DAMASCUS, SYRIA — It used to be that visitors to this ancient Arab city had limited options for fine dining: a buffet at the Sheraton, a French bistro at the Meridian, or a Chinese restaurant in the Cham Palace Hotel. Travelers looking for an authentic Syrian culinary adventure - exploding with cumin, thyme, and garlic - settled for one of thousands of shawarma stands (serving shaved beef and chicken wraps) or else hoped for a dinner invitation from a Syrian family.
That's changed in the past few years, though, as old city Damascus - the part that's been continuously inhabitedfor at least 4,000 years - has been overrun by eateries. Wealthy Syrian businessmen have bought some 40 traditional Arab homes - jewel boxes of friezes and frescos, marble and mosaic - and converted them into restaurants with trendy names such as Oxygen and Neutron.
This has been a boon for tourists, and it has saved some 300-year-old architectural gems from decades of neglect. But critics complain that the noise and traffic these businesses bring are fraying the city's delicate social fabric and upsetting a historic mode of life for those who dwell near the new restaurants.
"You are introducing commerce to a neighborhood where Christian and Muslim [families live] in a very specific, traditional way," the same way their ancestors lived for hundreds of years, says Mouaffak Doughman, manager of the city's Antiquities Department.
It's a lifestyle that emphasizes seclusion, beauty, and family togetherness. In old Damascus, each home, regardless of size, is conceived as a private paradise, says says Ghiath Abdullah, dragoman, or interpreter, to diplomats and expatriates in Syria. He has lived his entire life in the Old City's Christian quarter and gives tours of Damascus's homes.
In an Old City house, the courtyard - or two or three, depending on the owner's wealth - is typically a secret garden of damask roses, citrus trees, jasmine, and gurgling fountains in summer.
Surrounding the courtyard are two floors of living space, the upper level used in the winter months. The lower level includes open reception halls with arabesque and rococo paneling on ceilings and walls.
The privacy of occupants is protected by thick cement walls surrounding each home. These twist and turn without windows or the slightest architectural flourish. Doors and entrance corridors are equally spartan. The effect is a labyrinth of poker-faced homes, concealing the grandeur within.
The seclusion inside the walls reinforces the idea of the family as the most important social structure, says Mr. Abdullah. By family he means in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, all of whom traditionally reside in the same home. Preserving this way of life is the main concern of those who oppose the restaurant trend.
Now, instead of nighttime peace and quiet in its residential areas, the Old City buzzes with tourists and hip Syrians long after the souk shuts down for the night. Pointy, high-heeled boots click along cobbled alleys and disappear behind wooden doors; down long corridors; into new restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs.
Fatima al-Amadi lives across the street from Oxygen, which has a Western menu and bold decor including Modigliani- inspired portraits. Ms. Amadi, who shares an old home with eight family members, says that much of the time, diners stay till three or four in the morning: "It's an annoyance to the neighbors."
In recent years, the government has required would-be restaurateurs to seek permission from neighbors. But Amadi says she offered her consent expecting a quiet restaurant, not people chatting on their cellphones outside her door in the dawn hours.
Enough residents have complained that the local government is refusing to issue new restaurant permits in the Old City this year. Dr. Doughman says the moratorium will continue until a city plan is unveiled that will designate certain areas for tourism and commerce.
But some Syrians point out that lifestyles changed long before restaurants invaded the Old City. Not only have most wealthy and influential families left for more modern suburbs, but many young couples prefer to live separately from parents and siblings. The ideal of an extended family is not what it used to be, they say. In fact, roughly 75 percent of those living in the Old City today are renters without the means or interest to maintain the homes they live in.
Some residents welcome the crowds that restaurants draw, new faces in neighborhoods that have been homogeneous and unchanged for decades. "It's opened up the city and made it less conservative," says Haitham Yaziji, who lives in his childhood home with his wife and three grown children on a small street with three cafes. He also mentions that new businesses often repave streets, fix electricity, and improve plumbing in the neighborhood.
Restaurateurs who are willing to fund renewal may be the key to saving the Old City's architectural heritage, say some historians and restoration experts.
They add that restaurants have increased local awareness of the value of the old homes, many of which may rest on ruins from one of myriad civilizations that have left their mark on Damascus. In some, walls and floors have been dismantled to reveal Roman ruins.
Somerestaurants emphasize the original building: a few tables fanned around a fountain in a courtyard with carved niches. In others diners have to squint past sponge painting and plastic flowers to see the old home that was.
But all restaurateurs are under strict orders from the local government to restore homes using original materials: stone on the first floor; wood, straw, and mud on the second.
Finding construction crews who can work in the old techniques is not always easy, however, and many restoration projects are undertaken without an engineer or architect.
Maya Mamarbachi looked for five years in the Old City before she found the perfect home to fulfill her vision of a small hotel. It's now scheduled to open at the end of this year. She says she has tried to leave everything as it was - frescoes, columns, and stone carvings.
But Ms. Mamarbachi, who wrote a master's thesis at the University of London on Damascene homes and is now working on her PhD, says not all buyers are concerned with preservation.
"We need more awareness of the concept of restoration," she says. More Syrians need to realize "this is your country. [These homes] are something you should take care of."