Top 5 Emirati restaurants and cafés in Dubai

Al Fanar - Dubai Festival City“Where do you go for local Emirati food in Dubai?” A question that I am asked a lot. Now, I would say head over to my grandmother’s kitchen where some of the best Emirati food is made (pronounced Emarati by the way). However, although my grandmother would love it, this doesn’t really answer the question.

And so I began to taste my way around every Emirati restaurant and café in Dubai, as well as spots serving Emirati dishes in search of the best. My journey was sometimes funny, other times horrific, but always enlightening.

It has left me much wiser and as such, here are my top 5 recommendations for eating Emirati food in Dubai – in no particular order:

  1. Al Fanar luqaimatAl Fanar – I had been craving fareed all week; thin slivers of riqaaq bread drenched in a flavoursome saloona make for the perfect comfort food. We stroll into Al Fanar’s inner courtyard, charmingly named Bait Al Tawash ‘Pearl Merchant’s House.’ Though inside, the décor gives a sense of sitting in an open courtyard – a blessing after our brave, but short-lived attempt to ignore the heat and enjoy the village life theme outside. The menu, though long, is easy to read with photos and clear descriptions of the food. The complimentary harda(tahini)-slathered dates are addictive. The Fanar salad is fresh, slightly sweet and gone in a minute. The fareed laham finally arrives but while good, is far from excellent. The spices are there, just not in the right proportion and the taste of black limes is overwhelming. My husband’s biryani maleh is much better. Maleh is a fish that has been salted using a traditional method to keep it fresh and is (believe me) an acquired taste. The plates used are so authentic, that I’m pretty sure my grandmother has an identical set. The luqaimat arrive, little golden pieces of heaven, and are immediately the star of the show. Perfectly round, hot, crispy yet soft and drenched in the delicious dibbs (date syrup) – they’re the best I’ve tasted all year (sorry mum!) The strong and creamy karak complements them well. Al Fanar does a good job of giving you a glimpse of what life used to be like in the UAE. This is a great place to take visitors to. From the décor to the staff’s uniforms, a lot of thought, time and effort has gone into creating a replica of old Dubai. Open daily 9am – midnight. Canal Walk, Dubai Festival City Mall, T; +971 4 2329966, E; info@alfanarrestaurant.com New branch opening soon in Town Centre, Jumeirah. AED80 per person excluding drinks. 
  2. Mama TaniMama Tani – on a lazy Friday, we walk into Mama Tani – a homegrown café selling Emirati ‘khameer’. The golden round khameer is my favourite traditional breakfast dish. I say dish because to call it bread would be doing it an injustice. The setting is relaxed with calm colours complementing the café’s sarrood logo (the round sarrood, made from palm fronds, is essentially a traditional table cloth – sans the table).  The menu is simple and our selection Mama Tani breakfast is served all day. For AED49 we get eggs, chebab, karak and most importantly khameer. You can choose the filling but I would stick to the classic version and slather cream cheese and honey like locals love to. The aromatic cardamom, fennel and saffron ensure the khameer tastes authentic in spite of the slightly cake-like texture. The chebab, a cross between sour dough bread and pancakes, is good. The balaleet, saffron-infused vermicelli served with eggs, is delicious. While the karak is sadly unremarkable, the camel milk hot chocolate tastes rich, creamy and different – in a good way.  I’ll probably return for the golden omelette-topped balaleet, which, at AED18, is a bargain! Open daily 8.30am – 10pm, Town Centre, Jumeirah. T; +971 4 3854437, E; home@mamatani.com AED40 per person. 
  3. Milas - machboosMilaswalking through a practically empty The Village at Dubai Mall on a weekday afternoon, we found Milas (a room for welcoming guests) to be surprisingly busy. Settling for a table inside, we were given a shared i-pad to peruse the long menu – the first sign of the indifferent service received throughout the meal. Attempting to carry a conversation across the way-too-big-and-shiny black table, we snacked on the complimentary cumin-sprinkled danqaw (cooked chickpeas – a local staple) and steaming Arabic bread. The traditional rocca salad was very refreshing with a light zesty dressing. The main dishes were innovative takes on the classics and beautifully spiced. The machboos laham pictured here arrived with rice fluffy, beef cooked to perfection and was chock full of flavour. The mbahar robyan vied for attention with saffron-infused rice and flavourful shrimps in a spicy cream sauce. The dessert, in comparison, fell rather flat with doughy doughnut-like luqaimat. Our visit ended with a nod to local custom, in the form of a tray of oud-inspired perfumes (incidentally one of my favourite brands) offered as a lovely hospitable gesture. The food definitely speaks for itself, offering a delicious, modern interpretation of Emirati cuisine. Open daily 9am – midnight. The Village, Dubai Mall, T; +971 4 3882313, E; info@milas.cc AED110 per person excluding drinks. 
  4. Al KhettarAl Khettar – I walked into this place grumbling about its hard-to-find location and lack of parking. I walked out raving about the food. Al Khettar (meaning guests) is located in busy Deira and offers dishes from around the Gulf. An unassuming entrance led us to the second floor where we were offered a private dining room. Well, why not? You can choose to either sit at a table or on the floor where meals were traditionally served. The menu has clear descriptions, even listing the origin of each dish, along with pictures to help you choose. We opted for the falai salad, served with a light yoghurt-zattar dressing. My riqaaq with eggs and cheese was cooked just right – light yet crispy. I’ve been craving it ever since. As an aside but an important one, Riqaaq is actually great as a bread substitute if you are on a diet as it has very few calories. The excellent goat meat biryani, served in a clay pot, had my husband mesmerised as he polished it off. I snuck in a bite of the fluffy rice and tender meat and could see why. Emirati dishes at Al Khettar tasted authentic, homemade and delicious. Our dessert of luqaimat was the only hiccup of the evening. It was doughy and rather over fried. However, the fragrant khameer more than made up for it. Although traditionally a breakfast dish, once dipped in cheese and honey, it was the perfect end to our meal. Service throughout was excellent and never intrusive. I’m surprised not many people seem to know about this place. In a city where local Emirati cuisine is hard to find, this hidden gem has plenty of promise. Open daily 8am – midnight. Al Etihad Road, opposite Dubai Police headquarters. T;+9714 2964422, E; info@alkhettar.com AED60 per person excluding drinks. 
  5. Al Majlis camelccinoThe Majlis – a location beckoning weary Dubai Mall shoppers with the promise of a delicious break, Al Majlis complements the feel of the souq with its Arabian décor and camel milk drinks menu. Many assume that camel meat is a sign of an authentic Emirati dish. It isn’t. Seafood was in fact prevalent across Emirati dishes, which is why there are many traditional ways to prepare, cook and store fish. Camels, on the other hand, were valuable and used for their milk and for travel. But I digress. The hot chocolate I asked for is unavailable, so I settled for a camelccino, aka camel milk cappuccino. Very creamy, with a slight hint of salt and hence a little bitter, it delivered the appropriate caffeine hit. Al Nassma chocolate, made by the same company, should have been served on the side, according to the ipad menu. This was nowhere to be found and upon further investigation I was told they were out of chocolate. Well, I’d hoped to buy some, I said. Oh, well in that case we have plenty. Hmmm. The chocolate, once bought was delightfully rich. The Majlis also serves Arabian afternoon tea if you are looking for something a little more substantial with your camel milk drink. Open daily 9am – midnight. The Souk Atrium, Dubai Mall, T; +971 56 2871522, E; cafedm@the-majlis.com AED20 per person for drinks. 

