A month or so ago, an old friend visited Dubai with his pregnant wife for a few days. Being rather unimaginative sorts, we all decided that a trip to a restaurant would be the perfect way to catch up, so a long table was booked for a group of us at an eatery for an evening of chair swapping and exciting questions along the lines of "so, how's it going?" (an absolute classic) and "when's it due?". My friend clearly couldn't wait.
Joy, as is becoming increasingly common in these columns, soon turned to despair, however, when it transpired that this particular restaurant had unexpectedly decided to throw its guests a musical showcase that night. A Mexican musical showcase, in fact, with little guitars, panpipes, wide-rimmed hats and a whole lot of dancing and whooping.
Now, being a distinctly cheesy individual who loves the cheap and tacky side of life, I do enjoy restaurants that employ a theme, especially when it's done badly. And in Dubai, I've picked the international epicentre.
I've rejoiced at the number of German-themed spots where (distinctly un-German) waiters and waitresses are forced to wear lederhosen and merrily sway to the sounds of an oompa band. I've fistpumped the air with delight at the "British" pubs, usually found on the 20th-odd floor of dreary chain hotels, containing excessive references to things considered British (the London underground, 19th century cricket, rubbish food) and serving a wide selection of non-British drinks. I've even regularly frequented several Russian-themed spots, where bored-looking bands in white suits, white loafers and 1980s haircuts perform somewhat interesting renditions of lounge-room crooner classics, backed by a Casio keyboard.
But this restaurant (which shall remain nameless, although the words "international" and "buffet" should reduce options to just a few hundred thousand), was picked especially because of its UN-style neutrality. This was a night for conversation, not laughing at someone's flagrant abuse of cultural stereotypes.
Unfortunately, it became clear within a few minutes that conversation was going to be a bit tricky when just a few metres away there was someone in a sombrero tap dancing on a stone floor and clapping like a madman. And every time the "entertainment" seemed to stop and we could attempt to pick up the pieces of a somewhat stuttered exchange, up chirped the frantic guitar strumming again and on came a new batch of excitable dancers who had been hiding around the corner.
What I didn't understand was that the Mexican theme didn't continue anywhere else. The range of dishes contained little in the way of nachos, burritos or guacamole. I wasn't greeted with a "hey hombre" at the door. The restaurant hadn't been renamed El Guapo's Canteena for the occasion. It wasn't even advertised. The manager had clearly thought, "Hmm, we've got a fully booked room tonight but something's not quite right. That's it, we need a surprise Mexican mariachi band and dancers!"
As I said, I've got absolutely nothing against themed restaurants. The more obscure the better, I reckon. There's a bar around the corner from my flat that appears to be channelling a Welsh medieval castle but with Eastern European waitresses wearing Scottish tartan skirts. Inspired doesn't even come close. But just give us some warning first.
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