Away from the big resorts, the shopping malls and the theme parks there is another side to Dubai’s food scene, one that brings together the best Arabic dishes from across the region and serves them to an enthusiastic and diverse local crowd. From mezze-style breakfasts and giant, herby falafel to rose-scented hot chocolate, read on to find out where to track the best of them down
Looking for places to eat in Dubai? Read our expert foodie guide for the best restaurants in Dubai, the best bars in Dubai and the best Dubai cafés…
Frying Pan Adventures
One of the reasons we haven’t covered Dubai in olive before now is because it can be difficult to get to grips with the city’s native food culture; mention Italy and it’s easy reel off a list of classic Italian dishes and ingredients – pizza, pasta, parmesan – but with Dubai it’s much harder, partly because dishes unique to Dubai don’t really exist and partly because the local workforce is so international. Another reason is that many of the Dubai restaurants visited by tourists don’t reflect regional influences at all but stick, instead, to a tried and tested formula of pizza, pasta and burgers, or to high-end international menus put together by celebrity chefs. Yet even if Dubai doesn’t have a native food culture, as such, it still has some great food, especially in its back streets. The tricky part is tracking it down.
One of the most straightforward ways to do that is to book a foodie walking tour with Frying Pan Adventures. Not only will this put the local food culture in context for you, it will lead you around the food spots favoured by the city’s long-term residents – a Middle Eastern/ Arabic/ Indian mashup of flavours, spices and techniques.
My guide, Nahla, was a young Jordanian woman who explained that food in Dubai draws on ‘northern’ Arabic foods (from the Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) as well as the Gulf States. Plus the Indian subcontinent and, increasingly, the Philippines (there’s now a food stall hub called Little Manila where you can get Filippino foods).
The tours are carefully organised (any leftovers go to the local needy and each participant is given a shopping bag, a bottle of water, wet wipes and a hairnet – for going behind the scenes in various restaurant kitchens – before the tour starts). Ours took in an Aladdin’s Cave of an Iranian sweet shop, bursting with dried fruits, nuts, rosewater and saffron and a Lebanese sweet shop packed with freshly made baklava-style pastries.
Best of all, however, was a humble falafel (check out how to make falafel with our easy guide), from a specialist streetside café. Huge, and made with a very finely ground mix of chickpeas, parsley and coriander, it was crispy on the outside and stuffed with onion, shatta – a chilli sauce – and sumac, then coated in sesame seeds and served with homemade pickled veg (turnip, carrot, chillies), various dips (more shatta, tahini and hummus), a green chilli sauce spiked with lemon and garlic, and side dishes of fried cauliflower and aubergine. Heaven!
More boutique guesthouse than hotel, the XVA Hotel is in a beautiful historic district of Dubai called Bastakiya, where traditional sand-coloured buildings are separated by a warren of little lanes. The hotel feels like a secret because, to reach it, you have to walk the last couple of minutes on foot, and because, at its centre, there’s a leafy courtyard that’s not visible from the street.
Up above the bedrooms, there’s a chic and peaceful rooftop terrace while a vast library of art and design books is available to flick through in the reception area. The building is also home to an art gallery (pieces are also scattered through the hotel, many of them for sale).
Rooms are eclectic in style but all are calm and peaceful, decorated with a mix of white cotton bedlinen and antique or designer furniture. Stay here and you can also make use of the most beautiful white cotton bathrobes we’ve yet to come across; they’re made by in-house tailors and are available to buy.
Breakfast is taken in the central courtyard, which doubles as a café, and ranges from cinnamon pancakes (check out our best pancake recipes here) to a Bastakiya breakfast (eggs, feta, grilled aubergine, olives and cucumber) and Seddiqi omelette (with tomatoes, feta, chilli and zaatar). Or just order a cup of tea (it will come served with dates).
Later in the day you can order Middle Eastern salads, zaatar-sprinkled omelettes or a signature fresh mint lemonade.
