Inside Honeycomb Hi-Fi, the Dubai restaurant where music and menu are in perfect harmony

Taking inspiration from Japanese listening bars, the Downtown Dubai restaurant has music at the forefront of its offerings

At Dubai venue Honeycomb Hi-Fi, music is as important as the food. Photo: Honeycomb Hi-Fi
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Diners taking photos of their meals is now a common sight at restaurants, but a vibrant Dubai venue is turning the tables.

At Honeycomb Hi-Fi, a stylish fusion of Japanese Izakaya and Speakeasy, you will occasionally find patrons aiming their phones aloft towards the speakers, hoping to identify the eclectic music being played by the resident DJ.

“That means we are doing our job,” beams co-owner Varun Khemaney. “I get more gratification when people can't find the music online because they will know that they are listening to music they can only find here. It makes the whole experience more unique and it's creating the kind of memory that will be ingrained in them.”

It's an approach resulting in a growing word of mouth popularity for Honeycomb Hi-Fi, which quietly opened in 2022. Accessible through a hidden door at Pullman Dubai Downtown, it’s a dining outlet where music doesn’t play second fiddle to the menu.

Khemaney and co-owner Khalil Dahmash are responsible for “the sonic flavour” of the venue.

This includes working with resident DJs, dubbed ‘selectors’, and international guests in curating a nightly programme of music ranging from deep dives into particular genres to highlighting classic albums such as Sade’s 1992 RnB masterpiece Love Deluxe and 1998's Moon Safari by the French duo Air.

While music-driven culinary spots have gained traction in Dubai, from the reggae vibes of Miss Lily's and world music sounds of Soul Kitchen to Electric Pawnshop with its classic hip-hop DJ sets, Honeycomb Hi-Fi is as close as it gets to a Tokyo-style listening bar in the UAE.

Dating back to postwar Japan in the 1950s, listening bars primarily functioned as a space where music enthusiasts could gather to listen to their favourite records on a high-quality sound system.

When it comes to audio specs, Honeycomb Hi-Fi's speakers are designed by none other than Devon Turnbull, whose custom-made sound system has been used by the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh and Grammy Award winning producer Mark Ronson, among others.

“It's basically about listening to music in its purest form and that includes also playing really nothing but vinyl records,” Khemaney said. “It was an 11-month process to get the sound system because we had to choose the right kind of Spiral Oak wood to match the venue's design. It was all built in the US before it was transported over to Dubai.”

Culinary inspiration is also sourced abroad with Matt Abergel on board as executive chef. The American now divides his time between Dubai and Hong Kong, where he co-owns Japanese Izakaya Yardbird.

The music and food need to have a symbiotic relationship
Matt Abergel

At Honeycomb Hi-Fi he has introduced a range of new dishes, such as the Butternut Squash Tempura and Akami Tuna Sashimi. Crafting a menu for a listening bar can be a counter-intuitive process.

“Normally as a chef you want people’s attention focused solely on the food and anything else is a distraction,” he explains. “But with this concept in Dubai you have to adjust and understand that the music and food need to have a symbiotic relationship.

“While the music changes nightly, the food stays the same. That doesn't mean it takes a back seat or anything like that, it instead creates the foundation for the whole restaurant.”

Abergel says the menu, with its Dandan noodles, Wagyu Katsu sliders and kimchi fried rice, is the kind of comfort food – albeit elevated – you will find in most listening bars in Japan.

“I describe it as a relaxed food with no real pretence. It's not the kind of food that would have been touched by 30 people to add garnishers with tweezers or anything like that,” he says.

“My purpose when putting a dish together is for people to enjoy the experience, and that includes appreciating the flavours as well the great sound.”

When both aspects are on song, Abergel says a restaurant’s quality is immediately elevated. “The actual acoustics and lighting of a place is often overlooked and it can really affect the dining experience,” he says.

“This is why listening bars have survived for all these decades and are now flourishing in Europe, because it does what customers ultimately want to feel when they go to their favourite place, and that's the sense of community.

“Now that takes a longer time than some investors are prepared for and that can cause issues, but the payoff you get is the right kind of people who come to the venue.”

While not every music lover is the same, the restaurant is attempting to strike the right note when it comes to catering to various patrons.

Weekdays and Sundays are often recommended for those attending for the music being played, while the volume is up a notch on the weekends as the joint takes on an intimate club vibe.

“How do I measure success? Well obviously at the end of the day we are businessmen and that's partly why we are here,” Khemaney says. “But the ultimate way for me to gauge whether we are doing the right thing is how we are engaging with the community. Dubai has become such a cosmopolitan city and there are so many cool people from around the world here.

“I love the idea of them stumbling upon our place or discovering it from their favourite DJ. That's success for me too.”

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:02 PM