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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

A little piece of the Emirates comes to London as restaurant Al Fanar opens its doors

The restaurant bringing Emiratis back to their roots is spreading the cuisine to London

Hashem Al Marzouqi outside the first Al Fanar restaurant in London. Gustavo Valiente / i-Images
Hashem Al Marzouqi outside the first Al Fanar restaurant in London. Gustavo Valiente / i-Images

It’s a brisk day when I meet Hashem Al Marzouqi outside an unassuming restaurant unit next to Gloucester Road tube station in South west London. Snow is forecast for the end of the week and builders wearing gloves and high-visibility vests expertly saw planks of wood outside.

The setting stands in stark contrast to where one would usually find a branch of the Al Fanar restaurant chain, but once inside (even in the early stages of construction) there is an unmistakable Emirati vibe.

London’s Al Fanar, the seventh iteration of the successful Dubai restaurant chain, is the first outside of the UAE and is due to open in March. It may be not much more than a building site at present, but Hashem’s enthusiasm for his latest project brings the place to life.

“The restaurant for me is more passion than business,” Hashem tells me as we walk through the dusty unit, detailing his other line of work as founder and CEO of Aspen Creations, the theming company behind the look of the newly-opened Warner Bros. World on Yas Island.

The new Gloucester Road restaurant will open in March. Credit: Al Fanar
The new Gloucester Road restaurant will open in March. Credit: Al Fanar

Al Fanar may be his passion, but the two businesses aren’t wildly different, says Hashem, as both are about providing an experience. With theme parks, the experience is creating wonder, a sense of other worldliness. With Al Fanar, it’s a journey back to the UAE’s roots.

All of Al Fanar’s restaurants are designed to look like a 1960s Emirati merchant’s home, before the skyscrapers and record-breaking shopping complexes were even conceived, and the London branch will be no different.

“Our concept is, everything as if you were in your own home,” says Hashem.

“The food, the way we present it, the way we cook it, is home style. The type of dishes we are serving are exactly the same type of dishes we were serving in the 1960s.

“I was born in 1965 so I grew up in these kind of houses. For me it's a memory.”

When he opened the very first Al Fanar, Hashem says he expected to appeal to tourists and expats in the emirate, but as time went by, he discovered the clientele were mainly Emiratis wanting to experience a slice of the past. You can’t get more Emirati than the restaurant's most prestigious diner - Sheikh Mohammed himself.

Workmen buzz busily about, taking measurements, sawing and hammering, as Hashem explains why he chose London as the restaurant’s first location outside of the GCC.

Work trundles along in the new restaurant as British builders fit intricate Emirati woodwork. Gustavo Valiente / i-Images
Work trundles along in the new restaurant as British builders fit intricate Emirati woodwork. Gustavo Valiente / i-Images

“I chose this location for two reasons,” says Hashem, gesturing upstairs with a pointed finger.

“One is we will have very good exposure. We are right below Emirates airline, both brands are from the UAE. Hopefully we will complement each other.”

His second reason is London’s cosmopolitan nature and a burgeoning interest in Dubai from Londoners. “Dubai by itself is a big brand, and our brand is always attached to Dubai, so hopefully people will come in and try our food.”

Hashem is literally bringing a piece of Dubai to the city, shipping over most aspects of the fit-out of the restaurant from his own workshop in the UAE. These include instantly recognisable elements of old Dubai, including blue-washed wooden doors, floral lattice work and coral-coloured walls.

A 3D model of how Gloucester Road restaurant will look.  Al Fanar
A 3D model of how Gloucester Road restaurant will look.  Al Fanar

Hashem may have been able to ship over all the materials from his workshop in Dubai, but ensuring good quality food from afar would have been difficult. However, it seems Londoners may be in for a treat - he says the quality of ingredients that can be sourced from the city are even better than those he can find in the UAE - he even has a non-disclosure agreement with a local trader to create the restaurant’s secret signature 14-spice blend.

“It doesn't matter who you are, or which nationality you are, when you get older you want to go back to your history, you don't want to be detached. What's happened in Dubai is we grew so fast that everybody got disconnected and this is bothering a lot of people, so somehow, on a very small scale, I want to connect people.”

Overall, Al Fanar is looking to make diners feel welcome. For Emiratis, the restaurant will represent a nostalgic look at home in a city far away. For Londoners, Hashem hopes to create a glimpse of the hospitality and quality many have come to expect from the UAE.

Updated: February 8, 2019 10:24 PM

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