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Faded grandeur: The Virginian may be Cairo’s best-kept secret and its most magnificent view

This may be the simplest review I have ever been asked to complete. My experience with this place is unilaterally positive, and how many places in Cairo can you say this about?

I only ordered a single item off the menu. Any food I consumed on the premises I brought myself. Yet I can say unequivocally — without reservation — that this place is a must for all of Cairo’s food and beverage aficionados.

My sad situation is that I have many dear friends departing Cairo in the coming months. Many of them have a “bucket list,” things they wish to accomplish prior to departure. I counsel all of them to put this place near the top of each of their lists.

Let me explain. The place in question is The Virginian, a pub tucked spectacularly into an edge of the Moqattam cliff overlooking the city of the dead, Basateen, and, in the distance, Islamic and downtown Cairo.

Perhaps you know the place well. Perhaps you — like me — had heard the place mythologized but had never actually visited. Perhaps the existence of such a spectacularly unique place will surprise you. It certainly seems like something of a hidden gem. On a recent afternoon, we were the only group sitting as the sun set spectacularly over the horizon.

There are some things that are so gloriously endowed in a single particular area that they need no other claim to be considered extraordinary — Ahly player Mohamed Abu Treika’s free kicks, Abu Tareq’s mahalabeya (sweet pudding), the sound of Wust al-Balad playing live. If they never did anything else, their names would live on in glory for the utter splendidness of that single accomplishment.

The Virginian is just such a place. Its unique claim to fame? The view.

In short, The Virginian’s view is spectacular. Anyone who has driven on the Autostrade between the Citadel and the Ring Road knows exactly where The Virginian is: Peer up the cliff faced toward Moqattam, and The Virginian is located in the only cluster of trees you’ll see, dramatically nestled on the cliff’s edge.

This glimpse from below does nothing to prepare you for the extraordinary view you have once you peer down from its terrace. The whole of Cairo is on display, including Helwan, the Pyramids and downtown Cairo, all the way up to Shubra.

Some pieces of this magnificent view come as a surprise. For example, what are all those lakes doing in Basateen? Airplanes on their final approach into Cairo’s airport whistle fearfully just overhead. In the evenings, the sun sets majestically over the river. Once the sun sets, all of Cairo lies at your feet, lit up like a field of lights. From this vantage, Cairo seems small and manageable. It’s not the only illusion The Virginian will peddle during your visit there.

The Virginian does have a menu, which I never sampled (I can hear you cackle — a food critic, who can’t even get around to eating?). Expecting the most rudimentary service, we brought our own snacks; we needn’t have, though the waitstaff didn’t seem to mind. We did order Stellas, and these were brought out regularly, and cold.

Apart from the view, The Virginian is clearly down on its luck. Not many people seem to visit. I am told that in a former life it was a house of ill repute. The decor hasn’t been updated seemingly since the era of King Farouk.

A stage stands dilapidated; oh, the stories it could tell. Now the establishment’s horse theme — with horse shoes and racing colors along the walls — seems tired and shabby, but also somehow alluring, as if a glimpse into a slice of Cairo long since passed, that is somehow interesting, alive. At times, the waitstaff makes you feel as if your presence is intruding on their long-established routine, which somehow doesn’t involve serving customers.

The Virginian is faded. Its menu is simple, its decor is tatty, and the waitstaff at times cares for the cats more diligently than they care for the clients. It is also majestic. I heartily recommend it.

The Virginian is open daily in the afternoon until the evening. To get there, head to Moqattam from the Citadel. At the top of the hill, once the buildings begin, turn right at the first intersection. Soon after, turn right again and follow the road left along a quiet street on the cliff edge. The Virginian will be on the right.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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