Le Bristol, an iconic palace from Lebanon’s golden age

"With the closure of Le Bristol hotel, a whole dynasty of Lebanese entrepreneurs is now in jeopardy," Pierre J. Doumet said.

The Oriental room, adorned with 19th Century woodwork, installed by the Tarazis in 1954. File photo

Once an iconic palace from Lebanon’s golden age, the prestigious Le Bristol Hotel has now closed its doors, turned off its chandeliers and plate-warmers, and put away its silver trays and crystal bowls. Reluctantly, cousins Pierre and Marc Doumet, representing the two families that own the hotel, threw in the towel, admitting that the 150-room hotel cannot afford any more losses when no economic recovery is looming on the horizon. The hotel had been in the red for months but the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent closure of the airport was the final blow. On March 15, it closed its doors and is now finalizing severance packages for its 150 employees.

Le Bristol is far more than a splendid five-star hotel known for legendary buffets. It is first and foremost the story of two brothers, 23 and 25 years old, Joseph and Michel Doumet, who, near the end of the 1940s, decided to embark on the adventure of starting a hotel, with all the risks, physical presence, follow-up and initiative spirit it involved in difficult times. These are the values that made Le Bristol, but are today endangered.

"Is there still room left for family businesses in Lebanon, at a time when cunning, trickery, and opportunism have replaced skill and hard work?" said Pierre J. Doumet, ex-CEO of the hotel whose management rotate between the two families. "Is there still room for a model family business whose owners took the risk of investing over $32 million, less than five years ago, in order to give their business a future that would live up to its past? With the closure of Le Bristol hotel, a whole dynasty of Lebanese entrepreneurs is now in jeopardy."

An international gastronomic experience

Traveling back in time, we are in 1951 and Le Bristol hotel just had its grand opening, after two years of construction. Designed by the famous Jean Royère, a favorite designer of Parisian circles at the time, the developers invested all their assets in the venture. For them, success came big and fast. Le Bristol became a renowned name in the hotel business and fortune smiled on its owners.

At the head of the hotel was Georges Rayes, whose name will forever be associated with fine Lebanese cuisine. It was him who transformed this grand hotel into an international gastronomic experience not to be missed. The entrance, the halls, the bar, the restaurant, the roof and the bedrooms, the engraved mirrors, chandeliers, furniture, sconces, carpets, woodwork, paintings, and the decor hold the marks of a plush hotel, adorned with polar bear curved sofas, a style envisioned by Jean Royère who was selected to design the bar at the Carlton Hotel in Paris.

The lobby with its polar bear style Jean Royère armchairs and sofas. Archives

The hotel had a little secret that enabled it to maintain its reputation of luxury, calm and voluptuousness: the contribution of Laure Choukeir, who married Michel Doumet, and Marie-Claire Chiha, daughter of the great Michel Chiha, who married Joseph. From each of their journeys abroad, the two women brought back, by boat, new furniture, dressers, chandeliers, vintage cutlery, and decor ideas to enhance the splendor of the hotel that had become their second home.

The "Glorious Twenty Years"

Between 1950 and 1970, the hotel witnessed its "glorious twenty years," relishing the carefree mood of the good old days. But at the turn of the 1970s, like all of Lebanon, Le Bristol was overtaken by the Palestinian tragedy and its disastrous consequences on the fragile Lebanese internal balance.

To understand how great the hotel had once been, it is enough to name some of its guests, including millionaires and leading international figures, the likes of the Shah of Iran, the Emperor of Ethiopia, President Jacques Chirac, trumpeter Dizzie Gillepsie, and aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane. It was a time when it was acceptable for women to wear mink without being accused of animal cruelty, when top hats and frock coats were not ridiculed, and when it was the norm for parents to leave their children with the housekeepers to enjoy parties, dinners, weddings and cocktails. Le Bristol was also the first hotel to have a ballroom in Beirut.

In a stroke of genius, the hotel management established in the 1960s the first skating rink in the country situated in the hotel basement, a cramped but magical venue, which attracted a generation of young people in search of a space to meet and develop romantic relations under the pretext of going skating. The basement was then transformed into a conference room.

