From a hole-in-the-wall joint in Jordan to the most coveted fine-dining restaurant in Dubai, every establishment that holds a restaurant licence stands an equal chance of attracting intrepid food travellers from next year. That’s when the first Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants list is due to be revealed, at a glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi, on February 7, 2022.
Part of the acclaimed World’s 50 Best organisation, which releases annual lists of the top restaurants across most of the globe, the Mena initiative is one of three regional awards; Asia and Latin America got their own lists in 2013.
“The regional lists showed us that diving deeper into a certain culture and market has great benefits, both for a region’s cuisine and hospitality sector, as well as for people interested in gastro tourism, wherein they travel not only to see a new place, but also to be part of its food scene,” William Drew, director of content for the World’s 50 Best, tells The National.
“The list has been used as a guide to visit a restaurant and explore a cuisine in a neighbouring country or state you may not have known about. We hope the same happens for the Middle East and North Africa, which has an amazing and diverse culinary heritage, albeit one that may not be as well established in terms of people travelling to the region for its food.”
That is set to change, if the “positive reactions” garnered by previous regional lists are anything to go by. While the tourist-friendly UAE is known for its density and diversity of restaurants, the same might not be the case for many of the other countries in the Mena region, from Algeria, Bahrain and Egypt to Morocco, Oman and Tunisia.
However, the humblest of kuba, kofta and kaak restaurants have an equal chance to vie for a place on a list that may well include everything from the international franchises of Hakkasan and Hell’s Kitchen to the home-grown but high-end Fusions by Tala in Bahrain and folly by Nick & Scott in Dubai.
Having said that, Drew admits it is unlikely that all Mena countries will be represented. “When it comes to the countries that are in conflict, we know it is not going to be easy and that it’s an ever-changing situation for well-documented reasons. We will still seek well-qualified voters from all Mena countries, including Yemen, Syria, Libya and so forth, but we are realistic it is going to be difficult to get any significant number of voters who are eating out there.
“But they may have travelled to other countries … the aim is to include smaller restaurants in places like Tunisia and Algeria that are less well known than fine-dining restaurants in more developed cities and countries. To get a variety, as it were. Of course, it is natural to gravitate to a place where the restaurant scene is strong, but that does not mean someone will not vote for a place in, say, Morocco.
“The list has become part of the positive journey out of the pandemic towards returning to food-related travel.”
The 50 restaurants that make the cut will be chosen by a panel of 250 anonymous voters, with each sharing seven of their top picks, Drew explains.
“Voters are selected and approached based on their passion for food. Most of them have some degree of F&B experience, so chefs, restaurateurs, travel writers and photographers, but they could also be well-travelled gourmets. This is not a paid position, and we do our due diligence to ensure they have no vested interest, in that a chef cannot vote for his or her own restaurant.”
The gala awards ceremony aside, the World’s 50 Best, in collaboration with the Department of Culture & Tourism – Abu Dhabi, will put into motion a series of events between Friday, February 4, and Friday, February 11. These will include masterclasses, culinary collaborations with international chefs and one-off dining experiences.
“It’s important to have a destination partner such as DCT to help us put on these events, and equally important to build up to the awards ceremony, to put on a great show, if you like, so people can gravitate to Abu Dhabi to celebrate food and talent," Drew says.
“European hegemony of international gastronomy has become diluted, and there is much more interest in food from all around the world. It’s time gastro tourists understood that Mena has some extraordinary food and restaurants to explore.”