Well, you asked for it, and here it is. It’s not the Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards, but it’s a little bit like it. It’s not the What’s On Black Hat guide. It’s a very different list to Ahlan’s top 100 restaurants. It’s definitely not Michelin.
My top five restaurants come in categories that I consistently get asked to recommend in. I must stress they are my picks, not anyone elses. So – if you’re not a middle-aged Australian expat with some restaurant experience behind her, two kids and a dog, and a desire to have a glass of wine with almost every meal, then you may find my picks a little different to what you would select. Saying that, they have all been selected carefully, and these are the restaurants I find myself returning to time and again.
Top five restaurants to show off Dubai.
You’ve got visitors staying for 48 hours, and you need to show them what Dubai is all about. You want to paint your city in gold or stun them into submission. The below do one or the other, sometimes both.
1. Pier Chic Madinat Jumeirah
For most visitors, Dubai is all about the Burj al Arab, and sometimes I do tend to take my visitors to Junsui for the seven course high tea. But Pier Chic kills two birds (or in fact many) with one stone. You get to see the Burj lit up in a rainbow spectrum that strikes as slightly gaudy on the interior, but on the outside at night, it’s pretty darn breathtaking. Not only that, you can catch an abra over the glittering dark waters of Madinat Jumeirah to get there, and amble through the souk after. The food is seafood, and pretty darn good (even though the menu doesn’t change enough), and the service some of the best in Dubai. The ambience in the restaurant is sublime – you’re at the end of a pier, either facing the arabian gulf, the burj or the candle-like wind towers of the Madinat resort. Shisha on the beach at Shimmers after dinner can top of a gold-plated evening.Main Course: 120 – 240 AED Al Sufouh Map Link Phone +9714 366 8888
2. Mumtaz Mahal, Arabian Courtyard
As the weather gets hotter, souks are better in the evening, and this is the perfect stop afterwards. It’s in the rambling and quaint Arabian Courtyard hotel, opposite the Dubai Museum. This is where all the souk traders go after work, and it gets pretty lively later in the night after they shut up shop. They file in, take their bottle of Johnny Walker Black from their personal locker, and talk shop with their compatriots until the wee hours. Get there just before them, take a seat in a velvet-lined rickshaw, eat a biryani, and watch some Bollywood moves on the stage, interposed by quiet sets with a sitar. Trust me, there’s nothing back home quite like it for westerners, and ignoring the Indian element in Dubai (particularly among the traders) is like throwing out a third of the slice of the culture pie in this city.Main Course: 40 – 115 AED Bur Dubai, Map link +971 4 351 9111
Hard choice between the two here. Al Tawosal probably has the better food, but Al Marhabani is closer to my home, so it’s usually the restaurant of choice. If you don’t come from Yemen, then it’s unlikely your visitors have ever eaten in an indoor tent before. You eat in your own very private majlis, and will have lots of fun trying to stop your companions from pressing the waiter call button (yes- just like the ones on airplanes that your kids can’t keep their grubby fingers off). You sit on the carpet and the middle is ceremoniously covered with a plastic bin-liner. Then you get supply chicken and lamb mandi, yellow rice and some super fiery sauce to blow their socks off (it looks like napoli, so I cheekily don’t warn them how lethal it is).Al Tawosal: Main Course: 25 – 50 AED Al Rigga Map link Phone +971 4 2959797 Al Marhabani Main Course 40 – 55 AED Umm Suqeim 1 Map link Phone +971 4 394 9222
4. Al Hadheerah, Bab al Shams
Bab al Shams is always on my must-show list. It’s a castle in the desert, beautiful day and night, and close enough to get a cab or safer-driver back home. Sunset mojitos and mezze on the rooftop at La Dune Pizzeria is always good, and much cheaper to boot. But if I want to show them the entire history of Arabian cuisine in one sitting, then it’s got to be Al Hadeerah. Dining on Persian carpets on sand, the desert night sky open above you, fire pits, cooking stations out the wazoo, camel rides and belly dancing. Sometimes they even let off a couple of fireworks. Often an accommodation package will include dinner – otherwise it’s pretty expensive, so be warned. But I have had guests there crying due to the overwhelming beauty once, so it might just be worth it…Main Course: buffet starting at 425 AED (really, you need to get a deal!) Dubailand (ish) Map link Phone +971 4 809 6100
From the sublime to the simple – Bait al wakheel is a simple Lebanese(ish) eatery right in the middle of the old souk. The food is just ok, not amazing, but definitely not bad, and very cheap. We’re talking sambousek, fattoush, shish tawook, you know the kind of thing. They’re not licensed, but make some lovely juices and moroccan mint tea. The atmosphere is what sells this place though – it’s a heritage building, and the restaurant is on a terrace overhanging the creek at its busiest point. Abras, water taxis, monstrous dhows are the entertainment. But there’s one more secret. Make sure you go into the house, and up the stairs, all the way to the roof (yes, the last bit is a ladder). From there you can see up and down the creek, but turn around and see an incredible blue mosque in the back streets behind the souq.
