Tunisia Gets Chic

Tunis, studded since the sixties with glittering beach resorts favored by package-deal tourists, is in the middle of a mini revolution. Not the type of revolution that results in State Department warnings to travelers, but the kind that turns a rather antiquated city into a tempting hot spot. It has always been a tale of two cities here: the ninth-century Arab medina, dense with vividly hued and scented alleys and souks, and the expansive 19th-century French colo­nial Ville Nouvelle, defined by wide treelined ave­nues of faded white-and-blue Art Deco architecture. Dra­matic changes have been taking place in both parts. In 2005, in the heart of the me­­dina, brothers Mustapha and Salah Belhaouane opened their 19th-century family mansion as Tunis’s first résidence de charme, the equivalent of Marrakech’s maisons d’hôtes. Named Dar el Médina, it features the original ceramic details, filigreed stucco, and cedar ceilings in its 12 rooms, as well as a café, a quiet courtyard, and a roof terrace.

There’s been a shift in dining, too. Be­­- sides street food—mainly sandwiches and grilled meats—Tunis typically had little to offer visitors in the way of traditional cui­sine. Now there are several alluring restaurants in the medina. The sumptuous 18th-century Dar el Jeld (House of Leather) is popular at lunch with personnel from nearby government ministries. It serves dishes such as marka hloua (lamb in a sweet-sour sauce) and the classic kabkabou (baked sea bream with tomatoes, capers, and lemon). The owners recently added a small café and gallery across the street called Le Diwan. Still, the medina’s food stalls, frequented by locals, do serve a mean version of chapati: mlaoui bread folded into a half-moon, filled variously with cheese, tuna, potatoes, egg, and harissa, a spicy red pepper sauce. After­ward, relax at Café Zitouna or Café M’rabet, among the medina’s oldest joints, and sip a Turk­ish coffee laced with fleur d’oranger and puff on one of the apple-tobacco shisha (hookah) pipes.

If you find yourself in the Ville Nouvelle come lunch hour, head to Chez Slah, a stylish pocket-size restaurant that’s been an institution since 1960. The savvy clientele comes for the superb grilled sea bass and frîtes and for the brik, the famous Tunisian appetizer-snack composed of a phyllo triangle filled with potatoes, tuna, capers, parsley, and an egg. Deep-fried with the yolk left runny, it’s eaten with a squeeze of lemon juice. For a quicker bite and ample people-watching, head to one of the Parisian-style cafés on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Ask for a kaftaji sandwich: It’s stuffed with sautéed tomatoes, potatoes, chile pepper, zucchini, and eggplant, topped with an egg, and garnished with onion and parsley.

From early evening, when the medina is empty and silent—everything closes at sundown—the Ville Nouvelle and its fashionable suburbs take over. Tunisia was the first Arab country to emancipate women, in 1956 under the elegant president Habib Bourguiba. At the Hotel Plaza Corniche, a small hotel, restaurant, and disco set inside a large white villa on a quiet residential hillside of La Marsa, you’ll see young Tunisian women dressed in ultrachic European styles smoking, drinking wine, and socializing with their male companions in an eclectic setting that combines North African bazaar touches (a surfeit of lamps and lanterns) and American kitsch (plastic pink flamingos, neon lights, and assorted street signs).

In a family-owned farmhouse in the newly trendy La Soukra suburb is the year-old El Firma, Tunis’s first inventive French haute cuisine restaurant. Chef Iyed Tej uses locally produced ingredients in specialties such as duck breast in a sweet-and-sour pear sauce and smoked lamb with mille-feuilles des légumes. For live music from rock to reggae to blues, the coolest nightspot is Le Boeuf sur le Toit (the Ox on the Roof), also in La Soukra. The French Tunisian owner, Jacques Moati, inspired by the zanily decorated twenties Paris bar of the same name, converted an old barn, hung colorful carpets on its walls, and placed a large sculpture of a cow on the roof.

But Tunis’s favorite summer retreat, long the haunt of artists and writers, is the pristine white-and-blue, cobblestoned village of Sidi Bou Saïd. Just ten miles from the city center, perched on a cliff with shimmering vistas of the Gulf of Tunis, it is also undergoing a sea change. Case in point: Dar Saïd, another résidence de charme, located but a few steps from the famous Café des Nattes. With its 24 suites, four jasmine-filled courtyards, hammam, and small pool, it’s the rare place where guests can feel like locals. The owner recently opened Dar Zarrouk across the lane, with a menu of fish cous­cous and Mediter­ranean dishes. And just northeast of town, where modern villas now stand incongruously among the ruins of Carthage, sits a new hotel, the ten-suite Villa Didon. This minimalist place, which juts out of Byrsa Hill above the ruins of the Punic Port, is all glass, steel, marble, and Perspex, with furniture by Philippe Starck. Villa Didon’s pièces de résistance are the open-plan bedrooms and bathrooms with gray marble Jacuzzis that give sweeping views of the Gulf. On weekends the hotel’s Light Bar plays host to Tunis’s jet set.

But without a doubt, Tunisia’s best mod­ern hotel is The Residence, in ultra­smart Gammarth, another coastal suburb just nine miles from Tunis. Presi­dents and movie stars have wandered the lofty Arab An­­dalusian–style foyer and lounged at the seawater pool, enjoyed its perfect stretch of silver-sand beach and its spacious Roman bath–like spa. Of course, the best place to soak is in the nearby moun­tain town of Korbous, out on Cap Bon. The 125-degree thermal waters were once frequented by the Roman em­­­­peror Ves­pasian, and though the Station Thermal is far from chic, it’s equipped with a hammam and offers mud baths and massages, too. In summer there’s noth­ing like simply heading for the beach and frolicking in the hot springs gushing from the rocks.

Address Book

Dar El Medina From $135. 64 Rue Sidi Ben Arous; 216-71/563-022; darelmedina.com

Dar Said From $200. Rue Toumi, Sidi Bou Saïd; 216-71/729-666; darsaid.com.tn

The Residence From $490. Les Côtes de Carthage, La Marsa; 216-71/910-101; theresidence.com

Villa Didon From $315. Rue Mendès France, 2016 Carthage Byrsa; 216-71/733-433; villa didon.com

Chez Slah Lunch, $30. 14 Bis Rue Pierre de Coubertin; 216-71/332-463

Dar El Jeld Prix fixe dinner, $120. 5–10 Rue Dar el Jeld, La Kasbah; 216-71/560-916; dareljeld.tourism.tn

Dar Zarrouk Dinner, $100. Rue Larbi Zarrouk, 2026 Sidi Bou Saïd; 216-71/740-591

El Firma Dinner, $50. 58 Rue des Fruits Choutrana III, La Soukra; 216-71/863-089; elfirma.com

Hotel Plaza Corniche 22 Rue due Maroc, La Marsa; 216-71/743-577; plaza-corniche.com.tn

Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit 3 Av. Fattouma Bourguiba, La Soukra; 216-71/764-807; leboeufsurletoit.com

Le Diwan 10 Rue Dar el Jeld, La Kasbah; 216-71/560-916; dareljield.tourism.tn

Cafe M’rabet 27 Souk el Trouk; 216-71/561-729

Cafe Zitouna Rue Jamaa el Zitouna