x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Lamenting Bur Dubai’s Baithal Ravi Restaurant

When I heard that a fire had ripped through the restaurant known as Ravis in the Bur Dubai district of Dubai, my outburst was met with echoed monosyllabic despair among numerous friends on social media.

From left: Alex Ritman, his favorite waiter and friend Andy Tillett at Baithal Ravi in 2009. Courtesy Alex Ritman
From left: Alex Ritman, his favorite waiter and friend Andy Tillett at Baithal Ravi in 2009. Courtesy Alex Ritman

It’s rare that I get emotional over restaurants. I’ve seen people practically buckle at the knees while discussing their favourite bagel joint in New York, or go into a weird trance-like state on hearing about some new diner that has opened. Despite having sampled a number of eating establishments, the cuisine realm isn’t really something that has ever tugged at the heartstrings.

However, this was not the case on Tuesday afternoon, when I heard that a fire had ripped through the restaurant known as Ravi in the Bur Dubai district of Dubai. Thankfully nobody was hurt in the blaze, but the news was enough to warrant a blood-curdling “Noooooo!”

My outburst was met with echoed monosyllabic despair among numerous friends on social media, not to mention much-needed clarification. The restaurant was not, as I was repeatedly reminded, the Ravi in Satwa, arguably the most well-known Pakistani joint across Dubai and creator of a butter chicken that, were the UAE looking to name a national dish, should certainly be a contender.

But as any fan of budget Asian gastronomy clearly knows, Dubai is a two-Ravi town. In the neon-lit green corner, there’s the Satwa Ravi, and in the other overly illuminated green corner sits the Baithal Ravi in Bur Dubai. Like the worst sort of football fan, however, my recently concluded seven years in the city saw me switch from one to the other. It’s true that, having followed the great expat exodus towards the Marina, the Satwa restaurant was my preferred choice in the end, but it’s the Baithal Ravi that gets the eye mist going.

It was at this unassuming restaurant, with its beaming signage, daring cream-and-brown coloured menus and toilet only to be used if it was absolutely necessary, that Dubai began for me. I recall my first week, as a wide-eyed newbie, being taken there by colleagues who are now among my closest friends. It soon became the automatic mealtime choice and on the to-do list for visitors from afar. When I told my mother of the fire, she quickly listed the people around the table during a trip in 2006. And of course, she could remember the waiter, the seemingly forever-jolly man who would greet us with a beaming smile each time.

Ravi was the perfect antidote to Dubai’s growing heap of swanky fine-dining options, a place without someone hovering over you, ready to top up your water after each sip. The price matched too, and a regular game would be to guess just what would be on the bill after that vast meal for six. Dh150? Nope. Dh110? Close. Dh90? Boom!

Over the course of what must be well over 100 visits, my fellow Ravi devotees and I sampled everything on the menu, barring a few options. There were favourites, such as the dal tadka, the chicken afghani and chicken shahi korma, usually washed down with a sugary tea (featuring bobbing cardamom pod). We avoided the “Chineese” (their spelling) for obvious reasons and I sadly never got to try the Chicken 65, simply because the waiter – for motives known only to himself – refused to let me have it. This quickly became a running joke and my nickname within Ravi’s walls was Mr Chicken 65.

One memorable occasion saw us handed an invitation to the opening of a brand new Ravi in Deira. Dressed as if we were attending the Oscars, my friends and I headed over the creek the following week for a free plastic bowl of chicken biryani, the only option.

Sadly, following the Marina move, a trip to my favourite restaurant became too great a journey. I did return last year, with the two friends who first introduced me to the place way back when. As we approached, the same waiter as before – who I hadn’t seen for at least three years – spotted us out the window, ran outside and embraced us like brothers. It was a special moment.

Like many who were saddened on hearing Tuesday’s news, I dearly hope that the green facade is soon cascading its light across Bur Dubai again. Next time I’m in Dubai, I’ve promised myself I’ll go. And to anyone who thinks there’s only one true Ravi, I urge you to make a visit once it reopens.

Just don’t bother ordering the Chicken 65.

artslife@thenational.ae