Islamic Cairo is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful areas in Cairo. The old houses, the wonderful mosques and madrasas, the arabesque woodwork and the magnificent architecture make you feel like you are back in time. Khan El Khalili is the most famous part of the area and requires survival skills if you want to enter from the side of El Hussein Square. Take one step here and restaurant staff jump in, up and in front of you, brandishing their menus in your face.

The only one who didn’t beat this reviewer up with a menu was the waiter at El Sheikh Shaaban restaurant, so we took a seat there. According to the banner on top of the door, this restaurant has existed in El Hussein for a hundred years. Thankfully, the seats are not as old; and the couches and tables all look fairly new. By new, we mean they are perhaps just twenty years old.

As soon as you sit down, you are presented with two bottles of water that are opened immediately. With it comes a glass filled with fresh mint. We liked the mint but we didn’t appreciate the immediate bottle opening, as we hadn’t ordered the bottle yet would be charged for it later. Since this is a tourist area, the prices are appropriate to that type of clientele. All drinks, from coffee to juices and sodas, cost 15LE. A shawerma sandwich costs 20LE and a bowl of koshary shockingly costs 15LE. For 45LE, you can order a main course dish like stuffed pigeon or kofta. We sampled the mixed grill with kofta and chicken for 45LE with side dishes of tehina and baba ghanough, both of which cost 15LE.

The food arrived within five minutes and doesn’t come from the restaurant itself. It comes from an unspecified place around the corner and is served on the table on dishes covered with aluminium foil. The kofta and chicken portions were pretty generous with six pieces of kofta and four pieces of chicken. The kofta was nicely grilled and flavourful. Although a bit charred and black on the outside, the grilled chicken was juicy and had that nice grilled flavour, but there was nothing special about it, though. The tehina and baba ghanough tasted extremely strange and arrived warm. The dips’ texture was crumbly and missing about 80% of the necessary ingredients that usually make tehina and baba ghanough taste great.

Our battle for survival continued throughout dinner as we were harassed by street sellers peddling their goods from one side, while cats were stealing our food from the other side. The food at El Sheikh Shaaban is not bad and service is quick, but when the cheque arrived we felt forced into bargaining. Aside from the ridiculously high ‘tourist’ prices that we were charged, the cheque listed an extra 3LE service charge in addition to the 12% service and 10% tax charges.

When we pointed this out to the waiter, the service, tax and extra charge were dropped and we only paid the original price. It is Khan El Khalili after all, where everything is negotiable; even food.