8 must-try restaurants showcasing Cairo's local and regional flavors

On offer in the Arab world's largest city: hearty traditional Egyptian cooking and surprising and unmissable cuisines from around the region.

by Elana Kreiger-Benson and Michael Carl Budd

Egypt’s capital has much to offer the discerning diner, whether you’re looking for local specialities or cosmopolitan cuisine. Warm, rustic restaurants serve up Middle Eastern classics in spaces that evoke the Cairo of old, while modern eateries offer creative cuisine, cocktails and chic ambience. 

And, while it’s inconceivable you tire of fūl medames, koshari, molokheya with pigeon, and ta’meya, if you do find yourself craving something a little different in Cairo, there’s no shortage of options.  At the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, you’ll find diverse regional cuisines offering alternative takes on Egyptian favorites as well as less familiar dishes.  

Here are eight of our favorite place to satisfy your cravings, broaden your palate and eat your fill of the best that Cairo has to offer.  The first four are Egyptian favorites and the second four serve tantalizing regional cuisine.    

Step back in time to savor Egyptian classics

A local institution on the island of Zamalek, Abou el Sid offers quintessential Egyptian cuisine amid art and décor that evokes the elegance of 1940s Cairo. This charming, upscale eatery is the place to try true Egyptian culinary classics like molokheya (a stew-like dish prepared from greens), stuffed pigeon, Circassian chicken and others. Save room for dessert, when you can try Egypt’s bread pudding-like om aly or the sweet layered pastry fetir, among other classic sweets.

Abou el-Sid
A welcoming oasis in the heart of the bustling Khan al-Khalili
Khan al-Khalili, Islamic Cairo

Tucked away in the warren of alleys in the Khan al-Khalili market in the heart of Islamic Cairo, this café is an oasis of calm in a buzzing neighborhood and the perfect lunch stop during a day of sightseeing. The colorful and welcoming space, decorated in eye-catching geometric patterns and décor that harks back to the Cairo of days gone by, is dedicated to Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz. You’ll notice his photos and books lining the walls. Try the karkadé, a popular hibiscus tea served hot or cold.

Naguib Mahfouz Cafe
Classic and creative Mediterranean fare overlooking the Nile

This laid-back restaurant on the northern tip of the island of Zamalek is a favorite among Cairenes and expats alike, known for its chic ambience and unbeatable view of the river. Enjoy a range of Mediterranean specialities and cocktails overlooking the Nile and cityscape beyond. Make sure to book ahead.

Delicious mezze in a warm atmosphere
Garden City

Fodor’s and Lonely Planet agree that the atmosphere at this subterranean Garden City restaurant is what sets it apart from the many Lebanese joints in town. In its spacious but cozy and tastefully appointed environs, feast on hot and cold mezze with basket after basket of piping hot bread. While many of the ingredients will be familiar from Egyptian cuisine, they’re often prepared differently or combined with different ingredients in Lebanese cuisine—you’ll find both moutabal and baba ghannouj (two takes on smoked eggplant) and muhammara, a spicy pepper dip with ground walnuts. The toumia, a whipped garlic dip listed under the salads on the menu, is often eaten with chicken in Lebanon, but it’s great on bread too. To top it off, if shisha (hookah) is your poison, you’ll be able to enjoy it along with your meal.

Taboula Lebanese Restaurant
Koshary Abou Tarek
All about an Egyptian specialty at this local favorite
40 Champollion Street, Downtown

No trip to Egypt is complete without at least one serving of koshary — an odd-sounding but delicious medley of rice, lentils, noodles, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce and spices. Not far from Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum, Koshary Abou Tarek is a buzzing multi-story establishment devoted to this Egyptian specialty — hugely popular with locals and visitors alike, and always one of the top choices in the endless debate about where to find the city’s best koshary.

Koshary Abou Tarek
Yemen Restaurant
Hands-on hearty food

The restaurant’s interior, like its name, is spare and functional (Lonely Planet describes it has having “all the ambience of a car showroom”), but you’ll be coming for the food, not the décor.  They’ll start you off with marag, a delicious spiced lamb broth soup and a simple salad.  From meats in stews and sauce to chicken and rice, the main dishes are hearty and meant to be eaten with the hands or with the help of the massive pieces of bread that accompany the meal.  Vegetarians don’t have a lot to choose from, but the fasuliya  (beans and vegetables cooked in a skillet) when ordered with eggs is as hearty a dish as the meat mains.  Accompanying the meal, pico de gallo-like sahawig is an ideal addition to just about every dish.  The prices mean that even the traveler on a budget can order a feast.

Yemen Restaurant
Home-cooked flavors from the Horn of Africa

Arij (also transliterated Areej) offers cuisine from eastern Sudan in what is the smallest space of the restaurants profiled.  Count on a lot of personal attention from the proprietors who are eager to make you feel like a part of the family.  The Horn of Africa influence is unmistakable—fans of Ethiopian and Eritrean food will find the gorraasa, spongy Sudanese bread, to be quite like injera.  From their flavorful rigla (cooked greens) and chopped okra to their beef and chicken dishes, spice is the name of the game. They also offer an eggplant dish reminiscent of baba ghannouj, but made with peanut paste instead of tahini.  The prices are reasonable—an entire roast chicken with rice will only set you back 40 Egyptian pounds—so it’s best to order a variety of dishes to get the full flavor.

Top-notch Lebanese in sumptuous surroundings
InterContinental Cairo Semiramis, Corniche al-Nil

The most upscale restaurant among the regional options, Sabaya offers delicious Lebanese cuisine inside the InterContinental Cairo Semiramis 80.  The restaurant is a Lonely Planet Top Choice for its "diverse and delicate mezze come with fresh-baked pillows of pita, and mains such as fatta are served in individual cast-iron pots."

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