Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 March 2018

Spice up your life with new social dining concept Restronaut

Today’s world of digital networking means there are ever fewer opportunities for personal interaction. Restronaut wants to change that by introducing social dining events to the UAE; Rosemary Behan tries it out.

Karma Kafe in Dubai was the venue for this travel-themed dinner. Antonie Robertson/ The National
Karma Kafe in Dubai was the venue for this travel-themed dinner. Antonie Robertson/ The National

“We have go for take-off!” Four days before my event at the Karma Kafe, it’s a relief to receive an email basically confirming that four other people are willing to pay to have dinner with me, so my scheduled gathering at Dubai’s Souk Al Bahar at 8pm on a Wednesday will definitely go ahead. As I’ll be driving from Abu Dhabi and booking a hotel, it’s good to know.

I’ve signed up online to try out Restronaut, a new “social dining” concept in Dubai that aims to enable like-minded individuals to meet each other over dinner through a social media site. Or, in the words of founder Leith Matthews, “a platform that enables people to make some nice offline relationships that could lead anywhere – business, friendship, whatever”.

And in the surreal social world of Dubai, where the possiblity of meeting new and interesting people often remains only a possibility because of its transient social fabric, residents’ work commitments or just plain flakiness, it’s a tantalising proposition. “An RSVP in Dubai is worth zero,” says Matthews. “Given the opportunity, most people will only confirm on the day.” Nailing down even just a small selection of Dubai’s notoriously fickle residents into a meaningful social commitment is a gratifying and energising experience, though there’s still an appropriately technological aspect to the build-up. Like everything else in the age of social media, I’ve been notified every step of the way – as soon as a new person books onto the specially organised table, when it is nearly full and when it is fully booked. In between, I’m urged to “keep inviting friends or share the table on your social channels”. I also get invites to other Restronaut events, one of which is on the same night as mine.

Like Facebook, being logged in to Restronaut means you can stalk the other participants’ photo and profiles as they join. But unlike other location-specific social networking event services such as InterNations, there’s no flaking out at the last minute. The cost (in our case a reasonable Dh250 per person) is settled in advance, meaning there will be no arguing over the bill at the end.

My event, titled “The Explorer in You” and prefixed “Eat Well, Travel Often”, is, like all of the events, an experiment in “social dining”. It presents a menu including spicy tuna maki (in truth, I was sold on that), salmon tataki, steak and Szechuan-Thai salad. Its premise is that it would be a good idea for 10 or so people who like travel to get together and talk, well, travel. “Join us for a dinner dedicated to the explorer in you, share your best stories, tips and travel destinations while enjoying a delicious dinner with fellow travellers,” says the website.

The Restronaut concept is the brainchild of Matthews, a Dubai-based Australian entrepreneur and the founder of Make Business Hub, a cafe and creative space in Dubai Marina where he met his three Restronaut co-founders, Baher Al Hakim, from Syria, Ghazwan Hamdan, who is Iraqi-British, and Tala Soubra, a banker and creator of the website forkitoverdubai.com.

Matthews says he found that the Make venue wasn’t very busy in the evenings, so he created events involving expert speakers and dinner at communal tables to maintain people’s interest. “People don’t need to know one another to have a great dining experience,” says Matthews. “People can actually have a better time with people they don’t know because their friends may not share their interests. We realised there was a huge opportunity in enabling people to get out and meet new and interesting people at the same time as experiencing some of Dubai’s best restaurants.”

Restronaut’s dinners comprise no more than 12 people (“any more than that and it becomes a group”, says Matthews) and all have a theme, which could be anything from big data to fashion to Japanese food to a local personality deemed influential or even a particular product.

Launched earlier this year, Matthews says Restronaut now has more than 5,000 registered members and that two or three events can take place in Dubai each week. So far, around 150 events have been hosted and people can create their own events or join others’ on the website. Next year, the company plans to expand into Abu Dhabi, Doha “and other key cities in the GCC”. Certainly, it’s an attractive proposition for expatriates who are new to a place or long-time residents who are stuck in a social rut, says Matthews.

“It’s convenient to meet people online [on social media sites] who also share your interests, and it can be great to connect with people in that way, but it’s almost antisocial. Dubai is very much a going-out culture, and there are good people to meet here, but the problem is finding them.”

And with that we all meet – almost on time – at the Karma Kafe, a venue I’d been curious about but never actually visited. Swish and dark, it’s like a scaled-down version of the Buddha Bar and is part of the same group. There’s a buzz as we’re met by the founders and introduced to other guests. After about 45 minutes, Matthews has to leave to head to another event. “What’s your favourite country?” asks Soubra, who is part of our group.

I start talking with Asih Wulansari, a marketing manager for Emirates NBD from Indonesia who has done an impressive amount of travelling, has some useful local Asian restaurant recommendations and, like many people, uses Dubai as a hub for further adventures. Just back from one trip, she’s now planning the next. “If I was still in Jakarta, it would be difficult for me to go to Turkey and other places,” she says.

Sitting down at a long table, our starter of assorted maki – California rolls, spicy tuna and spicy salmon, the salmon tataki with red shiso cress and wafu sauce, steamed dim sum and crispy duck spring rolls with yuzu and fig hoi sin sauce – is served promptly in shared style. There’s plenty of food, and it’s delicious. Soon I’m chatting with the person opposite me, Emmanuelle Artins from France, an assistant boutique manager for Chanel in Dubai Mall. She’s recently arrived in Dubai following a spell working in Japan and is missing the food. She says next time I’m in Japan I should visit the Osawakan onsen, a two-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo. “It’s an absolute hidden gem with no advertising whatsoever in any English guidebook and is only known by Japanese people,” she tells me excitedly.

The main course arrives, again on sharing plates – exquisite cherry-smoked baked salmon, salad, pieces of Australian steak and chicken with cashew nuts, chilli and basil, and steamed Jasmine rice. While Restronaut gets a cut from the restaurant it brings business to, group diners also benefit by getting a set menu at a cheaper price than they would pay dining individually.

At one end of the table, Mohamed Abudullah, an entrepreneur and investor from Saudi Arabia in Dubai for business, talks juicily about being kidnapped in Mexico before waxing lyrical about Greece, where he’s just been on a two-week holiday:

“The core interest in my life is travelling; I love to explore new countries,” he says. “I tried Restronaut twice before during a conference. I love the idea of socialising and hanging out together, mutual interests and stuff. It’s become a habit and, before I come to Dubai, I check what they have. I find it very interesting because I’m from Saudi Arabia and travel lovers are very rare over there.”

Opposite Mohamed was Achil, from India, who works in advertising. “I love to travel and love to eat lots of good food. A friend of mine forwarded a link about this because she’d read about it and because I’m a little new to Dubai and don’t know that many people, so she thought it was a good idea to actually come here and meet people. I’m looking forward to food and meeting lots of like-minded people. My last holidays were to Prague and Amsterdam.”

By the time dessert arrives (a delicious black sesame crème brulée), I have realised that, as with any group – especially one in which no one has met each other prior to tonight – I find some people more interesting than others. Perhaps the theme is a little too broad to be meaningful; plus, there are two people at one end of the table that no one else seems to talk to.

On this night the dinner may have been more exciting than the company, but we’d all explored a new venue and had a great meal at a very good price. But as with any social dining – sadly no longer a tautology in this age of social media – perhaps it’s all about what you bring to the table.