Maryse Helal “I’m 77 now; I wouldn’t change anything”

Whether you are a Downtown regular, or an occasional visitor, you must have heard of either heard of Estoril, been there once, or are a loyal customer. The little bistro in Downtown Cairo is one of the few places that look now the way they must have when they first opened. The delicious food, timeless atmosphere and warm hospitality of its owner, Maryse Helal, are only a few of the many reasons why people love this place so. We sat down with Maryse to talk about history, food, and Egypt.


How did all of this come by?

The building was established in 1959 by Labib Gabr. He was one of the most famous post-European architects in Egypt. So this is one of the buildings where they started having shops and things that could bring in money. It was rented by Mr. And Mrs. Zananeery. Mrs. Zananeery loved cooking and started a very sophisticated restaurant, much more sophisticated than we are now, because it was French cuisine. They called it Estoril because that’s where they went for their honeymoon. Then my father bought it in 1966, because he was a legal accountant and he was starting to lose his clients who were nationalized.


How does one manage such an establishment for decades?

There are changes that occur of course. We started with French cuisine. Then little by little the cooks who knew how to make the dishes died, and the ones that remained didn’t know how to make them very well. So in 1997 I changed it. I thought since we were next to the museum it would be a good idea to have good Middle Eastern cuisine. Then I saw that the young people want to be healthy and vegetarian so now we have a list of vegetarian dishes.


 I saw that the young people want to be healthy and vegetarian so now we have a list of vegetarian dishes


There are still a lot of things that didn’t change, though.

That’s true. The chairs are actually from 1959. These are the original chairs.


Everyone seems to be nostalgic these days. Did you notice an increase in customers because of that?

I don’t think so, but I know what you are talking about. This nostalgia touches more intellectuals than the public.


What’s the clientele like, then?

There’s two clienteles; one at lunchtime, business people and travel agents who come on their lunch break, and in the evening it’s mostly journalists, intellectuals and artists.


Has your clientele changed throughout time?

In a way it’s the same kind of people. We’ve always had journalists.


Have things changed after the revolution? Was there more attention given to Estoril especially that it’s very close to where all the action took place?

During the revolution the New York Magazine interviewed a few people here, actors who were revolutionary and intellectuals, and they said it looked like Elaine’s – a restaurant in New York – not for its food, but for the people who go here (laughs). Back then people used to come here after they protest in Tahrir.


I’m 77 now; I wouldn’t change anything


Have you considered revamping the place?

No, I wouldn’t like to, because I, myself, wouldn’t be comfortable in it. I’m 77 now; I wouldn’t change anything. (laughs) And when people suggest that I should open a place in Sahel or anything like that, I’m not interested at all.


Do you have a favorite place to eat out?

I used to love the bistro next door because it serves French cuisine and we are Middle Eastern so it’s a change for me.


What do you think of the new bars that are opening these days?

I haven’t been to any of them, but I like the idea of having new places and for young people going to those new places.


I like the idea of having new places and for young people going to those new places


Downtown is different than the rest of Cairo and is more authentic. What makes it that way?

I think it’s the spirit of the people who live there; they want to keep it the way they’ve known it. And there are young people who willingly come to live here even without their parents living here. They have this spirit and are more fanatic than the older people!  I hope this spirit stays because I’m not here forever (laughs). There’s also a company called Ismaileya that buys back the old buildings as much as they can and refurbish them to give Cairo its past splendor.


There have been issues with places that serve alcohol not allowing veiled women in. Where do you stand on this and have you ever faced it?

We had veiled women who came and drank alcohol, we thought it was funny, but that’s all. Now I see that it has become an issue!


How are things in the restaurant now different from the way they were a couple of decades ago?

The only thing – and it’s very superficial – is that people used to dress better when coming to the restaurant. Now they come from their offices, and there is no competition of ladies being well-dressed. So they would feel awkward if they were too chic (laughs).


We had veiled women who came and drank alcohol, we thought it was funny, but that’s all


You have very loyal customers. Why do you think that is? Is it the atmosphere, food, quality of service?

I think it’s a bit of everything. They’re treated specially, though not better than customers coming for the first time. I see how they are greeted by the “sofrageya” when they come in, they have their own tables, it’s a very family place.


What are your future plans for Estoril?

I’m going to keep it the way it is.


It’s always said that our generation missed out on the past. Do you think Estoril is making up for this?

You cannot miss out on anything because you can always go back to archives, books and history and find out how it was like. You missed the quality of life which was relaxed; people had a lot of confidence in each other, you could go into the streets without having to deal with “baltageya”. You haven’t missed, but it was pleasant.

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