As you can see, the round-up is for restaurants where you can actually sit down and have a meal or a refreshment. There are places like the stands and pop-ups in Global Village and Al Multaqa that serve delicious luqaimat and riqaaq. For a party or a gathering, you can order from a traditional kitchen like ‘Bin Eid’ that is popular for weddings and Eid orders – more in FooDiva’s feature in The National. If you are camping, you could swing by Al Raslan in Al Awir for breakfast on the go, literally. For a cultural experience, you can head to SMCCU, which is on FooDiva’s bucket list, and have your meal served with a dash of local culture. Or else you can wait until the top-end Emirati restaurant Aseelah opens at the Radisson Deira, soon apparently – and Chef Silvena Rowe’s Emirati-influenced Omnia in Downtown Dubai just in time for Ramadan.

So, have you tasted local Emirati food? If not, and with so many options available, have I persuaded you to try it?

Reem.

So who’s our anon guest reviewer Reem? “I am a proud Emirati, although spending most of my childhood in the UK makes me a bit of a Brit at heart. As much as I loved it there, I enjoyed returning to witness a cosmopolitan Dubai be born. I’m married to a wonderfully traditional man –  a rare breed. We spend our free time exploring our lovely city – new spots, hidden gems and all. At twenty something (don’t ask!), I’ve realised just how much I still have to discover, experience and enjoy.” 

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14 Responses to “Top 5 Emirati restaurants and cafés in Dubai”

  1. Dave Reeder May 25, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Fascinating piece. One place you’ll struggle to get into is Za’abeel Hospitality, manned by 800 chefs and serving all the palaces. I’ve been lucky and eaten there twice, now a full convert to true Emirati cuisine. I can’t believe there aren’t more places 0- surely tourists would love to try the local food, instead of the standard Lebanese fare passed off as Arabic food. No mention though of Al Boom, the first local restaurant and from where most Emirati chefs got their training?

  2. Reem May 25, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Hi Dave. Thanks for stopping by. Glad to hear you’re a convert to true Emirati cuisine. I think the food is amazing, but I’m biased 😉
    You’re right about Al Boom which a local favourite especially for weddings. I’d meant to mention Al Areesh restaurant which has a buffet including local dishes. My main concern with it is that there are options in the buffet of Lebanese and other Arabic cuisines. One new to Emirati cuisine might find it hard to navigate. I will be paying them another visit though and may add them to the closing paragraph.

