Inside the UAE’s secret supper club scene: dining in taxidermy offices and former palaces

We investigate the appeal of this exclusive dining trend

A supper club table set up in the middle of recreated supermarket aisle. Photo: Inked
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With a roster of world-class celebrity chefs and huge restaurant names on our doorstep, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining in the UAE.

But among the skyline selfie swings and Instagrammable flower walls, a popular culinary trend is simmering in the Emirates, as supper clubs are back in business.

The supper club traditionally began in the home, with keen cooks whipping up family recipes and charging their friends and neighbours for the pleasure. In the UAE, however, the concept has evolved into a secret club that allows a select few to experience something unique, such as dinner in an old cinema, a supermarket and even on a construction site.

Abu Dhabi -- January 19th 2012 --  The Dinner Club by No.57 is a new way of experiencing food by way of an underground supperclub. Every month, the hosts choose a different location, gather a group of unique individuals, and serve delicious, beautiful, mouthwatering food. The host are Buthaina & Noor. Here the converted bus that will set the venue for the Dinner Club's secret meal Nº 3 in Abu Dhabi's Fish Market (Micaela Colace for The National)

It’s an alien concept in our bright and shiny city, but the originality and mystique are catching on, and diners can’t get enough.

The trailblazers

In 2012, childhood friends Buthaina Al Mazrui and Alamira Noor Bani Hashim started The Dinner Club by No 57 as an invite-only once-a-month supper club set in a range of bizarre locations — from a derelict planetarium to a disused car wash.

From the beginning, The Dinner Club by No 57 had two strict rules: no plus-ones and once you’ve been, you can’t go again.

“It started as a labour of love, and we’d do all of the cooking and planning ourselves,” says Bani Hashim. “Now it’s grown to become a luxury five-star service with professional chefs and a full team of serving staff.”

Today, Al Mazrui and Bani Hashim cater supper clubs for up to 100 guests — a far cry from the group of 12 strangers who attended the inaugural event — though the locations remain as remote and mysterious as ever.

“One of our most memorable was an underground security box at the Louvre before it opened,” says Bani Hasim. “All of the art is stored there now, but at the time, it was a construction site in the middle of the desert that you entered through a hole in the ground.

“We’ve had dinners everywhere, from abandoned taxidermy offices to former palaces, a car wash, a cement factory and a marble factory. No two supper clubs are ever the same. It definitely keeps us on our toes.”

In the past few years, Bani Hashim and Al Mazrui’s hobby has become a novelty sought by the rich and famous, though that doesn’t guarantee a seat at the table. Guest lists are strictly curated by the pair, but high-profile collaborations can often influence who they invite.

A supper club organised by The Dining Club No 57 in collaboration with Rolls-Royce, and held in a fancy car wash. Photo: The Dining Club No 57

“We do a lot of collaborations with fashion and jewellery brands, and we’ve hosted Chanel, Celine, Christian Louboutin, Burberry, Samsung and Chaumet,” she says. “In those cases, we will identify the right people for the brand, but there’s no guarantee for anyone.”

For those who don’t make the list, the duo has also opened No Fifty Seven Boutique Cafe in Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi, to give everyone a taste of the magic, though with new clubs popping up across the city, diners can take another roll of the dice.

Culinary ‘Banksy’

Last year, a new supper club concept set tongues wagging in Dubai. Hawkerboi burst on to the scene in April 2021 and quickly became one of the most mysterious dining concepts in the city.

The upscale South Asian affair was hosted in ever-changing secret locations with events selling out within minutes on Instagram.

Whether it was a famous chef behind the concept or a complete unknown remains a mystery, but insider reports speak of soft shell crab doughnuts, dramatic seafood towers and 24-hour slow-cooked Wagyu short rib.

The only way to bag a table at an event was to send a direct message to @hawker.boi on Instagram and cross your fingers that the “culinary Banksy” deemed you worthy to attend.

The last post from Hawkerboi was in July 2021 and whether he has disappeared from the scene or found a more covert way of operating remains a mystery.

What’s certain, though, is the line-up of exclusive dining clubs filling his shoes.

Arty vibes at Alserkal’s Inked

Inked recreated elements of Germany's Black Forest for a limited-time dinner in Dubai. Photo: Inked

Inked has made headlines over the past five years for its inventive experiential pop-ups, which sell out within a matter of hours.

So far, the soirees at Alserkal Avenue have included a meal in front of a mirror, in a recreated supermarket, in an enchanting Black Forest, and even “inside a dream”, created using immersive art installations and catered by some of the city’s best chefs. The brand has also collaborated with home-grown names, including eL Seed, Mattar Farm and BB Social Dining.

For Inked’s chef executive Hadrien Villedieu, the appeal of such pop-ups and supper clubs lies in the adventurous nature of Dubai’s diners. “It’s hidden, it’s unique and it brings something new to the table,” he says. “You can’t recreate this type of intimate ambience in a restaurant.

“It feels like you're entering someone else's world entirely and the home-grown vibe is really special.”

The dishes served at a supper club in the UAE are almost as unique as its venue. Photo: Inked

As an increasing number of supper clubs pop up around the region, Villedieu warns that oversaturation could take away the authenticity as the trend becomes more commercial.

“There has to be something unique about the person or the food for it to really work,” he says. “There needs to be an element of originality because it’s all about the experience — you’re not just going for dinner.”

Romance on the menu

Bnbme’s desert picnic set-up is popular with couples.

If you’re a bit slow off the mark bagging your Inked reservation, you can set up a private supper club of your own with bnbme holiday homes by hoteliers in Dubai, which organises bespoke dinner parties in a range of spectacular properties, from penthouses overlooking the Palm Jumeirah to garden hot tubs with views of the Burj Khalifa.

For the company’s chief executive Vinayak Mahtani, who employs a roster of professional chefs, the private supper clubs offer something that can’t be recreated anywhere else in the city. “Dubai has some of the best restaurants in the world but you’re always going to get the same menus, the same views and other diners in the restaurant,” says Mahtani. “Our supper clubs are bespoke. You can pick your destination, the decor and even the menu.”

Popular requests include caviar, lobster and vegan dishes such as barbecued jackfruit bao buns, with prices starting from Dh350 per person and going up to Dh2,000 a head, depending on the location and ingredients.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the upscale supper clubs are a favourite among couples, especially bnbme’s luxury desert picnic set-up. “It’s very intimate, like nothing else in the city and we have had [some] wedding proposals,” says Mahtani.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 4:17 AM
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