As cars whiz back and forth on Egypt's Sahel road, carrying beachgoers to the pristine coastline in Hacienda or the laid-back rocky beachfront in Diplomacien, few take note of the small fish restaurants that dot the roadside. At these restaurants – which range for simple to seedy – you can pick your fish for a take-away seafood extravaganza or just stop in for lunch.
One such little fish place is Samakmak, a family restaurant by day and celebrity-filled cabaret by night, which has a stake not only in the north coast’s early evening, post-beach “lunch,” but also in its glitzy night scene.
Samakmak has quite a following, and in the past few years has gone from a guilty pleasure and a “boys' night out” haunt to a full-fledged north coast night spot visited by everyone from young Egyptian partiers to the cabaret's age-old regulars to friends of Zizi Salem, Samakmak’s owner and simultaneously the cabaret stage’s most popular show-woman.
As the clock strikes midnight and diners finish their fish feasts, sandy and drowsy from a day in the sun, a different breed of Samakmak clients trickle in – women in their fifties in strapless tops and sequins accompanied by men in white linen pants and open shirts, bottles of scotch wrapped in plastic bags, and a feeling of excitement.
The team in the cabaret tent are still setting up at this time; tables stretch like sun rays away from the stage and are so close together that by 2 am, you can forget about leaving your seat. Tea light curtains line the walls of the tent and the stage is taken over by a small orchestra and chorus singers, tuning and practicing for the night's show.
The dancing and singing at Samakmak starts around 12:30 or 1 am. The orchestra’s violinist begins and then Zizi comes out for a welcome dance. Zizi, a famous Alexandrian belly dancer, now dons the veil after not wearing it in her youth, but in pants and a shirt, she retains the magic and charisma of her old performing days. Zizi dances on stage with folk singer Adaweya.
“The Samakmak chain, with branches on the north coast, in Alexandria, and in Mohandiseen, was financed for Zizi by her husband,” says Samir, a regular at the restaurant’s cabaret. In any case, Zizi’s attachment to the venue is apparent, as she constantly bustles around telling people what to do and getting on stage sending her tahiyas (welcomes) to celebrities, singers, actors and directors in the crowd.
“I have to pass through here at least once a summer,” says Sarah, 28. “It’s the north coast’s best kept secret.”
Reserving at Samakmak requires stopping by the venue itself, located just across from the Long Beach compound on the Sahel road. The venue itself is a bit off-putting: the chairs and tables are dingy and the restaurant includes a main building for ordering fish and choosing from the fish display. Outside, the seating for the restaurant and cabaret is located next to a small mosque – seriously.
The cabaret’s entertainment lasts from 12-5:30 am – when Muslims break for dawn prayers – and has on occasion continued on after prayers are finished. Belly dancers from the crowd and hired by the venue dance numbers on stage and many singers take the microphone for a song or two throughout the night. Around 4 am, Zizi often takes the stage and dances while singing a selection of songs written specifically for her. Each song is heavily laden with sexual innuendo and the crowd sings along loudly through the choruses.
The minimum charge at Samakmak’s cabaret is LE120; this occasionally serves as an entrance fee. Bring your own alcohol, as Samakmak does not charge corkage and only serves soft drinks and beer. Needless to say, the fish is pretty tasty as well – the seafood pasta and the fried calamari are highlights – but when the place gets rowdy, you will have to keep after the waiters to actually get served.