Our Dining Options
I’ve visited two restaurants in
There are four hotels in the compound and the two with restaurants are located opposite each other. Though they’re fully functioning with a concierge, gift shop, and room service, itinerant visitors are unknown. The various organizations in the compound have rented out rooms, floors, and entire buildings for their operations, and anyone without business at one of these organizations is not allowed entrance.
The hotel owners must be pleased after their Iraqi clientele was replaced by the current mix of contractors, journalists, and security workers. Though the properties are now off-limits to most, the current occupants pay upfront for year-long leases and have deep pockets. There’s little upkeep required, as the tenants handle their own maintenance and repair. Nearby hotels visible from my window are closed down and abandoned. Hotels fortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the compound remain afloat from guests visiting the compound who don’t stay inside.
Most of the hotels were renovated after the war and their exteriors were lined with ten-foot high concrete slabs. With the blast walls in place, the faded exteriors do not lose anything. One of the hotels, which has zigzagging brick exterior, may have been impressive during its prime but is now faded and unremarkable. The color on the other hotels is difficult to discern, as their concrete walls have accumulated a thin layer of sand, blending in well with the protective walls and the city’s haze. Looking off into the horizon, the sand color seems to absorb everything. The fixture of every
The interior design in the restaurants may be a conscious attempt to help patrons forget that they’re in
Both restaurants have a basic, yet functional stage, near the center of the tables. The stage is nothing more than a place for a keyboardist and a few speakers, but when the performance takes place, it’s as though the whole restaurant is a concert hall where the audience must sit through a horrible opener to get to the main act. Though at the restaurant, there is no headliner, only the food, and the opening act is the only one for the night. Patrons lucky enough to visit after the playing has started strategically position themselves away from the speaker, for the sake of their conversation and eardrums.
Once, the keyboardist played the theme to “A Fistful of Dollars” which is also one of the songs from “Kill Bill.” I had the song in my head and was excited to hear it, so I put a dollar in his usually empty jar. Now, whenever I enter the restaurant and he’s playing, I can expect to hear the song within a few minutes. However, not everyone in the restaurant dislikes the music. The Iraqi waiters are thoroughly entertained by the performances. I don’t have any evidence for this other than the fact that the live music continues, so someone must appreciate it, and its clearly not the expats.
I don’t notice the food very much. Its edible and the menus at the two restaurants are similar. No mention of a menu written by a non-native English speaker would be complete without citing an error. My favorite gaffe is the “Meatbolls” entrée for $4. The first time I ordered it I was hoping that the “o” was not the mistake but the first “l” and was excited that I might get to try my first meatbowl. As it turns out, I probably order the meatball dish the most. Like most of the dishes on the menu, it’s never the same. Sometimes it comes with vegetables, the sauce is occasionally in a separate bowl, and the number of meatballs ranges from 6 to as many of 10. Maybe I do notice the food more than I thought.
The food does keep with some of the few features of Iraqi cuisine I know. There are plenty of tomatoes, and chicken is a staple. The meat is generally well done and dry by Western standards. I’ve heard the suggestion that this is because of a Muslim aversion to blood in food, but I haven’t found anything in the doctrine that would support this. Both restaurants give nods to Westerner’s interest in sampling the local cuisine, peppering the menu with “Iraqi tikka,” “Iraqi kebab,” and “Iraqi chicken.” These dishes, too, are never prepared the same way twice.
I started writing this to explain my preference for one restaurant over the other. I like the waiters at my favorite restaurant. They greet me with “Habibi,” know my name, and ask me about my R&R whenever I don’t see them for an extended period. They know I like the spaghetti and that I want extra vegetables. When I order takeaway, they recognize my number when it comes up on their cellphone.
I’ve also chosen favorites because I try to avoid the waiters at the more popular of the two restaurants, the one that makes a more aggressive attempt to distance itself from the squalor of