Caviar and cabaret are not necessarily the first words that come to mind when describing one of the region’s biggest nightclubs.
But the transformation of White Dubai into a lavish sit-down restaurant and lounge illustrates how the pandemic has upended Dubai’s once thriving club scene.
With the Meydan nightspot renowned as a leader in terms of size and international stature (it is presently ranked No 15 in DJ Mag's Top 100 clubs), clubbers feared social distancing and safety measures would shut White Dubai's doors for the foreseeable future.
However, that was never an option according to Elie Saba, managing partner of Addmind Group, the company running White Dubai.
“We knew we had to change things, because there is not going to be clubbing like we knew it for a while,” says the Lebanese industry veteran. “But, at the same time, we have a big list of clients who we view as family and who look to us when it comes to having a good time. We wanted to continue giving that White experience, but in a way that is safe and entertaining.”
Back to where it all began
The way forward, it seems, was not so much a remix as a case of retreading old ground.
When The National visited White Dubai this month, the club was virtually unrecognisable. Formerly home to a heaving mass of 2,000 hedonistic revellers, it is now a sophisticated dinner spot for 800 people with panoramic views of the Dubai skyline.
Dozens of psychedelic LED screens have been replaced by serene greenery. The packed stools, tables and couches that ringed the club are also gone. In their place are spaciously spread dining tables that seat between two to eight people. Each holds bottles of water, hand sanitiser and a QR code to access a menu of fine-dining dishes.
White Dubai’s once-commanding signature horse-shaped bar has also been significantly reduced in size, while resident DJs still spin tracks from their elevated corner booth. Only this time, the hip-hop tunes played are not bangers but dining-friendly soothers.
Tracks such as If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) by Nas and Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill are dropped not so much for their anthemic quality, but for the throbbing bass lines that allow you to nod your head along without dropping your burrata or truffle sauce on the smart threads the door policy demands.
“It’s different right?” Saba says. “But this is actually how we began. When White first started in Beirut in 2006, it was a lounge like this before it grew to become an international club. Seeing this place brings back warm memories for me and some of my team.”
Goodbye hot dogs, hello caviar
Due to the new culinary direction, White Dubai’s menu also underwent some radical changes.
The party-friendly bite-sized pizzas, sliders and spicy Salma Hayek hot dogs were jettisoned in favour of Beluga caviar (which starts at Dh2,050 per serve). Starters include tuna, beef and yellow tail carpaccios, while mains include porcini truffle risotto and tomahawk steaks. Desserts are equally decadent, with options including chocolate fondant and nougat and pistachio.
Yet the move to upscale dining is not that much of a leap, says Saba.
With Addmind Group's international portfolio of restaurants including Italian restaurant Matto’s in Dubai, Beirut’s Asian-fusion venue Clap and London's Argentinian restaurant Sucre, delivering top-notch food from White's in-house kitchen is a smooth operation.
“What the food does is bring us a more diverse crowd,” Saba says. “What we are getting now is a new audience of older customers, those in their 40s for example, who just want to have good food in a chilled place. These people would previously not even think about going clubbing at White Dubai.”
A fiery show
While the club was known for flying out the biggest hip-hop and RnB stars, such as Usher, Akon and Rita Ora, White Dubai’s V-shaped stage now hosts a series of cabaret and acrobatic sets by its in-house of team of UAE talent.
Five nightly performances, which run for up to 10 minutes each, take place between 9pm and midnight, after which DJs take over until closing time at 3am.
During The National's visit on Saturday, November 21, we were treated to a singer delivering a smouldering version of Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), supported by a pair of masked and socially distanced backing dancers.
There is also a fire-twirling performance, an acrobat swinging on ropes, and a soulful live piano rendering of Alicia Key's Empire State of Mind. The culminating set features a female singer in a flowing green dress singing Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River while drenched in fake rain.
White Dubai will return with a vengeance
However, running a slimmed-down White Dubai doesn’t mean half the work for its 150 staff.
“Running a lounge or restaurant is so much harder than a nightclub,” Saba says. “With a nightclub, you can pay for the artists, the lights and effects, and people will have a great time. A club is about creating an energy but a lounge and restaurant is about creating a vibe. Everything from the design and the seating to the food and shows has to work in a smooth and sequential order. None of us can afford to not pay attention.”
Fortunately, the reduced budget means a larger war chest to draw from when White Dubai returns to nightclub mode.
Saba confirms the LED screens, the smoke cannons, cutting-edge light shows and superstar artists will all be back, when its safe to do so.
It will be expensive, Saba says, but that’s the price to pay for being one of the hottest clubs in the world.
“We will be back with high production and we will spend the money,” he says, with a soft laugh. “We are now number 15 in the world when it comes to the best clubs. Once we are back, we are aiming for number one and we won’t stop until that happens. Until then, let’s all be safe and eat well.”