The XVA is also just around the corner from the Arabian Tea House – a smidge touristy but still worth a detour, with little cushioned benches to sit on while you choose between a Middle Eastern salad, plates of grilled meats, mezze-style breakfast trays or just a tea or a spiced coffee.
Dubai is definitely not short on cute cafés but one highlight is the café at Mirzam Chocolate, tucked away on a hip industrial estate, surrounded by interiors stores, art galleries and cafes (another worth seeking out is Wild and the Moon).
The café is famous for its rose hot chocolate but if you’re there in the warmer months and fancy something lighter, try one of its black cacao teas instead – delicate and refreshing, with only the barest hint of chocolate. If you’re not into hot drinks, the café also sells single-origin chocolate gelato.
The main event at Mirzam, however, is the chocolate factory and shop just behind the café. This is where beautifully packaged single origin bean to bar chocolate is made in a vast range of regional and seasonal flavours. We loved the Emirati collection with locally inspired flavours like camel milk and luqaimat (tiny, sweet fried dough balls doused in honey or saffron- or date-infused syrup) though it also produces Alphonso mango in season and unusual but winning combinaions such as fennel and prune.
The closest we got to Dubai’s tourist enclaves was a sundowner cocktail at Folly, a restaurant and bar run by Scott Price and Nick Alvis in the Madinet Jumeirah complex. The team have done a great job at creating atmosphere – a kind of Arabic twist on an Ibiza sunset vibe, with spectacular views over the water and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.
Nick and Scott are trying to get away from the pizza, pasta and burgers mentality of so many Dubai restaurants (which isn’t hard given they spent 15 years working for Gordon Ramsay).
What they’ve been clever with here is creating romantic little corners (if you’re there on honeymoon, or for an anniversary, there’s a romantic table just for two tucked away with views over the sea and they’ll create a tailor-made food menu for you).
The wine list is impressive too, with 70 percent of bottles biodynamic. We went for a Folly Pop sundowner (a strawberry lolly topped with Prosecco) and one of the bar’s signature snack boxes. Available in meat or veggie versions these include six different choices, from pickled tomatoes to black truffle cheese puffs and beef and horseradish wafers.
Two minutes’ walk from Dubai’s World Trade Centre metro stop (make the most of being able to walk there – it’s not easy to get anywhere on foot in Dubai) this French-influenced, rose-hued café is seriously sophisticated. Open for everything from morning coffee to lunch to afternoon tea, as well as restaurant tables and low sofas there’s also a long communal table for hot desk workers indulging their way through a deadline, or business suits talking finance over a flat white.
Food-wise the menu covers all the lighter French classics, from tartines to salads, as well as a handful of more substantial dishes (lamb cutlets, steaks and seabass with a provençal sauce). It’s the breakfasts (smoothie bowls, pancakes, French toast and Parlour Benedict, with sweet potato and kale hash, avocado and beets Hollandaise) and patisserie selection that really stand out, though.
For an afternoon pick-up order a pot of tea or a rose lemonade and one of the signature rose éclairs – a dainty affair made with rose scented cream and delicate custard dotted with fresh raspberries.
This hipster café, popular with health-conscious ex-pats in Dubai, is the place to go for an on-trend breakfast, brunch or lunch when you’re in The Greens. As well as the usual coffee suspects, options include turmeric lattes and cocoa beetroot lattes, while a dedicated smoothie menu includes seven different choices, from acai berry, banana, apple juice and honey to spinach, cucumber, pineapple and honey.
Food choices are similarly rainbow-hued. Not least the Breakfast With Colours, a mix of green peas, quinoa, beetroot labneh, grilled halloumi, poached eggs and mixed grain toast. Other options include acai bowls, various twists on avo on toast and Turkish eggs. Lunches steer east, with wraps,pan-seared salmon and noodle bowls and there’s an imaginative menu for children.