x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The most sociable UAE dinners

The Life: Restronaut, begun in March, matches people for dinner parties based on their interests

Left to right, the Restronaut founding foursome consists of Leith Matthews, Baher Hakim, Tala Soubra and Ghazwan Hamdan. Antonie Robertson / The National
Left to right, the Restronaut founding foursome consists of Leith Matthews, Baher Hakim, Tala Soubra and Ghazwan Hamdan. Antonie Robertson / The National
Organising a dinner party can be an anxious time for any host; they worry the guests will not like the menu or the topic of conversation.

But diners arriving for an evening at Restronaut were neither fazed by the fare on offer nor the fact that one of the event's hosts, Leith Matthews, was late.

For at Restronaut, a new social dining experience in the UAE, the guests had already viewed and paid for the menu online, knew who they would be dining with and had even previewed the conversation theme for the evening.

That night, in a Mexican restaurant at Dubai's Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, the discussion centred around Adrian Azodi, who works in the oil and gas industry and also designs men's accessories under his label Monsieur Fox.

Mr Azodi was dressed to welcome the guests in pink trousers with a silk scarf and matching pocket handkerchief.

Restronaut is the latest entrant to the Emirates' evolving social dining scene. After the likes of Lime and Tonic, a members-only group that organises exclusive dining and lifestyle experiences, and Supperclub, a theatre, club and restaurant rolled into one, Restronaut aims to gather groups of people with similar likes for themed evenings over dinner at venues not frequented by the masses.

The idea grew out of the need to make Dubai Marina's Make Business Hub, which Mr Matthews launched last year as a cafe, attractive after office hours. As evenings were quiet, the venue started hosting content-driven dinner events.

"And people loved it," says Mr Matthews, 32, from Australia. "They didn't necessarily need to know others to enjoy dinner but they did need to have shared interests."

The dinner themes at Restronaut revolve around entrepreneurship, travel, fashion, design and technology with prices ranging from Dh250 to Dh295 per person for a full course dinner.

The four co-founders met at Make. As well as Mr Matthews, there is the Syrian Baher Hakim, 32, technical co-founder of Restronaut and chief of napkin, a start-up investor; Ghazwan Hamdan, a British Iraqi, 36, who founded Maek Digital Design Agency; and Tala Soubra, a 28-year-old food blogger from Lebanon.

It was a zero-cost start-up for the foursome. So far they have only had to invest time and skill to fine-tune their idea.

Launched in March, Restronaut now arranges three to four dinners a week with plans to branch out to Abu Dhabi this year, and raise US$100,000 to create a bigger team.

Starting out with a couple of restaurant partners, it now has 16. Restronaut earns a commission of 15 to 25 per cent from the restaurant depending on its prices.

"We would like them to really make it frequent and feature some more high profile people," says Raki Phillips, area director of sales and marketing for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. The two Fairmont properties in Dubai have held half a dozen dinners so far.

The Restronaut team say they are selective about the restaurants they team up with.

"They have to offer great food, be a fun place, not too far from our current customers," Mr Hakim says. "It cannot be too cheap or too expensive, so no fast food joints, only sit-down dinners for two to three hours."

And so half way through the dinner that night, over guacamole tradicional and empanadas de vegetales at the Mexican venue, conversation was gathering steam.

"The most challenging aspect is getting the right fit," Mr Azodi was saying, referring to online men's tailoring services, the men and women around the table nodding in agreement.

And getting the right fit is what Restronaut seems to do for the transient expat community of Dubai, particularly those in a high income bracket with varied interests.

"When I used to go out with friends in Dubai earlier, it was for parties, and never about conversations with like-minded people," says Vram Oknayan, an IT strategy analyst from Milan who has been in Dubai for five years and is a menswear designer off-hours.

The Restronaut founders now plan to encourage guests to take on the responsibility of hosting their own dinner. Diners will be able to design tables around their interests, set the menu and choose the location.

"The good thing about the business is that it is cash flow positive," Mr Matthews says. "The challenge is scalability while maintaining our standards."