Food and beverage openings in Tanker Mai are changing the face of the area
An Abu Dhabi neighbourhood starts to be revitalised
It's an area where the past and present collide.
Older residents queue for bread at hole-in-the-wall bakeries, taxi drivers sip karak and now, Spanish lattes are sold at a trendy new cafe.
A cluster of new cafes and eateries is breathing life into this old Abu Dhabi neighbourhood.
Tanker Mai is an area of low-rise residential blocks, shisha cafes and ethnic restaurants between Delma and Mohammed bin Khalifa (15th) streets. But on one strip in the area, two speciality coffee shops have opened in the past few months alone.
In the days before Ikea and Home Centre, Tanker Mai (named after a water tank) was also known as a furniture district. Some of these shops remain and movers still sit on their battered pick-ups and on street corners waiting for business. But Tanker Mai is now undergoing a quiet transformation. Many of the furniture shops have closed, bakeries have shut, old buildings demolished and construction sites are common.
Rain welcomed its first customers in January. It’s not a typical cafe for this area: furniture is from the fashionable Japanese retailer Muji and the most popular drink is a Spanish latte for Dh25. Mohamed Al Shehhi opened it to bring his passion for good coffee to the capital.
“It’s the first thing I do on holiday. Some seek out restaurants, but I seek out coffee shops,” said Mr Al Shehhi, who is Emirati.
Business has boomed since the opening. From an expectation to sell about 150 cups a day, they can sell more than 700 on some days. The site is near the busy intersection of Sultan bin Zayed the First Street (Muroor) and 15th and was picked because of its proximity to Abu Dhabi Media, universities and government buildings. Mr Al Shehhi wants to introduce a more nuanced coffee culture to Abu Dhabi.
“We want them to come here and want to know the difference between the beans.You cannot taste this unless you drink black coffee,” said Mr Al Shehhi.
Sitting at Rain during the week was Jassim Al Ali, who has been going since it opened.
“The coffee shop is attracting me to this area,” said Mr Ali, who visits about twice a week and heard about Rain from a friend. “Why not?”
Down the road is Tea Break. At 9pm on a humid June night, all the outdoor seats were full with people sipping its Dh2 karak. The outlet opened just over a year ago and from selling 150 cups a day then, it now sells 2,000.
Britt Mitchell was sitting outside Tea Break on Wednesday evening. The US expatriate moved to Tanker Mai area two years ago and said she’s noticed traffic increasing since Rain opened. She likes the area for the variety of old and new.
“There is more outdoor space now,” she said. “I’ve never previously spent much time outside here.”
Many Emiratis are also coming here for the new cafes and for the founder of Tea Break, nostalgia is an important factor. “We are marketing this area as water tank area,” said Shahaban P K, who is from India. “Everybody knows it. And people are looking for a place to hang out inside the city.
“Look around, it’s summer season. Yet people are coming here and sitting here. When the furniture shops move out, the food and beverage shops move in.”
About five outlets have opened in the area over the past two years. At the other end of Tanker Mai facing Delma Street is Dose. The coffee shop opened in 2016 and was one of the first in the neighbourhood. Oz café opened a few months ago and sits beside a tailoring shop and small Sri Lankan restaurant.
A short stroll away is The Grillbox and burger joint Ketchup and Mustard. Grillbox opened in April selling grilled and smoked meat.
It sits beside an electronics shop and across the road is an old smoking accessories shop selling dokha tobacco, medwakh pipes and shisha, underlining that the past and present are colliding. Shamseer Beeral, manager of Grillbox, said business has increased since opening.
Mr Beeral said the shop was targeting Emiratis with word of mouth, while Instagram and Snapchat were also important. “We are getting good reviews, he said. “Emiratis use Talabat more and expatriates Zomato.”
Parts of Abu Dhabi’s old town have long been populated by migrant workers on lower incomes. Many live in residential towers that have seen better days. But this is changing.
Hamdan Street, for example, has undergone a refresh, with footpaths widened, new shading areas and seats for pedestrians and older buildings knocked down. This is now slowly happening in Tanker Mai. Old and new sit side by side and while it’s too early to say it’s gentrified, the signs are there.