these political people who gave him this luck. Before 1982, even some high-ranking officers of the PLO helped him to maintain open this “cool” and “cold” haven for leisure, business relations or their mistresses. Press people were also a de facto good marketing factor for the restaurant.

After 1986, due to foreigner kidnapping, the ageing businessman went to Monaco, resuming business in a pub, and then retired in Nice until his life’s end in 2010.

The Myrtom House II eventually closed between 1997 and 2000 due to a more or less inexperienced management from his former maître d'hôtel who took over the business in 1986. Some years later the empty rooms were bought by a young restaurant manager. This was the goodbye kiss.

There is a different story concerning Myrtom House I which was running from 1960 up to October 1975.

Hans Maschek, born in 1927 in Vienna, was a Hitlerjugend at Anschluss in 1938 as were most young Germans or Austrians at that time. I never heard about this “rumour …[that] he had served as model for an iconic Hitler Youth bust”. The mood, at that time, was to survive war by making some black market business. He and a friend were making some money by tanning hides looted from the occupied territories in the East thanks to Nazi occupation.

At the age of 18 he was drafted to the Wehrmacht. In Normandy during the landing day, he was happy to be a prisoner of war of the US Army. He escaped but got lost after some days and French authorities sent him to “help” a farmer in the Auvergne. In 1947, he was sent home and took courses in hotel and restaurant management.

A couple of years later, he applied for a job in Damascus at the Khayyam Hotel. In 1955/56 he was hired as a butler at King Faysal’s Palace in Baghdad. The 1958 revolution ended this royal dream. Hans and his wife were taken into custody to be tried, but the new Iraqi authorities deported them.

Back in Austria, he was in contact with a couple (Thomas and Myriam), German Jewish people who emigrated to Lebanon during the war. They were managing a small one-room restaurant in West Beirut. He took over and kept the thing running for 15 years as a highly successful restaurant and a hotel (for expats and press people). The name Myrtom House is the “Myr” of Myriam and the “Tom” of Thomas. Business went on despite the “bad” years like 1967 or 1973. Hans was like surfing above events.

The “miracle” ended in October 1975 at the beginning of the “Hotel battle” in West Beirut. Myrtom House was burned down during a one-week battle in the Mexico street and the surrounding area. The Holiday Inn, St George and Phoenicia had the same fate a couple of weeks later. For Hans, this was a plot against him. The whole thing began with a skirmish between a Mourabitoun (a Nasserist militia) patrol and one of his restaurant waiters, a kataib from the Hrajel area near Faraya. No more no less.

Hans and his family went to Austria. He came back in December 1976 and, with a bank loan, he was soon running a new but smaller restaurant: Myrtom House II with more or less 10 years of success. Both restaurants looked alike: a Tyrolian chalet with wooden walls, dim light and cosy tables and a cool air conditioning system. Sometimes it was cut due to power shortage in Beirut.

Food was always European which included wienerschnitzel but also sauerkraut, pork chop, châteaubriand, fried cheese from central Europe and American t-bone steak. Sometimes Hans cheated with his escalope de veau: veal was replaced with turkey but went unnoticed by the customers. Fondue bourguignonne was a favourite for illegitimate couples. Wines were Lebanese (Ksara, Musar and Kefraya) and beer was most of the time local (Amstel or Almaza). Irish coffee was hailed by press people.

Hoping that these few lines will enlighten the history of the restaurant. ■