  3. IshitaUnblogged May 25, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Superb post. Do you know whether Aseelah has already opened in the Radisson Deira Creek? I love Mama Tani, though feel that the Menu should be expanded a bit. Also want to include Barjeel Guest House.

    • Reem May 26, 2014 at 9:30 am

      Thanks Ishita 🙂
      Aseelah still hasn’t opened, but I’ve been assured that it will later this year. The date doesn’t seem to have been set yet.
      I too like Mama Tani Cafe and I agree that the menu could do with more items. For now, I’d mainly recommend it for breakfast. I’m a breakfast for breakfast, lunch or dinner person though 😉

      I liked the sound of Barjeel Guest House, but didn’t visit it as I understand focuses on Lebanese mezze, kebabs & grills with a only small Emirati section. This was also the case in Bait Al Bahar which I did visit. However, I’ll be sure to give Barjeel Guest House a visit soon. I have a feeling this list will grow especially with Aseelah and Omnia opening soon.

      I’m curious, what is your favourite Emirati dish?

      Reem.x

      • Dave Reeder June 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm

        Have to say I was distinctly unimpressed by the few dishes from Aseelah served at Dubai Food Carnival. I also understand that, although positioned as Emirati cuisine, it will include dishes from the region. One more thing to look forward to is the Dubai World Hospitality Championship to be held at Trade Centre from October 30th to November 2nd. A good opportunity there to taste food from the other Emirates, instead of our focus on Dubai.

    • Emirati Restaurant May 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm

      Yeah, Aseelah has recently opened in Radisson Deira Creek.

  4. Noura El-Imam June 5, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    First of all – GREAT to hear that Al Fanar is opening up in Jumeriah soon – thanks for the heads up Foodiva!! Do keep us posted for when the doors open. I’ve tried this hidden gem called Al Mallas (Real Emirati Food) located on Jumeirah Beach Road (Umm Suqeim 1 ) next to Falla Juices (its sister restaurant) and a few blocks after Maple Leaf Restaurant heading towards AbuDhabi direction. I’ve had the best machboos and mandi chicken with biryani rice. Their menu is very limited in a great way….so their meat dishes stand out. And their salad? Very basic cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots and lettuce but my God are the portions GIGANTIC! Luckily I walked 10 blocks and was starving by then…this is one I would recommend. No fuss. No innovation. Simple, very good meat, fragrant rice with all the right Arabic spices, generous side salad and yogurt. It’s a small spot which makes it all the more cosy! Get down there during a weekday for lunch to beat the crowd that “sell-out” their dishes.

    My favorite for “sweets” is Hail Wa Zaafran. One on Jumeirah Beach Road opposite Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the other in Barsha Mall. You must try their Khabeesa! I coined it, the Arabic Granola version of cardamom, saffron, rose infused in the toasted flour. By far, the best in town! Seriously addictive. And their mini saffron soft cakes are incredible. You might end up eating the whole shop.

    Last but not least another favorite is Klayya Bites in Barsha Mall for their roasted dates & sunny side egg with cumin ontop. Served with thin flat bread and Karak tea. Outstanding. The roasted crunchy sweet dates with the cumin and the egg is award winning, I’ve replicated it one too many times at home now.

    Now I agree with Dave Reeder about Aseelah – big disappointment when I tried their overpriced mandi chicken at the Food Carnival. Barely any flavor. Mama Tani is “ok” – but I would certainly prefer to sit down and have the real-deal than play and innovate with the local cuisine.

    That’s my two cents! Born and raised here, I appreciate the growing Emirati cuisine scene but still needs to be pushed! Lebanese food seems to be brainwashing tourists that this is the local cuisine! 🙂

    Much love and foodie passion,
    Noura El-Imam of Yogalates Bliss in Dubai.

    • Reem June 8, 2014 at 11:55 am

      Hala Noura. Great tip on Al Mallas- I’ll make sure to stop by. I actually like Mandi even though it isn’t really an Emirati dish. The place sounds like my kind of hole in the wall. As for Hail wa Zafraan. I’ve been a fan since they opened their first store in Kuwait. I used to get their sweets as gifts- delicious. I love how you describe the Khabeesa- might just pass by on the way home 😉

      I didn’t try Aseelah’s dishes, but will be sure to let you know what it is like once they open. Same for Omnia. There is a lot of potential and it quite a niche they’re targeting, so I hope they fill it well. Like you, I would love to see more emphasis on Emirati cuisine in Dubai.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Adela June 28, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Mashkura Reem for your reviews and fun writing style! I’m so happy to discover you on FD 🙂 You bring a great flavor to an already delicious blog. And many thanks to Noura, Dave and other contributors for enriching the conversation. It seems I have a lot of homework to do after reading this piece!!! Ramadan kareem!

  6. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer March 26, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Great list. I want to stick to eating only Emirati food during my upcoming layover in Dubai in May, and this is a great list to start with, so thank you!

  7. Emirati Restaurant August 1, 2016 at 11:31 am

    I like the list, ASEELAH is another one on Dubai Creek.

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