‘A project of underdogs’: inside Dubai restaurant Electric Pawn Shop

The edgy, Asian-inspired venue will host performances by revered underground DJs

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Electric Pawn Shop is as much a meeting of the minds as a rebirth for two industry insiders.

The edgy Dubai bar and restaurant, which opened on May 9, is co-owned by Lynn Lin, who ran the Beirut nightspot Electric Bing Sutt, and acclaimed Spanish DJ and event organiser Lobito Brigante. The venue’s growing buzz is also down to its official Instagram account’s cryptic images of Hong Kong dive bars, Chinese-style casino chips and action hero Bruce Lee.

A visit to the restaurant, located in The H Dubai hotel, at the weekend revealed a venue amalgamating the influences and expertise of its founders.

Noir vibe

Four fragmented concrete island bars float under a neon-lit stainless steel Asian pavilion, hanging by a giant indoor construction crane. Photo: Electric Pawn Shop

Inspired by Hong Kong's gangster films of the 1970s, the vibe is noirish and dystopian. Neon lights, emanating vibrant pink and purple hues, shine on a stainless steel pavilion hovering over a fragmented concrete island bar.

There are velvet seats, a neon-lit water-tank art piece and evocative images of the hustle and bustle of New York's Chinatown adorning the walls. Tucked near the corner is a mini three-level amphitheatre, adjacent to a glass-brick DJ booth emblazoned with a neon-lit sign: “No requests”.

Behind the decks is a near floor-to-ceiling shelf packed with more than 2,000 vinyl records straight from Brigante’s personal collection.

Fresh start

Electric Pawn Shop is a breath of fresh air and a dream project born out of crushing disappointment and tragedy. The fact Lin is alive to see it is a miracle in itself.

The Chinese national was working in Electric Bing Sutt on August 4, 2020, when the explosion at Beirut Port tore through the nearby neighbourhood of Gemmayze.

Miraculously, nobody in the destroyed bar was killed. “I heard this loud noise and all of a sudden it felt like a movie happening in slow motion. I remember this big storm gathering and just slamming into me,” she tells The National.

“The balcony fell on my chest. I remember hearing the staff screaming and calling out for each other, and I somehow managed to escape with a few permanent scars.”

While the destruction of Electric Bing Sutt pales in comparison to the lives lost in the explosion, its demise was a particular blow for the city’s entertainment and culinary scene, as it was the only Middle East venue at the time to crack The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2019, coming in at 46th place.

Some of its characteristics have made their way to Electric Pawn Shop, including the neon-lit interiors and the forward-thinking Asian menu.

In 2020, Lin left Beirut for Dubai in search of new inspiration. “I needed to clear my mind. When I came here, it felt like home and I kept extending my stay,” she says. “What I love about it is the contrast you can find in Dubai.

“It is a huge metropolis where you can find the big buildings like Burj Khalifa, but then there are other cool parts like Satwa and Deira. It didn't take me long to realise I want to open a venue here.”

Transforming tastes

When Lin announced her intention to relocate permanently, her friends recommended she connect with Brigante, who was also looking for a place to call his own.

A 15-year veteran of the UAE entertainment and cultural scene, from performing as a DJ to setting up celebrated club night Deep Crates Cartel and music festivals such as last year’s Breakout DXB, Brigante was looking to pour his musical knowledge and event experiences into one permanent location.

“And I was nearly there, man. I was going to open a Japanese listening bar at Meydan One, and then Covid-19 came and killed that dream,” he says.

“So when Lynn and I connected through mutual contacts, we had our personal experiences to share, but at the same time, we have so many similar interests from films to Asian counterculture.”

Upon finding the right location, Electric Pawn Shop was built over the course of 18 months. It's been designed by Lebanese architect Eli Abs, who also relocated to Dubai after his home was destroyed in the Beirut explosion.

Captain Penang chicken curry at Electric Pawn Shop. Antonie Robertson / The National

Brigante and Lin set to work by bringing their own specialities to the project. The latter says she's created a menu to challenge people's perceptions of Asian cuisine.

“I wanted to break certain barriers that people have of these cuisines. Many don't know that in South Korea, they eat a beautifully seasoned raw beef called yukhoe, which we serve here in a way similar to tartare,” she says.

“We also want to introduce diners to other great ingredients from Asia such as sambal, a spicy sauce from Indonesia, which we do in-house, served on short ribs.

“We are trying to take ethnic dishes and present them in way that people can understand and enjoy.”

While Lin aims to expand people's palates, Brigante wants to open their ears to an array of global beats.

In addition to installing a state-of-the-art sound system that he describes as “powerful but not aggressive”, Brigante wants diners to tune into music ranging from soundtracks of classic Japanese yakuza films to obscure funk tracks from the US and Latin America, as well as Thai and Turkish funk.

The “no request” sign on the DJ booth is also instructive.

“People, generally, have depreciated the role and value of DJs, and think they are just a jukebox for their entertainment,” he says. “The appreciation of the art form of DJing comes from trusting the DJ in providing an experience you will enjoy. But suddenly requesting them to play an EDM song when they are playing smooth soul music doesn't fit with the vibe of the place. It is like going to an Italian restaurant and asking for soy sauce on your food; it doesn't make sense.”

Brigante has curated a stellar line-up of artists to perform in Electric Pawn Shop, including spinners such as Amir from revered underground DJ duo Kon & Amir, and Belgium's Lefto.

They will perform separately later this year and follow international guest DJ Kid Koala, who performed an unannounced set earlier this month.

No egos allowed

Electric Pawn Shop owners Lynn Lin and Lobito Brigante. Antonie Robertson / The National

Considering the setbacks of the past, Lin and Brigante are circumspect about defining success for Electric Pawn Shop. “I want this place to be a hub for alternative people to connect and simply be themselves,” Brigante says.

“This place represents who I am and, with part of my musical collection here, a piece of myself will always be here.”

As for Lin, success is survival, yet having fun along the way. “Because of what we have gone through, this is a project of underdogs,” she says.

“I lost my bar and almost died. When something like that happens, you realise there is no room for ego and it’s not about fame. We are all humble here.”

Electric Pawn Shop is located at The H Dubai Hotel. Doors open at 6pm. For reservations, email ask@electricpawnshop.com or call 050 586 5510. More information is available at www.electricpawnshop.com

Updated: May 26, 2022, 5:38 PM