The "Battle of the Hotels"

When war broke in Lebanon in 1975, and demarcation lines and crossing points of a divided capital were drawn, Le Bristol remained open. Well set in the cosmopolitan district of Ras Beirut, a stone's throw from a Hamra street clad with sparkling shop windows and cinemas, it providently escaped the "battle of the hotels" on the seafront, to which its great rivals, the Saint-Georges, Holiday Inn, and Phoenicia Intercontinental succumbed.

Le Bristol survived and continued to operate, even during the dark years of the war, serving as a headquarters for foreign journalists. In 1989, two of its upper floors were hit and partially burned during the battles between army battalions loyal to General Michel Aoun, and the Syrian Army.

The entrance to the hotel, with its charming concierge.

Following the withdrawal of the Israeli forces from south Lebanon in 2000, Le Bristol became a symbol of courage, defying threats of intimidation by the Syrian forces and offering a meeting space to the Christian opposition coalition of Kornet Chehwane and its allies, including Walid Joumblatt and an alliance of leftist movements hostile to Damascus. This is how the “Bristol Meeting” was born and gradually transformed into a Christian-Sunni-Druze alliance against Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, until the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The "March 14 Coalition" then took over.

"All the workshops of March 14 were held at the Bristol, and it was in its premises that Walid Joumblatt received his European socialist friends visiting Lebanon," recalled Fares Souaid, a great witness of that time, who still remembers how his friend Samir Frangieh (who died in 2017) sensed an unparalleled opportunity for change at that moment.

New Kitchens

Between 2013 and 2015, still having faith in the country, the Doumets suspended the services of the Bristol and invested $32 million to renovate the place. The whole basement was renovated, new kitchens were installed at great cost, and the piping system was refurbished. Sadly, we are on the eve of an economic and financial collapse of a state shamefully plundered by its ruling class, amid sham reassurances that the foreign exchange reserves were sufficient and that the value of the pound was unshakable. Two or three years later, the clouds of the black year of 2019 started to gather, before the storm of October 17 broke out, giving the final blow to an already dying tourism sector, with mass cancellations of reservations and conferences. A few months later, the coronavirus pandemic completely decimated the sector.

Ironically, while Le Bristol was fighting for its survival, the state undertook to close the quarries of the National Cement factories in Chekka, founded by the Doumets, along with Liban-Câbles, Lebanon Chemicals and Matelec, depriving the owners from funds which allowed them, at times, to compensate for their hotel losses.

"The filters installed in our cement factory meet the criteria set not only in Lebanon, but in Europe," protested Pierre Doumet, CEO of Cimenteries, pointing at the Ministry of the Environment and explaining that the factory's 750 employees and workers continue to receive almost their full salary.

A sense of family

The closure of Le Bristol obviously has a social dimension. Under quarantine since mid-March, its employees will soon receive their severance packages. But the term used sounds bad for Marc Doumet, the hotel's current CEO. "The decision was very painful," he said. "All of our employees lived through the war with us. Our pastry chef, Mahmoud Nasser, has been here for 39 years. He was 18 when he was hired. With our staff, we are one big family."

"What will become of the Bristol today? We don't know," said Pierre Doumet as if talking to himself. "There is a multi-million dollar debt to pay off. We do not want to give false hope. I don't see us reopening anytime soon."

"The Iron Armenian Woman"

Of the four directors of Le Bristol Hotel, from the great Georges Rayes, to the strict Ana Arakelian, the extraordinary Nazira el-Atrache and the bold Franco-Lebanese Joseph Coubat, it was Mrs. Arakelian who left the deepest impression on the guests of the hotel. The woman, who was nicknamed "the iron Armenian woman" in an article devoted by Le Monde to Le Bristol in 1982, presided over the hotel for the period of twenty years, in the midst of the war.

"This lady 'who works for fun' is a figure," wrote the daily newspaper. "A respected but feared woman, an effective tyrant in the Beirut hotel industry. One day she decided that, war or no war - forbidding anyone to call it a civil war - whether under shelling or not, will remain at it should be."

"And Sir, we have not failed in our hotel duty," she said, before recounting the events of a ministerial lunch, which was quite royal, in 1981, during which she was awarded a medal for her work."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 23rd of April)

Once an iconic palace from Lebanon’s golden age, the prestigious Le Bristol Hotel has now closed its doors, turned off its chandeliers and plate-warmers, and put away its silver trays and crystal bowls. Reluctantly, cousins Pierre and Marc Doumet, representing the two families that own the hotel, threw in the towel, admitting that the 150-room hotel cannot afford any more losses when no...