Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Restaurant review:

Drama on the doorstep

The antlers hanging on the walls captivate Gamal Nkrumah

Queen Tiye gapes disdainfully at the Bakalite telephone switchboard studded with rows of jacks and sockets. One of the marvels of the Windsor Hotel on Alfi Bey Street is that it boasts the oldest elevator in Cairo, a vintage Schindler, but Queen Tiye and I climbed the steps; it is only one fight up. The elevator is operated manually and Queen Tiye would not risk getting stuck in an antiquated rickety cubicle in such an antique hotel.

"I love this country, but loving it doesn't mean turning your head the other way when you see things are going wrong," she extrapolates. Her mellifluous chant echoes around The Barrel Lounge.

Although the Bar has remained stolidly in its hermetically sealed time warp, it now serves an entirely different clientele.

As I look for a waiter, it occurs to me that once upon a time The Barrel Lounge of the Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo was the very epitome of archetypal colonial shows of power. The atmosphere is eerily like those dreary black and white silent movies when one drunken officer gives another a painful-looking back slap.

Queen Tiye takes liberties with the maitre d' who obviously enjoys making small talk with his regulars. She points to a monstrous matron who presumably finds it hard, like the Windsor Hotel itself, to adjust to her reduced circumstances. "Poor dear," the maitre d' pulls a face and Queen Tiye quickly tires of him and kisses the powdered botoxed cheeks of another dolled up society lady.

"Mutton dressed as lamb," she whispered wickedly as she returned to her seat and quickly plucked out her hand sanitiser from her purse.

The Windsor is quaint and there is something to say about its withered Old World warmth. It is its disheartening surroundings, the potholed alleyways and rundown street caf├ęs encircling the Windsor, that are something of an eyesore.

The Barrel Lounge looks even emptier, not least of waiters. Even so, this is the sort of bar one forges close friendships with expatriates and, I hate to admit it, a fast dying breed of locals who belong to an entirely different era, that of La Belle Epoch. The traditional ambiance is just as fading, ebbing away with the contemporary clienteles' easy inebriation. Hanging up on the wall of the Barrel Lounge is a stag's huge head with antlers piercing the high ceiling creating a classic colonial mellifluous milieu.

The Platinum Blonde was fussing about the fruitlessness of her latest diet. Queen Tiye was exasperated. "Eat less junk and move around more," she hissed.

The compact but open room was clearly designed for colonial officers. We move from the bar to the restaurant, a squeeze into a rather cramped table, with knees almost touching. Out pops Queen Tiye's sanitiser again, much to the consternation of the Platinum Blonde.

Other dishes arrive. The hors d'oeuvres, cottage cheese and tomatoes and baba ghanoush were delicious. Our succulent grilled chicken charms the Platinum Blonde. "How's the poor bird," I ask, instantly realising how silly the question must sound to a seasoned carnivore. Her answer is deliberately measured. "Ye-es. Scrumptious." Queen Tiye desires a glass of Cape Bay Merlot, and I follow suit.

A waiter breezes past nervously. The red wine arrives and the maitre d' promptly appears. Queen Tiye pauses again watching her words. "Undecided." There is another discomforting pause. "Take your time, don't worry," the maitre d' chips in.

It is hard to tell whether he is joking, but the waiter has an air of weathering nitwits at the Windsor's Barrel Lounge.

We have been talking for almost an hour sipping sparkling water and wine. I have been eyeing the appetisers fast disappearing before the Platinum Blonde's avarice, but I follow Queen Tiye's lead and keep mum.

The waiter takes our plates. We walk out, Queen Tiye eyeing suspiciously the stairwell and within a few steps a big and boisterous beggar woman stops us. More passer-by beggars are soliciting baksheesh and Queen Tiye looks uncomfortable. We part as she hops into a taxi and disappears into a bustling 26 July Street.

The Barrel Lounge

Windsor Hotel

Downtown Cairo

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