On a rugged mountain peak nearly 1,000 meters above the red-tiled roofs of Bsharri in north Lebanon, a blissful summer getaway awaits those ready to make an effort to escape the stifling heat of the city.
Far on the outskirts of the remote village of Hadath al-Jibbeh, the tightly knit Habshi family welcomes you to their simple restaurant, aptly named Jiwar al-Sama, or Neighborhood of the Sky, for its placement seemingly at the border between the Earth and the heavens.
Rania Habshi, the restaurant’s co-owner, says it is the highest eatery in Lebanon. But potential accolades aside, the awe-inspiring view and the fresh, vibrant food it serves make Neighborhood of the Sky worth the more than two-hour drive from Beirut.
“People who come here say it’s the best restaurant in Lebanon. We’ve created something out of nothing,” Habshi says, wearing a large sun hat to shield herself from the punishing glare at 2,300 meters above sea level. “My dad and brother slaughter, me and my sister cook, and our kids work the tables.”
Neighborhood of the Sky sits on a ridge above Tannourine’s majestic cedar forest, at one end of a bowl in the mountains that descends down to Bsharri and Hasroun, and up at the other end toward the Cedars ski resort. Veins of snow still line ridges in the opposing mountainside even in early July. The valley floor gives way to a deep chasm that runs from the cedars all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea.
A small distance from the restaurant sits a low-lying church, “The Church of God,” which Habshi and her family have been constructing for the past two decades.
But this trip is not one specifically for the religious: The food on its own is worth a pilgrimage.
Expect a fully bedecked table with three types of kibbeh nayeh, or raw kibbeh, made from meat slaughtered by Habshi’s 85-year-old father Toufic. The food is all sourced locally. “We kill our goats, we boil and mash our own hummus, the cheeses are from the goats we killed,” she says.
What better to wash down raw kibbeh than arak, the traditional anise-flavored Lebanese spirit, made from grapes sourced at their native village of Deir al-Ahmar and distilled by their hand.
Several types of cheese and a thick, tangy goat labneh are perfectly accompanied by the crisp vegetables on offer. After the mezze, the Habshis treat guests to a mixture of meat skewers, including melt-in-your-mouth kebabs. Habshi lathers whatever is left of the kibbeh between pieces of Arabic bread, throws them on the grill and serves them up for good measure.
While the star of the meal is undoubtedly the kibbeh, there’s another hidden gem: Habshi sautes liver, fat and chunks of meat into a rich, mouthwatering dish. Scoop up the meat and dip your bread into the melted fat, and forget about your arteries for a second.
The meal is completed with arishe, a dreamy kind of clotted cream made from curds and topped with sugar or honey.
Habshi notes the memorable meal has humble origins. “People would come here for the church, and wanted to eat, so we had a tent with some cheese and labneh. As more people came, they started asking for different food, and my dad began cooking,” she recalls.
So three years ago, the Habshis established the simple restaurant, a stone mountain house constructed in the traditional Lebanese way, with a large terrace that can seat more than 150.
Everything is still a work in progress, especially the church, which the family has funded, constructed and painted themselves. Upon arrival it is tradition for guests to pull on a heavy metal chain to ring the church’s bell, sending reverberating clang over the chasm below.
The Habshis have always headed up to their getaway in early June.
They live there until the first sign of snow, which usually begins piling up in November and can reach several meters in height.
Visitors can get to Neighborhood of the Sky from Beirut by heading north toward Batroun and taking the exit off the coastal highway up toward the Tannourine cedar forest. Driving on a remarkably well-paved road all the way to Tannourine, you will pass through sheer valleys containing large expanses of unbroken forest.
After reaching the village, a pothole-strewn road a la Libanaise takes you above the tree line.
First-time visitors should at that point stop at a family-owned all-terrain vehicle rental shop right before the exit to the Tannourine cedar forest and rent quad bikes or buggies for a guided tour up the dirt track to the Habshis’ place. It possible to go up in a four-wheel drive, but you’ll want to save the location on your phone and familiarize yourself with the road first.
Buggies and ATVs can be rented from the store operator, Maroun, a well-informed tour guide who can take more adventurous visitors on a ride all the way to Lebanon’s highest point, Qornet al-Sawda.
Depending on preference, Maroun will take you first to observe the cedar forest before shepherding you upward through Mars-like terrain that in many places has turned a dark green after an unusually wet winter. The grass and scrubland is interspersed with the purples and yellows of spring flowers irrigated by rivulets of melting snow.
After about 30 minutes, a steep turn to the left will take you up to the cluster of buildings the Habshis have tirelessly constructed, an outpost in the wilderness above the clouds. Turn all engines off, and let the silence greet you.