Main Course: 25 – 50 AED
Bur Dubai Map link
Phone +971 4 3530530
Bu’qtair – plonking your overseas guests in front of a port-o-cabin for dinner is always fairly priceless, but prices vary, seemingly according to race – hmmm…. Junsui as previously mentioned, Khan Murjan restaurant in the middle of the underground souk at Wafi, and Hashi at Armani for a look at the fountains, an inversion of a birds-eye view of the tallest building in the world, and some very good (but seriously expensive) black cod.
Top five restaurants for kids
We’re not talking brunches here, but basic, everyday dining with your kids. Important features? First, we need food kids enjoy that is not horrendously unhealthy, with good options for parents. Second, how about some kind of added bonus for the kids – we’re talking crayons provided, playground, or at least something cool to look at. Next, we want the venue to be kid-friendly, ie. space – preferably outdoor, where the noise of children does not bounce off the walls but disappears into the great blue yonder. And finally, we want staff who are sympathetic to parents who have no idea how to control their own children.
1. Beach Bar and Grill, One and Only Royal Mirage.
I mentioned this to a friend the other day as my favourite kids’ lunch spot and she nearly spat out her tongue. It’s generally thought of as a romantic spot. But, as it’s right on the beach, and has an expansive lawn adjacent to restaurant with wooden playground, giant chess, slides and more, it actually works a treat for lunch. Take a bucket and spade if you remember, and book an outdoor table and watch the kids while you stare at the continuing development of the Palm Jumeirah and skydivers falling slowly into the gulf just to your left. Plenty of space and nice staff. kids order half-portions off the main menu, which is perfect for them, because it’s basic grilled stuff. Parents can gorge on lobster or rib-eye (or both at once), and wash it down with an excellent glass of wine. Better for lunch or an early dinner sitting, so you can let everyone else get romantic after sunset.Main course 100 – 200 AED (kids half price) Mina Seyahi Map link Phone +971 4 399 9999
2. Carluccios, Dubai Mall
It’s airy and bright atmosphere in very busy area seems to welcome the noise of children. Nobody comes here to have a quiet bowl of pasta, so even sleep-deprived and deranged toddlers seem to slide into the woodwork, so to speak. Kids will flock to the comfy booths, and get a special menu plus crayons to scribble all over it. Food is perfect for most – pasta of course, and arancini are the big hits with the little ones. The Dubai fountains go off just as everyone begins to get bored, and when you’re finished, you can either hoe into some home made ice cream, or buy a meringue as big as your face to nibble on while you walk around the mall (and try and figure out where the hell you parked your car)Main Course: 40-70 AED (kids set menu 35AED) Dubai Mall Map link Phone +9714 434 1320
3. Wavebreaker, The Hilton Jumeirah.
Part of me is lothe to put this in – the food is fairly uninspiring, the service slipshod and the winelist shambolic. But there are not many places that my kids will look forward to all week, and this is one of them. It generally involves a few school mums getting together over a 240AED bottle of watery Pinot Grigio at 5pm on a Thursday, while the kids run riot on the sand below. There is a playground, jumping castle, beach with water safely in the distance, a pool table and hammocks. All are in easy view of a well chosen table. Food is BBQ and club sandwiches, and it’s a great place for a frosty beer and a toke on a grape shisha.Main Course: 45 – 120 AED (kids 25 – 40 AED) JBR Map link Phone +971 4 318 2530
4. Riva Beach, Shoreline Apartments, building 8.
Food is simple here, mainly burgers and other kinds of sandwiches, and then a slightly Italian concept with a few antipasti, pastas and pizza. Nice crepes for dessert. There is a great al fresco area, friendly service and beautiful beach views. Especially in the warmer months it’s a perfect place to take the kids when their bones are beginning to bend from lack of vitamin D. Added bonus is the chilled pool which can be accessed by buying a day membership rate for the club, which is 100AED per adult, 50 per child. There is a very safe baby pool and a life guard on constant watch. A playground just down the garden path, and of course, the beach.Main Course: 30 – 60 AED Palm Jumeirah, Map link Phone +9714 430 9466
5. Abshar, Jumeirah Beach Rd
I’m not really sure what it is about this place, but this is the one they always ask to go to. Maybe it’s the glaringly bright murals all over the walls, the chandeliers that make it feel a little palatial, the great wooden door at the front that is always closed, so you feel like you’re walking into someone’s private house. It might be the food, which is superb Iranian nosh (they eat chicken and rice while parents tuck into something a little more adventurous). It might be the dessert buffet on a Friday. Or maybe the 3-foot long lavash which you can watch being prepared near the front door, the super-sweet lady waiters in strange silky Persian costumes, or sweet shop outside that sells persian fairy floss and gives free tastings to kids. Who knows, but they said it just has to be on my list.Main Course: AED 30 – 115 AED (kids brunch 1/2 price) Jumeirah Map link (other branches in Deira, and express in Academic city and knowledge village – but they don’t win the kid-vote.) Phone +971 4 3940950
The Farm, which has nice cafe-style food and an incredible garden (but is out the back of whoop whoop), Rainforest Cafe, which is great for kids but has food that goes straight from freezer to deep fryer to plate, and is slightly intense for my delicate constitution, and Beachcombers at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which has a great Friday Brunch for kids and beach access (but not as much going on when it’s not brunch time)
Top five restaurants for gourmets
If you love your food beyond what most people would consider normal, then you really should have eaten at the following restaurants at least once. The cuisine is inventive, exploratory and modern. Boundaries will be tested in most cases, and you’ll go home inspired to cook, or at least google an ingredient you have never come across before.
