Dr Christina Makris: a side of art history with dinner in Cairo

In pursuit of visual and literal taste and in the name of aesthetic dining, the cultural writer Christina Makris has travelled to six continents, visited more than 100 cities and sat at countless tables. As a restaurant philosopher, she can’t keep her eyes on the plate, so gets particularly excited when places have good art to look at and here, she tells us about her favourite restaurant in Cairo, Abou El Sid, where food and art combine to tell the story of an Egyptian bygone era…

Every time I visit Cairo I head straight to “Sid” on the island of Zamalek for molokhia – the jute mallow stew that stems back to Pharaonic times (eaten to increase potency) – and umm ali, a comforting bread pudding inspired by the breast of a Sultan’s wife in the 12th century. 

This restaurant is what I’d imagine it felt like to visit a Cairene grandmother’s house in the early 20th century: high ceilings, plush textiles, jewel colours, arabesque carved shutters, and the smell of oven cooking. This is not completely far-fetched as Abou El Sid’s owner, Raouf Lotfi, scoured souks and decommissioned houses from early 20th-century Alexandria and Cairo to source panels, tiles, pieces of wood and even doors to incorporate into its design. There are also glittering, beaded lamps and plush velvet furniture made by Egyptian artisans; all this literally preserves the past in this contemporary restaurant. 

This feeling of nostalgia is amplified by the artwork that hangs in Abou El Sid, by the Armenian-Egyptian artist, Chant Avedissian. Until his untimely death in 2019, he was one of the most well-known contemporary artists in the country and enjoyed a global following and collector base; his pieces are in public collections that include the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, among others. 

Avedissian incorporated graphic art and design in his practice, and the paintings displayed in Abou El Sid are from his series The Cairo Stencils, Icons of the Nile (1991-1993). These pieces feature celebrities and historical figures from Egyptian popular culture, film stars, musicians, and divas from the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo was considered the “Paris of the Middle East”.

I was curious to find out more about the people depicted in the drawings and researched them to get their backstories. Egypt was one of the earliest nations to adopt and develop the cinema industry – the first public screening in the world took place in Cairo in 1896 and the first Egyptian film made as early as 1912. 

The images of silver-screen stars include a painting of the diva Umm Kulthum in sunglasses. Dubbed “the Fourth Pyramid of Egypt”, she was famous for singing 90-minute songs of longing and loss for the past (despite dying in 1975, she is still the highest topping singer in the Middle Eastern charts). There is Samia Gamal, who was a national heroine as a belly dancer, they called her “the Genie Lady” for her lithe, barefoot dance moves; Hind Rostom, a buxom blonde, “the Marilyn Monroe of the East”; and the crooner Shadia, who was called the “Idol of the Masses”. They all hang above you as you dine and in a way are dining with you. 

This was a diverse period in modern Egyptian history, where the entertainment industry and nightlife took off and Cairenes would frequent restaurants and nightclubs. King Farouk – the last King of Egypt – reigned over a time of extreme cosmopolitanism and optimism for a modern future. 

The fact that Avedissian’s artworks are in a restaurant and refence this history is fascinating to me and is an example of how restaurants that incorporate good art and design in their offering are important cultural outputs and can teach us about social history. This restaurant becomes a memento of this recent past – and all this as you tuck into your stew becoming more potent by the mouthful…

Christina Makris’ book, Aesthetic Dining: The Art Restaurant Around the World (Cultureshock Press) is out now

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