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Salud! Cheers! Na Zdrowie! : Times Writers' Concise Correspondents Course in Cosmopolitan Conviviality

March 16, 1986|Michael Ross

CAIRO — Apart from noisy discotheques or hotel bars, where the atmosphere can be formal, Cairo has few bars where one can unwind and chat with friends. The dearth of English-style pubs and American neighborhood bars most likely is due to the fact that, because of Islamic proscription of alcohol, relatively few Egyptians drink.

However, every rule has its exceptions, and one of the most pleasant exceptions in Cairo is the Cairo Cellar, which caters to a small but loyal crowd of young, upper-class Egyptians and resident foreigners, including diplomats from a number of nearby embassies.

Situated in the basement of the President Hotel on Zamalek, an island in the Nile, the 5-year-old Cairo Cellar was one of the first pub-style bars to open in Cairo. Its decor, vaguely reminiscent of a European wine cellar, features low ceilings, dark wooden beams, hanging copper pots and a distinctive, U-shaped bar built on top of more than 1,000 old wine bottles. The atmosphere is cool and dark and makes for a pleasant retreat from the hot and dusty streets of Cairo.

Open seven days a week, from noon to 2 a.m., the Cellar serves lunch and dinner and a full range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The liquor is imported, but the wine and beer are local. Prices range from about $2 for a glass of whiskey to $38 for a bottle. The local wine, at about $4 a bottle, is drinkable, but connoisseurs are advised to choose beer to avoid disappointment.

By Cairo standards the food is good, with a menu that's as international as the clientele; it features steaks, fish, pasta and Lebanese mezzas, an assortment of grilled meats, sausages, and chickpea and eggplant dips in appetizer-size portions. Entree prices range from less than $2 for the pasta to about $6.50 for a steak, not including the 12% service charge added to all items.

A word of caution: Because the Cairo Cellar caters to two distinct groups--businessmen and diplomats at lunch and young Egyptians in the evening--the place undergoes something of a metamorphosis every night around 10 p.m.; then the volume of the background music is turned up, and hard rock replaces the soft jazz and pop selections.

In the daytime, crowding isn't usually a problem. But after 10 p.m. it is often standing-room-only. On Thursday and Friday nights (the Egyptian equivalent of Friday and Saturday nights in the United States), the place is packed.

The Cairo Cellar: 22 Taha Hussein St., Zamalek, Cairo, in the basement of the President Hotel. Telephone: 341-6751 or 341-8021.

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