1. Table 9, Dubai Creek Hilton, Deira
So when Gordon Ramsey fled Dubai, he left behind a restaurant space and a couple of great young chefs. I’m told love kept Nick Alvis and Scott Price in Dubai, because setting up a restaurant on your own for non-locals at their age in a city like Dubai is no easy feat. But whatever reason, thank god they stayed. This restaurant is a diamond in one of the most dated hotels in Dubai, and every time I go, I beg them to move over to my side of the creek. It’s modern british cuisine with some very clever twists, and their attitude and constant hands-on and customer-friendly approach is very endearing. All guests are welcome in the kitchen throughout the night, the pass is televised, and the chef’s table (Table 9) can be booked if you want a continuous view through the glass doors and a little more interaction.Main Course: 80 -100 for small plates (you will need at least 2) Deira, Map link Phone +971 4 227 1111
2. Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire, Intercontinental, Dubai Festival City
Wel derr, it’s Pierre Gagnaire! You know, multi-Michelin-man, “I like to put poetry on my plates” chef, and occupational colleague of Hervé This. He’s only in the kitchen a few times a year, but that doesn’t stop the experience from being pretty sublime. The food is serious, intense and study is required. Each dish is a symphony of extreme flavours and multitudes of ingredients, and so for those who just like simple food, disappointment – nay – total shock, at what they will be required to eat, and admittedly, spend on each dish may ensue. Strange venue – glittery, pink, pearl and black with bathrooms so full of mirrors you can’t find the door on the way out.Main Course: 220 – 400AED (there is now a terrace serving cheaper options, but it’s simpler food) Garhoud/Festival City Map Link Phone +9714 4409300
3. Okku, The H Hotel
This is another home-grown restaurant, but influence has come from all over. It’s cuisine is modern Japanese, and over the last couple of years, it’s fallen in the shadow of high-rising imports like Zuma and Nobu. But don’t ignore it – there’s more here than you probably remember. They mix cuisines quite carefully, and you’ll eat what is essentially a Japanese menu, but many of the dishes will contain an international twist by way of preparation or a secret ingredient. Even the bar holds culinary surprises (I’ll be posting on molecular mixology shortly). What I would like to know however, is where have the jellyfish gone? Their logo, which used to float like artwork in tanks behind the bar and in the lounge seem to have gone AWOL. Did someone forget to clean the tank? Or did I just eat them?Main Course: 100 – 220 AED (sharing is best) Sheikh Zayed Rd Map Link Phone: +971 4 501 8888
4. Indego by Vineet, Grosvenor House, Dubai Marina
Vineet Bhatia was the first chef of Indian cuisine to be awarded a Michelin star. He did this in London, of course, not in Dubai, and in fact, he’s not even here that much, but he still brings to Indian cuisine here what he has delivered in the UK – a refined and modern approach that embraces current tastes and techniques. I mean sure, everyone loves a chicken tikka, but if French cuisine had ceased with coq au vin, would we still endorse it as one of the best in the world? There’s definitely fusion here (can you tell that’s what tickles me?), and like at Okku, the essence remains Indian, but the food is so much more than that – it’s refined and careful, although maybe not quite so delicate as what you will find at the above three restaurants, but absolutely perfect for this climate. Even much of the Indian population will agree that Indego is a treat, and considering they all have mothers who can make paratha, that’s saying something.Main Course: 80 – 300 AED Dubai Marina Map link Phone: +971 4 317 6000
5. Blue Flame, Jumeirah Creekside Hotel
The food here is simpler than the restaurants mentioned above, but still interesting in its own right. It’s a grill restaurant, and most of the mains will hover around this theme, but there are a few signature dishes, entrees and desserts that the chef has had a little fun with. But the food’s not really the reason that epicureans need to go. There is a cooking pod sitting in a glass tube bathed in violet light where you can cook your own dinner (of course, with the help of the chef.) Those who are afraid they will cut off a finger, scald their hands or singe their ego can just sit and take notes. This happens every night, and even if you’re not partaking, it’s always fun to watch. Book your cooking jaunt direct with the hotel, or with Lime and Tonic if you want some added extras. (Foodiva has just posted on chefs’ tables here)Main Course: 160AED – 400 (cooking class is 300ish including food) Garhoud, Map link Phone: +971 4 230 8580
Many of these restaurants can be found in the Dubai Gourmet Trail. My choices and post can be found here, or you can access the complete trail (120 restaurants as chosen by Dubai’s top food bloggers) here: Dubai Food Festival