Inside Jason Atherton's new City Social restaurant and classy speakeasy in Dubai

After 20 years in the UAE, the Michelin-lauded chef has bigger ambitions than ever

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A lot has changed since British chef Jason Atherton's first big stint in Dubai. In 2001, he worked at Gordon Ramsay's Verre, which was one of the first international chef-led fine-dining ventures in the UAE.

After working with Ramsay for nearly a decade, Atherton launched his own company, starting with Pollen Street Social, which won a Michelin star in its first year in 2011, and City Social in London. The chef's Social Company has since expanded to include 15 outposts across London, Shanghai, Mykonos, Cebu and Saint Moritz.

Dubai is no stranger to the brand. Atherton brought it to the UAE in the form of Marina Social at InterContinental Dubai Marina in 2015. While his partnership with the hotel came to a close last year, Atherton was already planning his next project in the emirate, saying: “It is time for a different direction and to bring a new style of dining to Dubai.”

As a result, City Social was born and it opens its doors on Friday on the 43rd floor of Grosvenor House, Dubai Marina.

“I've always said I'd never replicate City Social unless it is in the right space. We've had that restaurant for 10 years now, and we've had multiple offers to replicate it,” Atherton, 51, tells The National. “Pam Wilby of the Grosvenor House showed me the top floor of the property, and I just knew City Social would be perfect for that location.”

Where to sit and what to expect

The maze-like dining space has thick wooden tables and three terraces offering views of The Palm Jumeirah, Ain Dubai and beyond.

At the centre of the venue behind the bar is a prominent marble staircase against a floor-to-ceiling wine fridge. Ultimately, the design is a combination of bar, restaurant and lounge, which speaks to Atherton's aim for people to spend the full night there.

“You can come to City Social just to have a cocktail and a few bar snacks. You can come and celebrate your birthday, get dressed up and dance with the DJs, you can do whatever you like,” he says.

“It's important for us to make sure our restaurants are not just somewhere you go for dinner, but somewhere you go to have a full night out.”

On the menu

Similar to City Social in London, the Dubai outpost will serve modern European cuisine. Dishes include miso-cured Scottish salmon with king crab; aged acquerello Parmesan rice; and braised smoked short rib (Atherton's favourite).

The social aspect is built into the menu as well. There is a dessert game where diners are served five scoops of ice cream and asked to guess the flavours, some of which are rather unusual, such as miso and goat's cheese.

Atherton, who is considering permanently moving to Dubai from London soon, promises City Social Dubai will have his full attention.

Other ventures

City Social aside, the chef is opening two other venues in the same location. The first, 7 Tales, is accessible via the staircase within City Social. Hiding behind an intricately painted door is a pitch-black waiting room from where, after a few seconds of theatrics, guests are led to a Japanese-inspired speakeasy.

The bar draws inspiration from 1950s underground Tokyo nightlife, think vibrant neon signs and elaborate graffiti, and serves bespoke beverages (not Japanese food, Atherton clarifies).

“I've always been in love with Japan. When Michelin launched its first Japanese guide, I was obsessed by how could Tokyo have more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris,” Atherton says.

“The bar 7 Tales is inspired by the nights my wife and I spent in Tokyo for many years. We would drop the kids off in the Philippines [Atherton is married to a Filipina] and fly to Japan and just eat our way around Tokyo.

Details about the third restaurant, which will be on top of 7 Tales, are yet to be revealed. All Atherton says is it is “probably the most ambitious restaurant I've ever opened”.

Delicious Dubai

Atherton, who lived, worked and even married in Dubai, thinks the emirate is well on its way to becoming a "global gastronomic hub".

“Dubai has moved on so much from a culinary standpoint. I'm super-happy the Michelin Guide is here, and the influx of talented chefs never ceases to amaze me. Now is really the right time for restaurants to flourish,” he says.

He says the arrival of Michelin and other F&B awards — such as Mena's 50 Best Restaurants — will help customers make informed choices based on expert recommendations. “The Guide is not written for chefs, it's written for customers.

“I came to Dubai more than 20 years ago, me and my wife got married at a church in Jebel Ali, and a lot has changed since then ... it has become one of the most successful cities in the world."

What Atherton is most excited about is the sheer volume of restaurants that prove “the city has embraced different types of cuisines. There are only a few global cities that have this, not even Paris or Milan".

Opens February 3, Monday to Thursday 6pm-2am, Friday and Saturday, 6pm-3am; closed Sundays; Grosvenor House, Dubai Marina;

Scroll through the gallery below to see UAE restaurants that made Mena's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list

Updated: February 02, 2023, 12:16 PM