Hamra’s historic pub, the Captain’s Cabin, turns 50

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Andre Toriz, owner of Beirut's historic pub "The Captain's Cabin," poses behind the bar. (Photo: Marc Abizeid)

By: Marc Abizeid

Published Friday, May 30, 2014

When their wives could no longer tolerate them bringing their friends over to drink, smoke and litter their homes, leaving the women to clean up after them, a group made up mostly of pilots decided to pitch in and rent out a space to get together and play Bridge. That was 50 years ago, in June 1964. They christened their new play room, discreetly tucked away on the edge of the bustling Hamra district along Sadat Street, "The Captain's Cabin."

Countless pubs have come and gone since then, but Captain's Cabin still remains like a relic from the past, with much of its original decor and aging furniture, vintage pool table and rickety bar stools.

"People tell me all the time, 'You know, my parents used to come here when they were kids,'" Andre Toriz, the Cabin’s current owner and son of one of its founders, says.

"Recently a married couple came in and told me this is where they met years ago. I told them, 'Hey, it's because of me you two met, so why don't you ever come to visit?!"

It has remained as somewhat of an anomaly in a district that's gone through multiple transitions, surviving Beirut's warring years, and refusing to surrender to the postwar era's sluggish economy.

At its inception, it was more of a private club than a commercial establishment. But within a few years, a fleet of foreign pilots heard about the Cabin and began spending their layovers there.

By 1972, the owners knocked down some walls to expand the space, opened the garden, and began serving food in what was now an officially licensed bar and restaurant.

“I used to run around everywhere,” Toriz recalls of his childhood, sending his father chasing after him and yelling in a futile attempt to discipline the boy.

Toriz, a burly, clean-shaven man of Mexican ancestry, says he was rambunctious as a child, always hyped up on caffeine from the 10 or 11 bottles of Pepsi he used to drink each day.

But soon enough, Toriz's dad began assigning responsibilities to his son, the youngest of four siblings. His first task was to watch over the employees while his father napped.

“If anything went wrong, it was my job to tell him,” he said. By the time the civil war erupted in 1975, a shortage of employees meant Toriz would be promoted to dishwasher.

He continued staffing the bar during the war, even after enrolling at Beirut University College (now called Lebanese American University) in 1986 from which he earned a business degree seven years later.

To pay for tuition Toriz juggled his responsibilities at Captain's with occasional work driving children to and from school, and he spent weekends making photocopies at a local print shop.

The experiences emboldened Toriz and shaped his do-it-yourself character. But they came at great personal cost, as the war left him feeling physically and mentally drained.

“There was constant bombardment. It never ended. I couldn't go anywhere,” Toriz said.

But the tumultuous periods of armed conflict that had wracked Beirut largely spared the Cabin from violence over the past 50 years.

Toriz can only recall a single incident when a weapon was fired inside the pub, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

A convoy carrying a group of militiamen, with machine guns mounted on some of the vehicles, parked outside the Cabin. Two gunmen entered and approached a Palestinian man seated at the bar who they had come to take away.

“They ordered him to walk, but he refused. He said: 'No. I'm not coming until I finish my drink,'” Toriz, at the time a young boy, recalled.

“He was wasted. The militiamen kept shouting at him to come with them but he refused, so they shot a bar stool.”

Inebriated and stubborn, the patron still refused to budge, so his abductors waited for him to finish his drink before carrying him away.

“We said 'Oh my God, they're going to kill him.’ We were so worried,” Toriz continued.

“But after a couple hours he came back. We asked him what had happened. He shrugged it off and said, 'You know, they were looking for a different guy with the same name, so they let me go.' Then he ordered another drink.”

Toriz can go on for hours recalling names, places and events. He even described the red Dodge with its white stripe driven by the militia leader in the last anecdote. But he does so with great caution, careful not to incriminate himself, or anyone who could pose a threat.

It is in large part this diplomatic code that has allowed Captain's to survive a 15-year civil war, two long military occupations, and countless militia battles over the district.

The only period Toriz had ever spent away from the Cabin was an 18-month stint in 1996-1997 prior to his father's death when he joined a friend in Venezuela to sell women's undergarments.

“That was the best time of my life,” a sentimental Toriz recalled. “I never knew what it was like to live without fear. You wake up, you feel safe and relaxed and want to sleep more.”

Patrons enjoy drinks seated next to an unfinished game of pool inside the Captain's Cabin. (Photo: Marc Abizeid)

But with his father falling ill, Toriz returned to Beirut in 1997. The next few years were some of the most trying for the pub due to Syrian army office that had set up shop just next door.

Many nights Captain’s only patron was Akram Haidar, a childhood friend.

“I used to come almost everyday, even when the Syrians were here,” Haidar said. “Sometimes we stayed the whole night with just two or three people.”

The end of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon in 2005 brought customers flooding back into the Cabin.

Even in recent episodes of conflict, drinkers flocked to the Cabin, including during Israel’s 33 day assault on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 when Toriz dusted off an old generator to power up the pub amid the frequent black outs.

But the job wasn’t always without security risks.

He recalls crouching behind the thick concrete walls of the restroom one night in the May 7 2008 battle as fighting gripped Beirut and as automatic weapons blazed just outside the Cabin’s doors.

When gunmen were not shooting at each other, Toriz could hear the fighters trading insults a few meters away.

The Cabin was caught in the midst of the most serious internal fighting Beirut had witnessed since the civil war's end nearly 20 years prior.

The area had become an epicenter of the West Beirut battles that pit rival militias against each other, with a brief afternoon lull on May 8, as Toriz recalls. Then there was a knock at the door which gunmen had tried to kick down only hours before.

Alone inside the bar where he had been holed up for at least a day, Toriz began to panic before peering out the window to recognize a few familiar faces.

“What the hell are you doing here?” a bewildered Toriz asked four close companions who were concerned about his fate.

“We came to check up on you,” one of them replied.

Toriz hurried them into the Cabin where they cracked open a few beers, shared some laughs and made the best out of an uncertain situation.

“I'll never forget that day,” Toriz reminisced as he leaned forward from behind the bar with a slight smile. “Those are true friends.”

There's still a 4” x 6” photograph stashed between a bottle of bourbon and Russian vodka on a wooden shelf behind the bar that shows Toriz seated among his friends to attest to that day’s events.

The photo is just one of the more sentimental trophies that clutter the shelves between bottles of booze offered to Toriz by his loyal patrons.

Today, the bar's clientele is mostly comprised of students and young people who appreciate the unassuming atmosphere and cheap drinks. With 4,000 LL ($2.70) beers, it's probably the only place in Beirut whose prices haven't gone up in the last decade.

Toriz shakes his head when asked if he'll ever give up the gig and move on to something else. “Not in the near future,” he replied.

“The job is very demanding, but I love it. Everyday you see something different, and I don't think I'll ever stop doing it.”

Comments

I lived in Beirut for five years. and I'm happy to say that this place, and the people who shared time with me there, including Mr. Toriz! are the dearest to my heart under Lebanon's flag.

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