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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

The writing's on the wall for my favourite Dubai restaurant but I'll be loyal until the end

In Dubai we have about '8,000 restaurants in the city, which is 29 restaurants per 10,000 capita, twice the saturation point of London'

Pictured is a mezze selection at Zahira Dubai, which closed its doors recently after being open for less than a year. Courtesy Zahira Dubai
Pictured is a mezze selection at Zahira Dubai, which closed its doors recently after being open for less than a year. Courtesy Zahira Dubai

There’s nothing sadder than watching one of your favourite restaurants die a slow, painful death. This is currently happening to one of my preferred eateries in Dubai. The hostesses have taken to greeting us with just a little bit too much enthusiasm; staff now regularly outnumber diners; smiles feel slightly forced; and selecting a table has become an awkward process, because there are quite obviously too many to choose from.

It started out well enough – a ­restaurant concept that had enjoyed significant success in the United States was imported, repackaged and inserted into one of Dubai’s more established hotels. The location wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was good enough. The vibe was laid-back but lively. Servers were young, dynamic and friendly – they remembered your name and your favourite drink. For a few months, it was the hottest spot in town. The city’s glitterati flocked here in their designer threads, determined to see and be seen.

And then, all of a sudden, as is the Dubai way, there was a lot more room at the bar, and you could get a table on a Friday night without calling ahead. Those friendly servers started moving on to greener pastures and, in many instances, weren’t replaced. Eventually, the redecorating began. That’s always the big warning sign – restaurateurs seem to think that replacing chairs and shifting tables will solve all their problems (perhaps they imagine that they are altering their foodie feng shui and customers will come magically flooding back in).

In truth, the odds were stacked against them. The odds are stacked against most restaurants in Dubai, where an over-saturated market is combined with an extremely fickle audience. “Dubai as a city has one of the highest restaurant saturation points in the world,” Elmar Pichorner, co-founder of the Dubai-based F&B consultancy Atelier EPJ told me recently. “We are looking at 8,000 restaurants in the city, which is 29 restaurants per 10,000 capita, twice the saturation point of London. There you have about 13 or 14 restaurants per 10,000 people.”

This was a point reiterated by my colleague Kevin Hackett, who wrote an article this week that looked at why some restaurants in the UAE enjoy success and many others fail. As he pointed out, some of the venues that have shut shop in recent years include Zahira (which only opened last summer), Rivington Grill (another of my personal favourites), Frankie’s Bar and Grill (which closed almost overnight a couple of weeks ago), Ping Pong(which was my Dubai Mall go-to), Eric Kayser, Le Classique, Crab Tavern, Morah and Dragonfly by Tim Raue, to name but a few.

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Read more from Selina:

Dubai's love of 1990s popstars is a double-edged sword

Writing Dubai off as one-dimensional only shows your own blinkered view

Why ageing in Dubai is a particularly painful process

Maybe the sisterhood does exist, after all

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So what is the secret to success? Location is key – you become so territorial (read lazy) in Dubai that the idea of driving across town for dinner is anathema. If you live in Marina, you want to eat in Marina, not Deira. But that’s not a deal breaker. The restaurant that I am talking about is not strictly on the “right” side of town, but it is worth the journey, largely because of its service. And this, for me and many others, is key. In the UAE, seamless service is the golden egg – you want to deal with staff members that you can­ ­communicate with; who are attentive but not subservient; who can talk you through what’s on offer; and make suggestions that don’t just consist of the most expensive items on the menu. If they remember your name from the last time you were there, all the better.

Which is why the writing may (quite literally) be on the wall for my favourite eatery, but I’ll stick with it until the bitter end.

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