Nightlife may seem like a luxury no one can afford in Kabul. The Afghan capital is hit by suicide bombers with depressing regularity, and on some nights expatriates receive word from their embassies that a suicide team is plotting to attack a "foreign guest house" and these are the truly chilling words "in your neighborhood." On those occasions, you sleep with your clothes on and shoes beside the bed, after having mapped out an escape route over the wall into your (hopefully friendly) neighbor's garden.
But on most nights, Kabul's expatriates go out and partake in the manic craziness of the city's bar and restaurant scene in houses reminiscent of America's Prohibition-era speakeasies, behind 20-ft.-tall blast walls and an outer perimeter of armed Afghan security guards. "It's like dancing at the edge of a volcano," explains Anne Seidel, a German architect working for the U.N. in Kabul. The expatriates are a boisterous crowd of young and usually single diplomats, aid workers, journalists, spies and mercenaries or, as they like to call themselves, "contractors." Most of them earn $100,000 salaries and have money to burn. They tend to be adventurous, but the security constraints of their jobs often leave them cloistered in claustrophobic boredom following suicide attacks, most foreigners are confined to their fort-like compounds.
When the dust settles, Kabul has hordes of war-zone entrepreneurs who are only too happy to help lighten the wallets of expatriates while providing opportunities to blow off steam. And that has given the Afghan capital a greater variety of restaurants than Delhi, Karachi or Tehran, cities 10 times its size. Kabul offers Thai cuisine as well as Turkish, Balkan, Italian, French and Persian, plus several steakhouses, a martini bar with a DJ and a Mexican cantina with high-stakes poker games. The city boasts dozens of Chinese restaurants, but a few were shut down several years ago when authorities realized that the owners were offering the services of hookers along with the Kung Pao chicken. Tiger prawns, pork loins and French wines are flown in from Dubai. The T-bone steaks come frozen from Australia.
It takes a special entrepreneurial mentality to look at a city under sporadic siege by jihadists and see a golden opportunity for supplying exotic food and illegal booze. Some restaurateurs have even migrated to Kabul from past wars in the Balkans or East Timor; they missed the wartime camaraderie and the whopping profits. Some provide echoes of Bertolt Brecht's archetypal war profiteer, the indomitable Mother Courage, who drove a cart through an artillery barrage to make a profit off the sale of 50 stale loaves of bread. A female Thai restaurant owner says she gives a dagger to each of her waitresses to scare off kidnappers in the bazaar do-it-yourself security at its best.
And then there is Peter Juvenal, owner of the Gandamak Lodge, who is in a category all his own. A former British soldier turned intrepid BBC cameraman, Juvenal's fascination with Afghanistan dates back to the 1980s, when he accompanied the mujahedin fighters trekking over the Hindu Kush to fight the Soviets. His years at the BBC have given Juvenal a keen sense of history and drama: his lodge takes its name from a hilltop where Afghans massacred retreating British soldiers in 1842. After the Taliban fled Kabul, Juvenal put down his camera and opened the first Gandamak Lodge in a house that, he says, belonged to one of Osama bin Laden's wives. (Soon after the Taliban's fall, a British journalist wrote about liberating an oversize pair of boxer shorts off a clothesline at this house that may or may not have belonged to bin Laden.)
Juvenal is a military buff, and a second, bigger Gandamak is decorated with 19th century maps and prints as well as rows of antique muskets. The grub is decent, but you're really paying for its British Raj ambience. The Gandamak attracts a more refined class of "contractors" retired brigadiers and spooks and NATO officers, along with those few remaining journalists who still have expense accounts.
Gandamak's closest competitor is probably L'Atmosphère, a garden restaurant founded by yet another canny journalist, this one from French radio. It may lack the Gandamak's historical whimsy, but it makes up for that with its airiness, especially on warm spring evenings, as well as cool bar music, a tasty magret de canard and the best wine list this side of the Hindu Kush.
The trouble with most of these places is that, because they serve liquor, which is illegal, the armed Afghan guards at the gate won't allow the patrons' Afghan compatriots to come inside, since good Muslims aren't supposed to drink. That leaves just a few nice restaurants where foreigners can dine with their Afghan friends, like Sufi's, with its superb, sizzling Afghan kebabs and fresh pomegranate juice, and the daytime Flower Street Café, run by a Californian-Afghan, Timur Nusratty. Flower Street Café, with its Mexican chicken wrap and fresh spinach salads, wouldn't be out of place in Berkeley, Calif., if it weren't for the Apache helicopters that occasionally pass overhead, casting ominous shadows across the lawn. Even in Kabul's finest restaurants, guests are seldom allowed to forget that there's a war going on.