x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Drinking coffee by numbers on Abu Dhabi's Corniche

Three Special Cafés on Abu Dhabi Corniche offer a place for night owls to gather, eat, and smoke shisha together.

Many of those who are used to staying up into the early hours can be found at one of three Special Cafes dotted along the Corniche.
Many of those who are used to staying up into the early hours can be found at one of three Special Cafes dotted along the Corniche.

It is 3am, and most of Abu Dhabi is asleep.

But many of those who are used to staying up well into the night - and the early hours - can be found at one of three Special Cafes dotted along the Corniche.

The scented-smoke-filled sanctuaries for night owls don't appear, on face value, to live up to their name. But the kitschy and faded decor of each has created a loyal following.

On the front of every menu - as if to further bolster the chain's already solid reputation - are the words: "Surpassing your expectations."

Laughter and relaxed chatter emanate from each location.

"I come here almost all the time," says Nariman Fadel, a Palestinian expatriate who was born in the UAE.

A regular since the first cafe opened in 1999, Ms Fadel, a make-up artist, says her family has seen three generations adopt the chain as a home from home.

Just a few hundred metres apart, the three cafes are now unofficially referred to by their numerical listings, numbered from right to left.

"I just dropped my mother off home. But my daughter, who comes here all the time, she prefers to smoke shisha in number two," she says while chatting with her friends and waving her purple shisha pipe in her hand.

For Ms Fadel, there is no better outdoor area than the one provided by the third cafe, affectionately referred to as "three". But it was not love at first sight. "We stayed at the first one, initially, but then we transferred to the second and, finally, the third."

Sometimes they go to play cards. At other times, they chat about politics, jobs and family. Special Cafe is a haven for people who work long hours, Ms Nadel says.

Pointing to one of her companions, she says: "I finished my duty at midnight, he finished late. We all finish late, so where do we go?"

The cafes also offer an escape for some of the staff, all of whom work 12-hour shifts.

Working as a supervisor at cafe number three since he left Syria in 2010, Mohammed Al Mohammed has avoided enlistment in the Syrian national army back home.

No matter the weather, the cafes are always full, the 24-year-old says. "If you came here two months ago," he says, pointing to the half-filled outdoor sitting area, "this place was full". He adds: "Now, it is still full, but more people stay indoors."

Ahbet Padilla, a singer at a nearby hotel, moved from the Philippines several months ago. He comes to cafe number three to wind down after work.

Accompanied by two of his friends, the 41-year-old expatriate says there are other perks, too.

"We come for the apple and mint shisha," says the perfectly coiffed entertainer, who will likely head home at his usual time of about 5am.

"This is also one of the only places that is open all night, and when I finish my set, my adrenaline is so high that I don't sleep till about 7am anyway."

The cafe has an inviting atmosphere, and treats its regulars well, says Mr Padilla, who calls many of the waiters by their names.

By now, it is 4.35am, but the patrons show no sign of leaving. At one table, in cafe number two, 60-year-old Ismail Ouf has only just packed away his oud, after serenading the crowd.

A musician by trade, he says the cafe was very popular among Egyptians.

"It is a nice place, and you can bring your family and friends. We Egyptians like the funny atmosphere," he says.

Finishing off the dregs of their Turkish coffees, Mr Ouf and his friend finally relinquish their table, leaving the cafe to a chorus of birds chirping in the nearby trees.

The pair are by no means the last to leave.

It is now 5am and, in the cafes that never sleep, the festivities continue.