Travelling is sometimes both illuminating and tragic. I’ve just had a trip to Istanbul. For two nights. It’s just long enough to realise that it’s just not long enough to be there. And by the time I was saying goodbye, having a glass of Turkish rosé looking over the Bosphorus in the springtime sun from the froufrou surroundings of the Çirağan Palace, I had only just started to settle in.
This post comes off the back of that experience, and another recent post, where I had a wee run-off about Tripadvisor and it’s particular uselessness when rating the restaurants in a city. Some commentators, quite rightly, mentioned that the kind of restaurant you want to eat at when you’re passing through is often completely different to the one you’d like to eat at when you are a resident.
I argued that Tripadvisor got it wrong no matter what you were looking at, and we’ll see that when we look at the list below. I’ve asked my favourite Dubai food fiends (most of them also bloggers, so they eat out more than the average Joe) if they could provide me with a budget and a blow-out restaurant for a quick visitor. Our Fooderati Arabia approved top 10 restaurants for a quick visit in Dubai are (almost in order – I’ve looked at how many suggest them, and with what strength.) are as follows:
1. Bu’qtair (budget. TA #52)
2. Qbara (blowout. TA #4)
3. At.Mosphere (blowout, but for drinks, not dinner. TA #154)
4. Automatic (budget. TA #1044)
5. Al Tawasol (budget. TA #756)
6. Pierchic (blowout. TA #35)
7. Frying Pan Tour (mid-budget. TA ‘activities’ #1, not rated in restaurants)
8. Al Hadheera (blowout. TA #742)
9. Nobu (blowout. TA #173)
10. Khan Murjan (mid-budget. TA #141)
Interesting. I’ve popped the Tripadvisor rating numbers as of today in the brackets after. All these restaurants are provided by people in the know, but if you looked at TA, you might just find out about one or two of them, IF you were lucky. I’m a little surprised to see one of them there, but that’s down to different opinions, and I’ll admit, I’m not always a total authority. You would be very, very unlucky to have an unenjoyable meal at any of these places – not only that, you would be likely to walk away with a lesson in Dubai, its culture, its cuisine, and its surroundings – something not always possible in some what may be regarded as the better restaurants in our city.
So going into a little more depth, let’s see how those restaurants go on this list. First, me. This is after all, my blog, so you have to put up with a little more textual spew until we get to the others. I’m also going to give you more than two options, because I think there are a few different elements people will look for when dining. Some want a view, some want incredible food, others luxury, and then there’s the ones that want to be immersed in the local culture. And let’s not forget the adrenaline junkie. A little hard to translate to food, I suppose, so I’ve just chosen a place that puts you a little out of your comfort zone.
Best Restaurant in Dubai for Gorgeous Food: Qbara.
It’s really one of my favourite restaurants, ever, in the world. The food is an exotic fusion of Arabic and just about anything, and couldn’t be better. The atmosphere is both authentically Arabic (although a more Levant than Gulf, to be honest), and completely exotic. It’s also modern, sleek, and vibrant. I just cannot stop raving about this place. I blogged about it here, and will probably continue to rave as long as they keep up the wonderful efforts (Qbara is relatively new). It’s in an unusual location – Wafi is near the creek but on the wrong side (in the Oud Metha area, which is largely offices, highways and healthcare, and has little glimmer of the lively nature of the Deira side of the creek) and a pyramid-styled mall. Quite a weird place really. But there is another of my favourite restaurants in the vicinity, so don’t let that put you off. Anyway, Qbara is all about the inside, where you should always expect to find great beauty. Runners up: nothing comes close enough to warrant.
Best Restaurant in Dubai for a budget hit of culture: Aroos Damascus.
