Two Emirati friends have been running a secret dining club, where meals take place in construction sites, empty swimming pools and buses. It's become so popular, it's not easy to secure an invitation.
The secret supper club of Abu Dhabi
They're held in clandestine locations, the guests don't know each other, the menu and theme are never repeated and the hosts describe the evening as a "surprise underground party for your senses. But better". Thanks to Buthaina Al Mazrui and Alamira Noor Bani Hashim, dining out in the UAE just got a bit more interesting.
The two Emirati friends launched their invite-only, secret location venture The Dinner Club by No.57 in November, with the intention of turning the traditional dinner party experience on its head and offering something new and exciting.
The idea itself is, in fact, an offshoot of another project. Two years ago Al Mazrui and Bani Hashim began working towards opening a boutique cafe in Abu Dhabi. Frustrated that this was taking longer than envisaged, they hit upon the idea of hosting a dinner club in the meantime. "The cafe is a work in progress. With the dinner club we're able to promote it and get people excited about the idea. It means that they become familiar with the brand and the style of food and it's also a really good opportunity for us to meet people," says Bani Hashim.
When No.57 does open, they hope it will bring something new to the capital. "We want it to be a real reflection of us. We're Emirati nationals but we both went to university abroad, so we want to bring that element in and give it a cosmopolitan twist," she adds. "We also want to bring some Emirati-ness to it - it won't be an Emirati cafe, but there will be Emirati elements. We're also both very environmentally conscious, so that will be a concern."
While going into business with friends comes with its cautionary tales, the two say that their partnership works so well because they bring different skill sets to the table. Bani Hashim has a flair for creativity and design, while Al Mazrui focuses on the food and the business aspects.
While supper clubs and underground restaurants operate all over the world, they're usually held at the host's house or at a restaurant. Neither of these options proved viable in this instance; as Emiratis they couldn't very well invite strangers into their homes, but neither did they want to give an existing restaurant publicity. As is often the case, this obstacle proved to be something of a blessing and the idea of holding their dinner parties in as many different, obscure venues as possible took hold.
This element of secrecy went on to set the tone for the entire concept. Not only does the location remain a surprise until days before the event, so too do the theme, menu and guest list. Furthermore, diners are only allowed to know one other person attending and won't be seated next to each other; a table plan is prepared in advance and is likely to feature as diverse a mix of people as possible.
"The whole point is that we want to create an entirely new experience," says Al Mazrui. "The first dinner was held at a construction site. There weren't any windows or doors, just a concrete structure, rock and rubble. To contrast with the surroundings, we set up a very fancy, elaborate table with cloths and fine china. When they arrived, people were really shocked; that area is still being built and as they approached all they could see was the candles flickering. Now every time we want to top ourselves."
The night was a roaring success, with the hostesses finally persuading their guests that at 1am, it was time to leave. Moving on from their urban fairy tale theme, the next dinner was held in an empty swimming pool, complete with custom-made benches. Last Saturday, a bus parked up near the fish market at Mina Zayed was cleared of all its seats and set up for dinner, with a somewhat beguiling blanket of fresh flowers lining the ceiling.
Both women say that although they also have full-time jobs, they are entirely hands-on: from sourcing the crockery and ornaments from their homes for the event, to setting the tables, preparing the food and clearing away afterwards.
"We literally do everything," says Bani Hashim. "Serving people at the table and then sitting down to eat with them gives us a great opportunity to see which dishes people respond best to." This approach has ensured that No.57 already has a signature dessert: named ermahgerhds, after the sound that people make when first tasting it - er-mah-gerhd - it consists of pound cake soaked in chocolate milk topped with toffee digestives and marshmallows.
The food is all prepared at home, before being transported to the site. Much like everything else, it changes each time but has an eclectic, international feel to it, with past menus featuring kasir (Turkish tabbouleh) alongside pecan crusted sweet potatoes, truffled mac 'n' cheese and baked sea bass with ginger and lime.
If you'd like to be part of a dinner club evening, then there's good and bad news. On the plus side, despite originally intending to stop the club once the cafe launched, the response has been so positive that they're planning to continue for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, spaces are limited to 10 guests per dinner and fill up fast. Contact The Dinner Club via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@TheDinnerClub57) and if you make the list, you'll receive an invitation two to three weeks beforehand. The Dinner Club by No.57's evenings are free at the moment and guests are only allowed to attend once. This may change in the future. They operate outside of municipality regulations.