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Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt.
Carmen Pub Bar: Cosy Drinking in Zamalek
Like the Flamenco Hotel that it resides in, Carmen Pub Bar was once considered a Spanish pub, if there ever were such a thing. Nowadays, its faint lighting, calm murmuring atmosphere and innocuous appearance lend it the qualities of an English pub. Perfect for a beer and a quiet chat, non-Flamenco Hotel guests rarely venture to other parts of their drinks repertoire.
The first round of drinks we ordered consisted of a rodeo rider and a Caribbean punch (both 41LE). They looked almost identical, and the barman had to assure us that these were indeed the drinks we had ordered, and that their appearance is merely coincidental. It was hard to believe, considering that the rodeo rider was made of Jack Daniel’s, apple juice, lemon juice and honey, while the Caribbean punch contained gold rum, amaretto, grenadine, lemon juice, pineapple juice and club soda. We’re not exactly sure how the both sets of ingredients came to the same bright pink colour, but they were indeed completely different in taste.
They did have something in common, though; they had little alcohol in them. The rodeo rider in particular tasted like apple juice and honey with a slight bitterness, which would usually have been satisfying on a hot summer’s day, but we were thirsty for sharp, hard alcohol.
A whiskey sour (40LE) is probably the closest thing that fit on the cocktail menu. It fared better, but we already knew that it was also light on the alcohol by its bright yellow colour. On impulse, we also gave the hot chocolate (15LE) a go. Served piping hot with a small cookie, it was far from what you’d get at a decent coffee shop and had an amateurish homemade taste to it; for better and for worse.
Although there are a few burger options on the drinks menu, there’s actually a full selection of food available on a separate menu that you need to ask for. Looking for something more to nibble on than the complimentary cheese, carrots, bread sticks and mysterious cheese dip that you are always given, we ordered the oriental mezza (45LE) and the bookmaker sandwich (46LE).
The former is a feeble collection of two sambousak and kobeba resting on a bed of lettuce in the middle of a platter that holds four dips; yoghurt and cucumber, hummus, tehina and baba ghanough. Although the sambousak and kobeba were hot, crunchy and packed full of meat, it was a ridiculously stark serving. Luckily, a basket of bread meant we were able to keep dipping at the tehina, baba ghanough and hummus, which were fresh, but felt a little watered down in taste. The yoghurt turned out to be a completely useless dip.
As an old American favourite, the bookmaker is essentially a steak sandwich. Served in a large, slightly elongated bun, the pieces of steak were generous but a little closer to being lukewarm than you’d want. As with a lot of burgers and sandwiches you’ll stumble upon in Cairo, the quality and freshness of the bread let down what was otherwise a pleasant sandwich.
This is not the flashiest, classiest, nicest or even cheapest bar you’ll find in Cairo. But there’s a reason Carmen Pub Bar has built up such a loyal clientele: it’s comfortable and the staff are very courteous; two characteristics that many bars in Cairo lack.
With many of the most frequented bars in Cairo located in the city's international chain hotels, the lesser-known inns are understandably overlooked when it comes to nightlife. However, such hotels develop a certain, charm while enduring the test of time, and manage to establish themselves as the city's best kept secrets.
Located on the corner of Tahrir Street in Dokki, El Tonsy Hotel boasts a rooftop café-bar that has grown in popularity as a result of its moderate prices and magnificent Nile view. Stepping out of the elevator on the 18th floor, visitors must walk through what appears to be the venue's shisha storage space, before reaching the terrace. The view is undoubtedly the highlight of the place and it certainly provides relief from the immediately obvious shortcomings of Brown Lounge.
Requesting a menu, the waiter handed us a flimsy and greasy booklet which appeared to be on the verge of collapsing into single pages.
The menu seemed full of a wide variety of meals including cheese burgers (14LE), beef or chicken shawerma (11LE-18LE) and taamia (7LE). Salads include green (9LE), Greek (12LE), chicken Caesar (14LE) and an assortment of local dips (6LE/each). The menu also offers a variety of tagines, along with meat and chicken platters.
At first, we were intending to order lentil soup (10LE) and stuffed vine leaves (14LE). However, we were visited numerous times by the waiter to be told that these, and the majority of other options, were in fact unavailable. Spring rolls (11LE) were recommended to us, and we opted for Arabiata pasta (14LE), with penne rather than spaghetti.
With local beers (15LE) and a small selection of wines readily available, it appears food is rarely ordered at Brown Lounge, with most patrons opting for a good drink and smoke by the Nile view instead. Rather than alcohol, we finished our meal with an enjoyable cup of green tea (8LE).
The simple dishes of pasta and spring rolls took almost an hour to arrive; unfortunately, the long wait came to no avail. The pasta was both undercooked and chewy whilst the red sauce topping was tasteless and overly salted. Generously sized, the four, large spring rolls were stuffed with carrots and lettuce, and although the better of the two dishes, they would have benefitted from a dipping sauce of sorts. But in the end, this is a bar, and we're always grateful for cheap beer.
Brown lounge is evidently not a place best suited to fill an empty stomach. However, if you’re ever in the mood to enjoy a relaxing drink with a gorgeous view, this is the place to be.