Block 338: how Bahrain’s restaurant district is faring amid the pandemic

A new steering committee aims to overcome the area's myriad issues after restrictions hit businesses hard

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Block 338, often referred to as Adliya but more accurately located in Qudaibiya, has long been viewed as one of Bahrain's most popular districts. The area, situated in the north-east of the island, is home to an abundance of bars and restaurants, and its combination of pedestrianised streets, al fresco dining spots and vibrant atmosphere can be viewed as an antidote to the high-rise hotels found elsewhere in the country.

Yet, while the area once hosted a range of artistic hangouts, street festivals and small local joints, these have increasingly been replaced by expensive, upmarket restaurants and branches of big-name chains that some of the area's stalwart business-owners believe threaten the district's future.

With rising rents and the financial impact of the pandemic to deal with, how are businesses adapting to changing times, and what's next for a destination many see as Bahrain's cultural heart?

The National talks to some of the area's key players to find out about Block 338's past, present and future.

A history of Block 338: from sleepy town to buzzing district

Formerly a sleepy residential area, Block 338 has seen astonishing growth since the 1990s. Abdulkarim Fashoori, owner of La Ventana, one of the area's most distinctive cafes, remembers the early days well.

"We opened back in 1996. The original La Ventana was one of the few restaurants in Block 338 at the time," he recalls. "People told me that opening a restaurant in the area was foolish. They said, 'Who will come here?' But look at it now."

Abdulkarim Fashoori of La Ventana. Daniel Robinson for The National
Abdulkarim Fashoori of La Ventana. Daniel Robinson for The National

Ahmed Almoayyed, co-owner of Japanese restaurant Mirai and chairman of a new steering committee for Adliya, was also around during the area's growth period. "From 2000 onwards, things started to move quite quickly and many other restaurants and cafes opened," he says. "The area also started to diversify later with the opening of Al Riwaq Art Space, which positioned it as a cultural and artistic hub."

Al Riwaq was a multipurpose creative hub that once flourished in the centre of the district, providing gallery and exhibition areas for local and regional artists, as well as curating the popular Nest street festival. But it was forced to close its doors in 2017 because of steeply rising rents.

Hasan Hujairi, a former assistant curator of the gallery, remembers its heyday. “We started Riwaq in 1998,” he says. “The area was residential then. It was poorer and the roads were unpaved. It was just a small villa at the time, but later this was replaced by the white cube building you see today.”

The area continued to grow throughout the early 2000s, with the arrival of large, new-build restaurants such as The Meat Co and Calexico.

Its relaxed licensing laws attracted a wide range of patrons, while its proximity to street level – in contrast to the high rises of nearby Juffair – gave the area a buzzing, neighbourhood feel that was unique in Bahrain.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic

When the pandemic hit in March last year, business-owners who had previously seen their restaurants booming found customer numbers dwindling.

Bahrain's hospitality sector faced a raft of shifting restrictions designed to keep the public safe from Covid-19. Indoor dining was prohibited, a two-metre social-distancing rule between tables was enforced, temperature checks were introduced and restaurant staff have to wear masks and visors.

Although necessary, these restrictions have affected the industry.

The government in Bahrain has been incredibly proactive with support for the sector. Like most businesses during this pandemic, the issue is more about survival than profitability

Many venues suddenly became totally reliant on takeaway, something Fashoori is critical of. "The delivery apps charge a lot and sometimes payment is delayed. I don't want to work for them, so we refused to join them.

"Covid has affected the area a lot, especially those without outside areas," he says. "Staff have been laid off everywhere. We take a lot of precautions, but people are still hesitant. It'll take time before they come back again, perhaps another year before it gets back to how it was before. We're not earning as much and rent is costly. Water is costly. Municipality fees are costly."

Almoayyed sees the Bahraini government’s intervention during the pandemic as crucial to the survival of Adliya’s businesses. “The government in Bahrain has been incredibly proactive with support for the sector through Tamkeen [a semi-autonomous government agency] schemes that offer financial support,” he says.

“Like most businesses during this pandemic, the issue is more about survival than profitability. Most restaurants have had to terminate staff and/or reduce salaries in order to keep afloat. Rents have been renegotiated. It has undoubtedly been a hugely difficult time, but the businesses that have survived until now have mostly learnt invaluable lessons that will put them in good stead.”

Restrictions are set to further ease after Eid Al Fitr, when only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will once again be allowed to dine indoors.

Gentrification and congestion

For many, Covid-19 has only exacerbated existing problems in the district. Compounding the financial devastation of the pandemic is the fact that rents have skyrocketed over the past decade, and many small businesses and artistic hangouts have been forced to vacate the area because of its increasing gentrification.

“You could say that Riwaq helped start the gentrification of the area, but was also a victim of it,” says Hujairi. “When the lease renewal came up the rent was raised to about five times the original rate. There was no choice but to move.”

Steve Enderby, former general manager of Calexico, who plans to return to the industry soon, has also noticed a difference in the neighbourhood over the past few years. “Some businesses have gone; some are limping along. The rents continue to increase, but the ability to generate profit doesn’t.

“Restaurants end up fighting over the same set of customers and, because competition is so fierce, few financial backers are willing to take risks. The more the stakes are raised in terms of required investment, the less people will take a chance on something different. The area starts to lose its personality.”

Steve Enderby, former general manager of Calexico. Courtesy Abdullah Minhas
Steve Enderby, former general manager of Calexico. Courtesy Abdullah Minhas

Almoayyed agrees with some of these criticisms, but notes the reasoning behind these changes. “Historically, the rents in Adliya were very low due to the law which governed them in the Manama and Muharraq areas in Bahrain. This ended around 2018, when the new law became effective and landlords could start to charge much more.

"Many landlords chose to demolish the existing houses on their land to build bigger structures to rent out. With this, some of the old character and charm started to be eroded.”

Another problem frequently cited by the area’s business-owners is access. Heavy traffic is a common sight, and limited parking means people often have to circle the area until space becomes available.

“Lots of my clients and friends want to come here but it takes one-and-a-half hours to reach, so they go somewhere else,” says Fashoori.

“There isn’t enough access for cars. Sometimes on the weekend the traffic queues reach around the block and aren’t moving."

Potential solutions for the future

The area’s stakeholders have different viewpoints about potential solutions for these problems. Fashoori believes all the pedestrian areas should be opened up to road traffic, easing congestion in the area, while Enderby believes removing vehicles from the area altogether is the answer.

“It could be a grand experiment in pedestrianisation,” he says. “Make the whole main drag off-limits to cars. There should be street markets giving the whole area a lively atmosphere.”

Calexico is a popular Mexican restaurant in Bahrain's Block 338. Courtesy Calexico
Calexico is a popular Mexican restaurant in Bahrain's Block 338. Courtesy Calexico

The new Adliya 338 steering committee, spearheaded by the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority, was first announced in March and consists of 12 local stakeholders, with Almoayyed as chairman. Together, they aim to deal with the issues faced in the district, as well as develop the area and build on its successes.

“One of the goals of the new committee is to ensure the area maintains and builds on its historic character by setting up and enforcing guidelines to govern the area,” he explains.

“There will be a concerted effort to ensure the area develops a healthy mix of different types of businesses, not just restaurants. So, art galleries, boutique retail shops and start-up businesses will be given the opportunity and encouraged to set up in the area.”

While at the moment details on how exactly this will be done are sparse, budget proposals are scheduled to be submitted soon for consideration by the BTEA.

Almoayyed says: "The future looks very bright for 338 and I'm sure we will see many positive changes on the ground in the coming months."