the urbanist: dubai

The Best of Both Worlds: Dubai’s High and Low Food Spots

Coya in Dubai. Photo: Courtesy of Coya

Celebrity chefs love starring in TV shows and releasing cookbooks, but what they really want to do is come to Dubai and open a restaurant. And many, including Gordon Ramsay, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Heinz Beck, Masaharu Morimoto, and Nobu Matsuhisa have done just that. Unless you’re really lucky though, the chances of catching a glimpse of these top chefs working their Dubai outpost is about as rare as seeing Salt Bae smile. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Dubai’s dining scene than the celebrity names etched on the doors. From hole-in-wall kebab joints to secret harbor hangouts, we asked a dozen of Dubai’s most food-obsessed residents to share their favorite high-low restaurants.

Faissal El-Malak, fashion designer

3Fils. Photo: Courtesy of 3Fils

High: 3Fils
“Founded by Singaporean chef Akmal Anuar and housed in the small Jumeirah fishing harbor, 3Fils is a testament to the vibrant cosmopolitan identity of Dubai. Using fresh local produce, Chef Akmal [who previously ran the award-winning Singaporean restaurant Iggy’s] has created a menu that resides at the crossroads of Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Sit outside overlooking the sea or grab one of the coveted bar seats to watch the chef and his team at work. The dessert that captured my heart is the deconstructed reimagining of the spiced sweet Indian Karak tea that UAE residents are so fond of.”

Low: Al Ustad Special Kabab
“This restaurant on Al Mankhool Road is an Iranian family-run joint that’s perfect for a night out in the older part of Dubai. You get a real sense of the history and the diverse influences of the city with pictures of celebrities and regulars covering all corners of the restaurant’s walls. Al Ustad has served its famous Iranian kebabs for 40 years. The joyful and welcoming spirit of the original owner, the late Mohammed Al Ansari, lives on through his sons, whose humor makes your meal as entertaining as it is delicious. Order the ‘mix,’ so you’ll get a variety of marinades and flavors on one platter.”

Lana Shamma, program manager at Art Jameel, a not-for-profit organization that fosters contemporary art practice and cultural heritage protection

High: Toro + KO
“Despite its location in the popular City Walk shopping area, a meal at Toro + KO transports you to Barcelona. Its modern, industrial interiors are flanked with colorful murals by artist Ruben Sanchez. The tapas menu from celebrity chef Ken Oringer includes classic dishes like smoked padrón peppers and croquettes, but also introduces new favorites such as tuna tartar with avocado and berries. Combined with specialty drinks and a soundtrack of old-school soul music, it’s one of the best meals in town.”

Low: Dampa Seafood Grill
“Come hungry to Dampa Seafood Grill [located inside the Centurion Star Hotel in Deira], where diners wear disposable gloves and share Cajun-spiced shellfish, corn, and unlimited rice dumped onto tables covered in plastic sheets. It’s bright and brash, with hip-hop providing the soundtrack to the seafood scoff.”

Nick Hutchinson, acrobat and performer at Franco Dragone’s aqua-theater La Perle

Black Tap. Photo: Courtesy of Black Tap Dubai

High: Black Tap
“Once in a while, life calls for a cheat meal, and Black Tap, with its monster shakes and burgers is my number-one choice. My favorite combo is the Spicy Mexican burger and Brooklyn Blackout milkshake. Black Tap’s unique location in Jumeirah Al Naseem, right in front of the turtle-rehabilitation lagoon, is amazing. Where else can you eat a burger and see turtles at the same time?”

Low: Park House
“Park House is my ultimate breakfast spot. There are several locations of the Australian-style breakfast café, but the two best are on Kite Beach and in Business Bay. The latter is basically a refurbished shipping container, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, looking over the Dubai Canal and Downtown Dubai. My favorite dish is smashed avocado on sourdough bread with two poached eggs. It’s a healthy way to kick start the day.”

Hanne Ripsaluoma, owner of the boutique Dunesi

High: Coya
“It’s located right next door to Salt Bae’s infamous Nusr-Et restaurant, but Coya is definitely the residents’ restaurant of choice. Winner of countless awards, this Dubai branch of London’s Michelin-star Latin American restaurant brings a hint of Incan heritage to the Middle East. It’s always busy and very loud, but the Peruvian food and pisco sours are sensational.”

