It is the closest thing Kabul has to glamour, a demi-monde where spies, aid workers and mercenaries can momentarily lose themselves in a rose-scented garden, quaff cocktails or cava, and party the nights away. But now L'Atmosphere, a French restaurant in the Afghan capital and the centre of the expat social scene, is facing closure after it was raided by the vice and virtue police, along with three other restaurants popular with foreigners.
Police said yesterday that they had acted on a tip-off from disgruntled neighbours and arrested nine foreigners and an Afghan, on suspicion of "moral corruption" and selling alcohol. Among those dragged from their beds in the small hours of Tuesday was the L'Atmosphere boss, Jerome Mathieu.
Friction between bar owners and the police is nothing new in Kabul. Each raid prompts fevered speculation over the motive: was a bribe overdue? Did the management refuse entrance to someone influential? But this time there is a sense it's more serious, leaving foreigners in Kabul wondering where they'll go to escape from the sometimes trying circumstances in which they live.
Among Kabul expats, L'Atmosphere is a ubiquity where waiters in starched tunics serve industrial-strength cocktails to the hard-bitten and the hard living. It is where bikini-clad women can bask by the swimming pool and forget about the lack of basic freedoms and, as the evening draws in, dance to a soundtrack of questionable French dance music while war junkies swap stories at the bar. In the restaurant, you can order duck a l'orange and steak-frites, along with ordinary French wines at extraordinary prices.
And because of its reputation as a fleshpot, L'Atmosphere is storied as the most likely of Kabul's nightspots to be bombed. More than one journalist has rented rooms nearby to ensure a first-hand account of any terrorist spectacular and as security in Kabul has worsened, embassies have banned staff from visiting. The only diplomats to make it are those able or lucky enough to give their bodyguards the slip.
Underlying the escapism and frivolity, L'Atmosphere has also represented the uncomfortable collision of affluent Western culture with grinding Afghan poverty. The bolted doors, passwords shouted by armed guards and, most tellingly, the sign at the entrance warning "foreign passport holders only" are a constant reminder of expats' dislocation from the country they are living in. So is the party really over? One L'Atmosphere regular reckoned: "It's closed before. It will bounce back. Won't it? It is a Kabul institution. It can't close." Then she added: "You've got to expect such things in this type of environment. But I shall be really annoyed if airport security starts clamping down on bringing in duty-free. A girl needs a G and T."
Almost as fabled among Kabul drinking spots is the Gandamack Lodge, named after the British defeat in 1842 at the hands of Afghan tribesmen. Replete with jingoistic paraphernalia, the Gandamack offers a real rarity: an English pub in its basement.