Half the time, it isn’t open when it ought to be open. When it is open, and you go in, you’re received by several male waiters whose shambling gait and silent, grizzled visages suggest a platoon of shell-shocked survivors from a major military engagement during World War I – I’m a regular customer there and I’m usually only acknowledged with a weary nod, although I suppose that’s an achievement. And then, when you’ve read the menu, you can spend a lot of time requesting various tasty-sounding seafood dishes, only to have each request dismissed with an unapologetic shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders. Normally I end up ordering the same four or five items – fisherman’s salad, grilled shrimps, fried aubergine, chips – because that’s all they seem to have.
And yet… And yet… When you’re sitting on its terrace, when the sea below is a sheet of rippling turquoise, when the sun is bright and the sky is flawlessly blue, and when a waiter has just brought an ice bucket with a bottle of Chardonnay poking out of it, the Neptune Restaurant on the Carthage coast feels like the most invigorating place in the world. Just make sure you keep your eyes fixed on the gorgeous middle distance, where the boats lazily roam to and fro. You may spoil the illusion if you lower your head to inspect the more immediate surroundings, because the sea-facing wall of the restaurant looks rather dilapidated (and graffiti-ed these days) and the strip of beach along the wall’s base could definitely do with a tidy.
Your safest bet for finding the Neptune in operation is Sunday lunchtime, when it draws a crowd of French expatriates and well-heeled Tunisians wanting to enjoy a dejeuner that extends leisurely into the middle of the afternoon. On the road outside, a little old man with a stick keeps vigilant guard over the clientele’s parked vehicles, although to be honest the most threatening things I’ve seen around the Neptune have been a few packs of gang-banging cats. Here’s the little-old-man-with-a-stick seeing off a trio of marauding French tourists.
In fact, among the eateries along or off the Route la Goulette and Rue de Maroc, the road that connects Le Kram and Sidi Bou Said and snakes alongside the TGM line with its miniature Carthage railway stations (Salammbo, Byrsa, Dermech, Hannibal, Presidence and Amilcar), the Nepture is one of the very few where you can buy an alcoholic drink. The district has plenty of popular and trendy venues but nearly all of them are ‘dry’. To get from the Route la Goulette to the Neptune, you have to head seawards through some picturesque Carthage backstreets. Here’s one of my favourites, the Rue Taieb Mehiri, so tree-lined that at times it resembles a luxuriant green tunnel.