Why is restaurant food in Tunis so dismal?
I've lived in Tunis for nearly a year now and have been struck by how low-quality restaurants are in Tunisia's capital city, particularly for a country with such delicious local produce, meats, fish and seafood. I could go on and on about the wonderfully fresh, seasonal items available in stores such as juice oranges, strawberries, peaches, dates, figs, tasty chicken and lamb, and fresh fish. As such, it's quite possible to make good, healthful food oneself or eat well-prepared meals with a local family or friend.
But for one reason or another, I've found the quality of restaurants in Tunis to range from mediocre to truly abysmal. The most common, cheap places tend to serve an uninspired menu of "cafeteria-style" food, such as greasy chicken and soggy fries, fried chili-spiced tuna sandwiches, and pizzas topped with tasteless canned vegetables, processed meats and cheese. On the higher end, European-style restaurants in the northern suburbs, such as La Firma in Soukra or Au Bon Vieux Temps in Sidi Bou Said, and Tunisian palace restaurants such as Dar el Jeld in the medina are characterized by uneven, pretentious service and overpriced and under-seasoned food.
I'm particularly surprised given the delicious restaurants I've eaten in across the price scale in other major and minor cities in the region, such as Marrakech, Tangier, Amman, and Istanbul. Are there any contextual political/cultural explanations for why restaurant food is so poor in Tunis? Or can other Chowhounders prove me wrong and make a case for the decent quality of Tunis-area cuisine? Given the recent push to promote Tunisia in the international press (e.g. the fawning recent NYTimes travel piece), it seems important for travelers to receive accurate information.
If you do end up in Tunis, I recommend the following places that specialize in out-of-the-mainstream food for Tunisia:
1.) Restaurant l-Khalifa: (cross-streets of rue du Yemen/rue du Syrie, by the African Development Bank downtown) Delicious West African dishes, daily rotating menu, very friendly service, open for lunch only.
2.) Mamie Lily's: (La Goulette, a short walk from the Casino TGM stop) Tasty pan-Mediterranean food, including an inventive couscous with apricot sauce, served in a quaint colonial-period house. One of Tunisia's only kosher restaurants.
3.) Chez Slah: (downtown Tunis, rue Pierre de Coubertin) A nice ambiance reminiscent of a French brasserie; good seafood dishes including a well-priced spaghetti au fruits de mer.
4.) Fairouz: (La Marsa Plage, on the corniche) Good Lebanese plates including tasty shish taouk, shish kabab, and roasted chicken in a trendy setting. Especially good in spring and summer when you can sit on the terrace and people-watch. Friendly service.
I heartily agree with the original poster's comments on the inadequacy of Tunisian restaurants in Tunis, especially given the high quality of local produce. Almost any other Mediterranean country puts the restaurants here to shame. This has, unfortunately, driven me to cook at home. I am, however, creating a Google map of restaurants in Tunis. Feel free to visit it and contribute if you wish: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF...
I'll add a qualified recommendation for Mahdaoui, the little lunch restaurant in the street directly in front of the Zitouna Mosque. The daily couscous special with fish or lamb can be quite good. I have to admit though that I walked away on occasion with an upset stomach. But if you're feeling adventurous or really want to explore everyday Tunisian food, go for it!
Well this post certainly has me less excited about the business trip to Tunis that I have coming up. Is it really this dire? I'm hoping to find good local food (I can get French food quite easily here in France), not in any kind of palace setting. Any more positive thoughts than this guy had?