Eat Like a Prince in Dubai for as Little as $9
Dining in Dubai is like iTunes: Get just the hits and avoid the filler.
Restaurateurs are drawn by the relatively easy money: They can recycle concepts and dishes while giving their chefs overseas experience. But that's good news for diners, because some of the best restaurants from around the world are just a taxi ride away.
If the fancy restaurants tend to be derivative and expensive, they are still generally good. And you can eat very well for a few dollars at local cafes, where the absence of an alcohol licence means the focus is entirely on the food.
Here are some places to try.
Three names kept coming up when I asked where to dine in Dubai: Coya, La Petite Maison and Zuma. All three are London exports from restaurateur Arjun Waney. I tried just the first, and this Peruvian restaurant is as good as the original. In fact, the higher ceilings mean it feels less cramped. It's much the same food from chef Sanjay Dwivedi, and there is a cool pisco lounge. Coya is Time Out's Dubai Restaurant of the Year 2016. (Zuma is top for Japanese; La Petite Maison for French.) There is a lunch menu at 130 dirhams ($35 at about four dirhams to the dollar) but expect to spend a lot more at night.
Restaurant Village, Four Seasons Hotel, Jumeirah Rd; +971 4 316 9600
This is an Istanbul-based steakhouse that has a great following in Dubai. (I went to the original once and sat in the naughty corner for fat tourists while the rest of the room was crowded with beautiful people.) I got a table in Dubai by showing up at lunchtime when Nusr-Et (and Coya next door) are relatively quiet. You lose out on atmosphere but do get to try some great food, albeit at high prices. A modest lunch (with water) for one cost 412.5 dirhams plus service. If you are on a budget, this isn't the place for you.
Restaurant Village, Four Seasons Hotel, Jumeirah Rd; +971 4 407 4100
This restaurant from the British restaurateur Jason Atherton is among the most exciting in Dubai. The view is stunning. The menu is filled with original dishes. Tristin Farmer is a talented chef. And the service is first class. I've been to 10 Atherton restaurants around the world, and the originality and distinctiveness of Marina Social is remarkable. But - and this is an enormous but - the place is too dark and too loud. We ordered the Feed Me menu at 450 dirhams for four courses, where the kitchen decides what to send out. We struggled to hear descriptions of the dishes (or each other) and to see what was on the plate. We lapsed into a very unsocial silence. (Or maybe I was just boring everyone.)
InterContinental Hotel Dubai Marina, Bay Central, Dubai Marina, Al Sufouh Road; +971 4 446 6664
This is the most charming restaurant I visited. It's outside the city, in a gorgeous botanical garden where the sounds are of rustling leaves and water lapping in fish-filled crystal streams. You can sit in a wooden pavilion dining on light and uncomplicated, mainly Thai, dishes such as saffron shrimp curry. Or come for breakfast, when the options may include poached egg on tapioca and potato hash or vegan tofu scramble, served with bagels and croissants from the bakery. My Arabic breakfast plus cappuccino and water came to 80 dirhams before they knocked off 20 percent because I paid by Amex. I have no idea why, but I recommend it to restaurants everywhere.
Al Barari, Opposite Falcon City; +971 4 392 5660
Al Ustad Special Kabab
I have to thank my colleague for taking me to this family owned Iranian café in Bur Dubai. Although it is difficult to find, the cramped and cluttered venue is well known for the quality of the food and the friendliness of the service. There is a great sense of hospitality and warmth. A large plate of cucumber, tomato and onions is placed in front of you before you look at the menu, where dishes range from about 25 to 40 dirhams.
Al Mosalla Road, Near 15 A Street, Bur Dubai; +971 4 397 2111 or 1933
This bistro in the Vida Hotel serves light and fresh Mediterranean food in a bright and beautiful dining room with attractive views across downtown. The founding chef is ex-La Petite Maison, and it shows in the menu and prices. The food is particularly good, though the bill may give you indigestion: Ours was 934 dirhams (plus service) for two, including wine. A starter of quinoa salad, confit duck legs and clementine was 75 dirhams, while grilled tiger prawns with aji amarillo peppers cost 145 dirhams.
Vida Hotel, Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown; +971 4 428 6969
This inexpensive and unfussy restaurant fills with families enjoying superb south Indian food, including savory aappam crepes similar to those for which customers queue for hours at Hoppers in London. It was Hoppers owner Karam Sethi who directed me to this easy-to-miss café, where one of my best meals in Dubai cost a total of 32 dirhams, including pepper chicken curry, mutton keema aappam, chapattis, yoghurt and water.
Karama Park, opposite Lulu Centre (opposite side of park); +971 4 354 8080 (for delivery)
You line up at a hatch to order a fish or prawns in a room that lacks air conditioning and other essentials. You line up again to pay. Then you wait half an hour for someone to shout out your name and deposit the food, served on greaseproof paper. You eat with plastic cutlery and enjoy your (soft) drink from a paper cup. That's it. And this meal was my most enjoyable in Dubai. The hammour fish is freshly caught and the seasoning - with garlic, ginger, cumin, chili and coriander powder - spot on. The bill for two, with a large bottle of water, was 135 dirhams.
Street 4D, Umm Suqeim (it's worth the hunt for it!)
This is a longstanding favorite for Lebanese cuisine in Dubai. (It was only when I sat down that I realized everyone had recommended Al Nafoorah to me on my previous visit, in 2007.) There's a business lunch at 120 dirhams if you are in a hurry, or you might just order some tabouleh (36 dirhams) and chicken liver with pomegranate (52 euros) or meat from the charcoal grill.
Ground Level, The Boulevard, Emirates Towers; +971 4 432 3232
This seafood restaurant over the water at Madinat Jumeirah may be the most romantic in Dubai. You are taken out along the pier in a trishaw and then deposited in a room with views of the Gulf, the coastline and the Burj Al Arab super-luxury hotel. With all that to look at, it's probably best that you don't have too much time to study the prices on the menu. The shellfish platter for two, for example, is 900 dirhams. Heritage tomato salad costs 80 dirhams. But Pierchic is romantic, and you can't put a price on romance. (Unless you are a divorce lawyer.)
Madinat Jumeirah, Al Sufouh Rd; +971 4 366 6705
If you like your Indian food refined, Indego is a beautiful restaurant with modern dishes in the Grosvenor House hotel. I've gotten to know chef Vineet Bhatia since my first-ever review was of Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, in London, in 2004. Bhatia was a pioneer in creating and presenting dishes with the kind of precision and aesthetics rarely associated with a cuisine known for robust flavors and family style servings. Indego showcases his contemporary Indian cooking. Try for a table on the terrace.
Grosvenor House, Al Sufouh Road; +971 4 317 6000