Ok, this is a hard one to choose, because there are stacks of places that would fit this bill, but I’ve chosen Aroos because it’s a bit of an institution, and they make damn good shawarma and falafel, and that’s what you are going to be eating to get the flavour of Dubai. If you come to Dubai and you don’t eat shawarma and falafel, then you have not tasted our national cuisine (Yes, I know it’s Levant food, but trust me, this is what we eat here). It’s also in the area you are probably going to be staying if you are flying through Dubai on a budget, a cacophanic and quintessentially Dubai area, Al Muraqqabat Rd, walking distance from most of the Deira hotels. It’s not licensed, and it’s not fancy, and the service is known to be downright rude on occasion, but it’s cheap and frequented by locals and anyone who knows how to sniff out a good pile of mezze. Runners up: Khan Murjan (prettier but more expensive), Automatic (similar venue, but a chain – mentioned by many below), and Zaroob (super place, but I’m going for an authentic Levant feed here, and Zaroob is more modern),
Best restaurant in Dubai for the ambience: Pierchic.
It’s on at the end of the pier, in one of the most beautiful hotels in the Emirates. This is not just about dining (which is incidentally very, very good – a mainly seafood menu, with clever and delicate flavour combinations, served up by an international staff who have a multitude of Michelin stars and the like behind them), but about the entire journey. Come in through the hotel next-door (Pier Chic is at Al Qasr, but come through Mina al Salam, which is adjoining), and take the abra (a little wooden motorboat) along the waterways, past the souq, and to the edge of the pool of Al Qasr. Then walk through the palms to the beach, and down the wooden pier towards the twitching flames that light Pier Chic at the end, all the while gawking and snapping photos with the Arabian Gulf and the Rainbow-lit Burj al Arab as a backdrop. When you sit, look back at Madinat Jumeirah, where you have come from, and see the wind towers lit up like candles emerging between the palm leaves. It’s spectacular. Unfortunately Pier Chic has just closed for a 5-month renovation, but will be up and running again by December 2014 at the latest. Runners up: At.mosphere for sunset cocktails and Al Hadheera for a desert experience
Best Restaurant for putting you out of the comfort zone: Special Ostadi
Again, I’m a little torn. However my selection parameters were; something that as a westerner will make you wonder if you have the guts to do this, and then you get in the middle of it, and you realise you had absolutely nothing to worry about. First challenge, you’ll never find it. It’s in the middle of an incredibly sub-continental demographic, and there is no sign outside that resembles the name of the restaurant. Just look for an “Iranian Restaurant”, because the title has long been covered up by some quite dodgy looking scaffolding (that’s the second challenge, wondering if it’s all going to fall down around you) on the rest of the building. Third, depending on the time of the day, you may be the only female or white person in the restaurant. But, you’ll get to the end of your single white female lunch and wonder where the hell all the others are, because it’s such a treasure of a place. Although Special Ostadi is known for it’s kebabs, I’d also recommend it for lunch, because this is the time you can go in and leave the job to the waiters. Just order the lunch special and wait and see what arrives. Great service, and super cheap, by the way. Runners up: Al Tawasol for yemeni dining in indoor maglises (or the men’s dining area for blokes if you prefer) and Bu’qtair for fiery dressed, local fish served out of a port-o-cabin near the beach in Umm Suqeim.
Best Restaurant for authentic local food: A Frying Pan Tour
Yes, not a single restaurant, but several. Arva will take you on a walk through the streets of old Dubai and make you eat things you never knew existed. She will teach you things about the cuisine of the area that even a well-researched foodie will find illuminating. This is one thing Tripadvisor got right. They have her listed as the number one activity for dubai, and I’m totally with this. Arva’s tour is not a super-cheap-eat, you pay between 350 and 415AED for the tour (about $90 – $125US), but the trips often include pickup and/or dropoff and transport in between during the summer months (walking when it’s cool), last for at least 3-4 hours, are friendly and educational and you will be totally stuffed by the end of it. She also has just listed a Ramadan tour that looks at braking fast traditions and Iftar celebrations in Old Dubai, so throw in a whole heap of cultural knowledge there, and you get an utter bargain. Runners up: Nothing comes close.
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Sarah Walton runs The Hedonista blog, and is a lover "of all things warm, fattening, velvetty, far-away and funny". Sarah has managed restaurants, been a sommelier, a waiter, a bottle shop attendant, written a very small wine magazine, been a wine sales rep and had my own wine website with cellar management and online sales. She can be contacted at email@example.com