Al Quoz revs up on cool

The former workhorse-only community in Dubai has spontaneously become a haven for artists, niche stores and cafes

Cafe Rider Custom Motorcycles. Lee Hoagland/The National
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Over the last decade, Dubai’s Al Quoz neighbourhood has grown from an industrial warehouse area into a vibrant community where independent coffee bars and quirky art galleries sit comfortably next to repair garages, labour accommodation or tiling companies.

It is one of the few parts of the city that could accurately be described as developing organically. Unlike other purpose-built areas such as Media City, Dubai International Financial Centre or Sports City, it has been allowed to develop at a more natural pace, injecting much more variety into the area.

In the past few years it has become synonymous with the emirate’s blossoming art scene. There are dozens of well-known galleries and art spaces taking advantage of its affordable rents and ample warehouse spaces.

But Al Quoz is not just for artistic and creative souls, it also serves a practical purpose. It is home to thousands of labourers and service staff. Many of the city’s hotels, including some of the 5-star Dubai Marina properties, have built or leased large apartment blocks for their staff. Many of the workers who are employed in the nearby factories are also put up here, often within walking distance of their workplaces.

And while other labour camp areas often struggle with a lack of amenities, Al Quoz has no such problem. There are plenty of malls, including Al Quoz Mall, which must be one of the country’s few operational, full and clean malls built specifically to cater to the worker community.

It has a Bollywood cinema, a driving school, a government health clinic, grocery shops and a money exchange. Even its opening hours – 7am until 1am – work well for its target market.

While this side of old Al Quoz has been well established for some time, new Al Quoz is quickly gaining momentum.

Epitomising the changes is the new All Quoz Beautification Project,correct spelling of All a non-profit group set up to use art to inspire people living in the area. Its street night art session in January attracted hundreds of people who came to bring art from the inside of the galleries onto the street. The organisers plan to allocate permanent "positive word" sculptures around the neighbourhood to "generate a positive feeling among the community ... which helps build our common culture".

They also want to hold free art workshops and provide gallery space for labourers living in the area, providing access to an activity that would otherwise be out of their reach. This project in particular shows how the area has reached something of a tipping point.

“We see it as a future SoHo,” says Maria Urrutia, one of the All Quoz Project founders. “Many cities around the world started as industrial areas, then they turned into the most artistic places; it’s very exciting for us to be part of this. We called the project All Quoz because we wanted to do something where everyone can be involved. It belongs to everyone, it is happening for everyone.”

Over the last few years, and even longer in some instances, new galleries, shops and community spaces have set up in some of the many leasable warehouses. There is the Alserkal Avenue, The Third Line and Shelter, to name a few. It is also attracting a number of ambitious new cafe and restaurant owners.

One of the latest offerings to the independent food scene is already a big hit. Around the corner from Ace Hardware, and opposite the Burjeel Hospital for Advanced Surgery, the Tom & Serg restaurant is right on the edge of Al Quoz's newer quarter.

It was opened at the end of last year by Tom Arnel, from Australia, and Sergio Lopez, of Spain, who pride themselves on its “superior food, coffee and service”.

Inside the plain exterior is a bright, airy and contemporary space with white painted chairs contrasting with the exposed brick. The menu is not extensive but generally has something simple and fresh for everyone.

Even during the week there is a steady stream of people occupying most of the chairs and sofas. It has definitely already made its mark as one of Al Quoz’s best new eateries.

“It’s worth the drive,” says Sandy Thomas, 33, who drives over Sheikh Zayed Road from her office in Jumeirah about once a week for lunch. “It’s nice to eat somewhere that isn’t a chain, or in a mall. There are some places in Jumeirah but I’m a bit tired of them.”

For Dubai residents, a lack of independent eateries has long been near the top of the list of things to complain about. High rents in more established residential communities have often kept the up-and-coming places out and only within reach of the bigger chains.

But in Al Quoz there are plenty of rentable spaces, most of them converted warehouses.

One of the business owners who spotted an opportunity when Al Quoz was little more than a collection of factories was Iranian architect and designer Dariush Zandi, creator of the multipurpose Courtyard, a collection of galleries, studios and shops in one courtyard space. Built in the late 1990s, it is surprising how many people outside of the art scene still do not know it exists.

“People thought I was crazy to do this here,” says Zandi, who still runs the space with his wife Shaqayeq Arabi, who is a painter and artist. “They asked, ‘Why don’t you do this in the middle of the city?’. But when I studied in New York I lived in Greenwich Village and SoHo in the 1970s, when SoHo was industrial. So why did the artists move to SoHo? Because it was cheap and they got ample space to get their artistic ambitions done. Here, I said the more obscure and more unknown area, the better.”

Zandi was right. It has become one of Dubai’s most diverse areas, and the Courtyard is now home to photography studios, a 60-seat grassroots theatre, artist studios, galleries and furniture shops. It also hosts food and handicraft markets, lectures and independent exhibitions.

The pièce de résistance is the courtyard area itself, made up of 10 units designed by Zandi using a lot of materials reclaimed from across the city. One unit features window bars that were once the bases of construction worker beds; another has two window sills made from an old dhow lavatory; and another has some old wooden beams that were reclaimed from a traditional wind tower.

The units are now occupied by galleries and shops, including one which houses one of Dubai’s smallest working mosques.

Every Saturday, between 9am and 1pm, the outdoor space hosts a Ripe Food and Craft market, attracting a mix of local Al Quoz residents and out-of-area foodies.

A few doors along, with a working chemical factory in between, is the Musician's Warehouse, a music shop that has just set up Dubai's "only real" rock academy.

Geoff Sinker, from England, director and music teacher, is the in the final stages of repurposing the back of the large space to make way for the academy. “We mainly deal with expatriates, so being in Al Quoz is the ideal location, and it’s a good space,” he says.

One of the only real downsides to Al Quoz is the lack of organised parking. There are plenty of sandlots to dump a car, but very few proper car parks. There are also certain parts that are still under construction as the area continues to shed its industrial skin.

Farther towards Mall of the Emirates is yet another cafe, the Cafe Rider Custom Motorcycles, which only officially opened a few weeks ago. As its name indicates, Cafe Rider is more than just a coffee bar. Patrons can design their own Bobbers, Choppers and occasional Cafe Racer motorcycles. Some of the models are built in the cafe's garage area which sits inside the warehouse but behind glass walls.

Dmytro Griekhov, who goes by Dima or Dimi for short, is the cafe’s barista and takes a lot of pride in making coffee. One of his specialities – along with “coffee art”, where he creates elaborate tracings on the frothy milk – is his coffee-based non-alcoholic cocktails.

“I don’t like the word mocktails; it cheapens it,” says the 29-year-old barista who won the Ukranian national barista championship in 2010. “I want people to understand that the coffee they usually drink, it doesn’t need to be just coffee and milk. It can be beautiful. Don’t just drink coffee for the caffeine.”

One of Griekhov’s favourite creations is a coffee shot mixed with orange and cinnamon and a dash of syrup to sweeten.

The unconventional cafe was opened by the husband and wife team of Murtaza and Nicky Moulvi, who wanted to create more of a community space than just a bike or coffee shop.

It is busiest on the weekends, and there is a children’s area with Legos and miniature bikes. “We wanted a space where people could come and meet other people with an interest in bikes,” Nicky Moulvi says. “And Al Quoz was the best place for that.”

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