THE night air was cold and damp on the narrow, walled streets of Tunis’s medina, and the markets and stores all dark and locked up tight for the night. But all it took was a single rap of the iron knocker on the wooden door at 5, rue Dar El Jeld and in that instant a mystical world opened up.
From inside, a man pulled back the arched door decorated with metal studs, and we were escorted through the lobby and into what looked like an Arabian palace. In an enclosed marble courtyard, my fiancée, Elham, and I could see riotously colorful tiled walls, archways covered with arabesque stucco and, at one end, a seated man playing an antique sitar for the patrons who sat around small dinner tables.
Yes, this was only a restaurant — named after the elegant 18th-century private mansion where it is housed, Dar El Jeld. But it happens to be one of Tunis’s finest, with a menu featuring such tangy delights as kabkabou, a tender dorade, with capers, stewed tomatoes and olives, in a delicious lemon, onion and tomato sauce.
But the surprise upon entering Dar El Jeld expresses something you will find more than a few times when visiting this ancient capital city of Tunisia: it is a captivating adventure that exceeds expectations — somehow successfully mixing Mediterranean flavors, Arabic and North African history and a modernist European touch.
Read more about the extraordinary city of Tunis here in the New York Times travel section (and watch the slideshow) then gain a hands-on experience of Tunisia’s synthesis of European, African, and Middle Eastern cultures by joining us on Coexistence of Cultures and Faiths in the Mediterranean this October.