Eat-ertainment: why the dinner-and-a-show concept is booming in Dubai

More venues than ever are putting high-octane performances on the table, but to what end?

An artist performs at The Theater at Fairmont Dubai.
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There was a time when “dinner with a show” alluded to enjoying a meal with live entertainment — musicians, singers, a dancer or two — in the background.

But this is the UAE, and restaurants are accustomed to pushing the envelope when it comes to serving discerning diners. Cue custom-built ramps, singers hitting glass-shattering notes, choreography by award-winning artists and entertainers making their entrance from the ceiling.

A raft of new restaurants — including Nova, Papillon, Dream, Street Diversions and The Theater — all opened over the past year, with each offering something unique.

Why the sudden boom?

Street Diversions co-founders Kayzar Iam and Verou Poli say performances help restaurants carve out an identity in a crowded foodscape. Photo: Street Diversions

The format isn’t new, with Sarah Hedley Hymers, editorial director at Connecting Travel, pointing out it was common in Europe and America during the first half of the 1900s.

“It never really went away in London if you knew where to look. Sarastro restaurant is where West End actors [still] go for late-night dinner and a show after their performances. But it's great to see the concept spreading across the UAE, beyond the belly dancing and fire shows at 'Bedouin' desert camp dinners.”

Kayzar Iam, creative director of Street Diversions at Souk Madinat Jumeirah, believes the appeal of such concepts lies in being able to offer something new to customers. “There are more than 12,000 food and beverage outlets in Dubai — the offering is huge. Offering a show aspect is an added incentive when it comes to pulling in customers.”

Layla Kardan who launched Papillon, a restaurant with cabaret shows, believes the pandemic forced a change in the events and entertainment sector.

“Clubs really haven’t come back since Covid-19 began, and now people are used to going out and sitting down, and still wanting to experience something entertaining but also enriching. This is why there is a growing appetite for concepts that bring different elements together, such as food, theatre and dance,” she says.

What’s trending in the region?

Play Restaurant and Lounge was among the first to bring the dinner-and-a-show concept to the UAE, in 2016. Photo: Play Restaurant and Lounge

In the UAE, Play Restaurant and Lounge was among the first to bring dinner with a show to the country in 2016, combining a series of live acts with Asian-inspired cuisine (think sushi, ceviche and black cod).

“The F&B business is all about bringing something new to the table, creating unique experiences and setting the benchmark in the region you are operating,” says Noor Badaro, director of brand and communications at Play Restaurant and Lounge.

“To get to this, there is always that one entity willing to take a creative risk and get the ground moving. Once people at large start recognising it, that’s when the industry at large starts emulating the trend and soon it becomes a norm.”

Dining out, too, comes with great expectations, she says. “Today, the dining experience has almost become a semi-disconnected social outing.”

And operators are stepping up to provide a unique take and enhance this social outing experience. Street Diversions, for example, adapts its offering to its al fresco location, at Souk Madinat’s amphitheatre. The roofless restaurant also pays tribute to the city of its birth, with Iam and his wife and show-biz partner Verou Poli performing original songs titled Dubai Hustler, Dubai La La La, and CE CE Dubai.

“We have five stages, so it’s a mammoth programme. It’s dramatic, it’s theatrical and, most importantly, the ideas are limitless,” says Iam.

Street Diversions isn’t the only place paying tribute to the region. In February, Bazaar Club, a dining and entertainment venue, opened in Meydan Dubai, bringing Middle Eastern flair to the city’s nightlife scene.

“It was amazing recreating Bazaar in Dubai; to be able to give the Lebanese community in Dubai and the GCC a slice of Beirut felt great,” says Elie Saba, managing partner at Addmind, the group behind Bazaar as well as White Dubai.

“The main difference you see between Beirut and Dubai is the mix of nationalities. Dubai is a cosmopolitan city, so Bazaar was able to draw the attention of people from different backgrounds. When you step in, you can see westerners dancing to the beat of Arabic songs." And that's exactly what Saba had in mind.

The show must go on

Lebanese-Armenian composer and pianist Guy Manoukian is the man behind the shows at The Theater. Courtesy Dubai Opera.

The entertainment is, arguably, the star of the show in most cases, as opposed to an afterthought meant to enhance the food experience.

Celebrated Lebanese-Armenian musician, composer and pianist Guy Manoukian, who directs the shows at The Theater at Fairmont Dubai, says: “In my career spanning over 30 years, I have never worked harder, nor have I been more challenged.”

One of the challenges is retaining repeat customers. After all, if a member of the audience has seen a particular show, would they come back to see it again? The answer lies in regularly changing up the shows and offering them only on certain nights.

The Theater prescribes to this strategy. “Firstcomers and regulars alike are always surprised by the constant change and evolution of the shows. They are entertaining but at the same time artistic, comprising aspects such as jazz and ballet,” says Manoukian, revealing that The Theater has created more than 130 shows since its inception in 2021.

However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to success. Badaro of Play, for example does not subscribe to the thought that artistic offerings should be changed month on month without compromise.

“Our creative process is to follow our imagination when it speaks to us. You can't force creativity out of yourself; it should come naturally. And when it does, it should stay in the heart and minds of your audience for a long time. At the end of the day, it’s all about creating a lasting experience that the audience will take with them and keep coming back for more.”

Customer expectations

Hymers says she is a fan of the concept “as long as the food quality is not compromised. Fine-dining and theatre work incredibly well together. Eating prevents diners from talking and interrupting the show, while not talking allows diners to focus on eating their food before it gets cold.”

Dubai Eye radio presenter Helen Farmer, who has been to several such venues over the years “with varying degrees of success”, agrees that “when done well, it becomes a full immersive experience that turns into a memory”.

However, she has noticed that sometimes the food aspect can take a back seat to the show, which, like Hymers, she thinks is a big no-no.

“Also when the atmosphere isn’t what you'd expect — when it’s a bit empty or the talent isn’t of the highest quality — it can get a little awkward. Overall, I think it makes for a great night out, a novelty experience, but do your research on the food and venue beforehand.”

With the trend picking up steam in the region, both believe this is a sign of more eat-ertainment concepts to come. Farmer points to places such as Top Golf, which combine sport with food, and hopes for more such experiences.

Hymers adds that if global trends are anything to go by, the next big thing in entertainment will be centred on audience participation.

“Bongo's Bingo, which has recently been imported from the UK to the UAE, includes onstage dance-offs for prizes. Hijingo Bingo, now very popular in London, will probably come to the UAE next.”

Updated: March 21, 2022, 10:32 AM