Single Fin Café. Photo: Coutesy of Single Fin

Low: Single Fin Café
“This tiny but mighty cafe in Umm Sequim has that relaxed California surfer vibe. The chef, affectionately known as Mad Max, whips up simple surf bites for hungry beach lovers and surfers who cram into the café to get their nitro-coffee fix. Order the acai bowl for breakfast and a tuna poke bowl for lunch, then muscle your way into the gorgeous teal bay window booth to watch Dubai’s surfing community come and go.”

Reif Othman, executive chef at Billionaire Mansion

Tashas Café. Photo: Courtesy of Tashas

High: Tashas Café
“I know Tasha personally and she’s lovely. She’s created a good variety of dishes, especially for breakfast — polenta porridge, hummus toasties, and breakfast royale with Parma ham. The café has an air of understated elegance and the staff are very friendly and warm. I’m made to feel at home whenever I go.”

Low: Aappa Kadai
“Because of the enormous South Asian population in Dubai, you’ll find some of the best Indian food here, especially in the older parts of the city. Go to Aappa Kadai in Karama for the best made-to-order appam (bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice batter and coconut milk). You can have it plain, with eggs, or with masala. The restaurant is super basic, but the dishes are consistently tasty.”

Butheina Kazim, co-founder of independent cinema platform Cinema Akil

Shabestan. Photo: Courtesy of Sabestan

High: Shabestan
“Any old-school Dubaian will vouch for Shabestan as the original family restaurant to celebrate the milestones of life. The ostentatiously decorated room overlooks the abra-speckled Dubai Creek and its pedestrian-heavy harbor lined with beautiful dhows and wooden ships parked en route to and from Iran, Pakistan, India, and around. The family-style dishes are so delicious, fresh and homey, you would think they came fresh from Iran. Arrive well-coiffed and famished — then order it all! Get the cucumber yogurt, eggplant dip, herby lamb stew with black lime, and minced lamb kebabs. Pro tip: a live band plays Iranian music every night but Saturday.”

Low: Al Ijaza Cafeteria
“The original Ijaza, established in 1990, is the quintessential Dubai street-side eatery, blazing up the side of a small mosque with its neon lights. Sit down and grab a 15-page menu filled with rows of saturated photos of burgers, wraps, and club sandwiches. Flip through the pages to find the trademark rainbow of smoothies, milkshakes, and fresh juices and don’t miss the king of all wraps, the Hassan Matar, available only after 4 p.m., when the shawarma grills start spinning. It’s a concoction of chicken shawarma drenched in daqoos [Kuwaiti tomato sauce], Louisiana hot sauce, crushed Chips Oman, and Kraft cheese pressed down in a panini grill and gifted to the knowing ones.”

Àngel Monroy, freelance graphic designer

Rüya. Photo: Courtesy of Rüya.

High: Rüya
“Chef Colin Clague is a true homegrown hero. Having worked in some of the best restaurants in Dubai — including Jean-Georges — he finally decided to run his own kitchen [located in the Grosvenor House in Dubai Marina]. Beautiful hostesses in white gowns guide you through the busy but dimly lit restaurant to your low-slung table. The cuisine is Anatolian; think homemade cured beef, spiced chicken livers with herbs, barbecued skewers, and freshly baked pide served topped with melted cheese and a cracked egg. If there was the right time to use the phrase ‘Turkish delight,’ this would be it.”

Low: Hanoi Naturally
“This Vietnamese spot in the residential Jumeirah Lakes Towers neighborhood offers an authentic taste of Southeast Asia at really good prices. There are several pho options and plenty of vegetarian dishes, too. The bun dau with vermicelli noodles, salad, a tangy sauce, and sautéd tofu is really tasty.”

Stef Burgon, radio presenter at Dubai Eye

Sean Connolly. Photo: Courtesy of Sean Conolly

High: Sean Connolly
“If you can time your evening at Sean Connolly’s with a show at the nearby Dubai Opera, do so. Start your night with a dinner of oysters and duck-fat fries washed down with absinthe-laced G&Ts, watch a show, and then head back up to the rooftop restaurant for more food and drinks. The terrace is one of my favorite places to be when the weather is cool, and if you see Sean, grab him. He’s one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever met!”

Low: Delhi Restaurant
“Delhi has been open since 1979. You’ll find it in a really busy corner [Frij Al Murar] in the Naif neighborhood, where a man stands behind a huge bronze cauldron of food in front of a large open window. He’s the owner’s son, one of two, who changes shifts every six months with his brother. The lively Pakistani restaurant has two sides: a family section and a bachelor side, which is always busy. The marinated beef bihari kebab is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life.”

The Best of Both Worlds: Dubai’s High and Low Food Spots