It's 3pm on a Thursday, a time when the streets are empty and office workers are still sequestered at their desks, counting down the minutes until the weekend begins.
In Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers, however, it’s a different story.
Diners spill out on to the streets, leisurely mopping up bowls of curries with roti, the smell of coriander, barbecuing meat and the acidic tang of tomato wafting across the air, intermingled with the sound of muted chuckles. The stroll from Cluster E was hushed, only a few dog-walkers pacing the waterside streets. But at Cluster D, it could be a bustling Friday lunchtime, if you didn't know any better.
While much of JLT is scattered with offices, residential towers, neighbourhood stores, supermarkets and boutiques, the sheer array of restaurants, cafes and bars packed into the space between the Emirates Golf Club and the Nakheel Metro Station is astonishing. After-work favourites such as Nola and Le Petit Belge and bistros such as Couqley are much frequented by the emirate's residents, but Cluster D in particular has also emerged as a true foodie destination of late.
At first look, you may not realise this, given the understated shop fronts and opaque glassy fronts of its tower blocks.
A more authentic experience
But, peer – or rather, sniff – closer, and you'll detect a symphony of world cuisines offering the city's multicultural diners a taste of home or afar away. "I think the food scene in Dubai is shifting towards restaurants becoming more authentic rather than commercial," says Nada Darraj, managing director of Bait Maryam.
The restaurant, which specialises in freshly cooked Middle Eastern cuisine, is teeming with diners on said Thursday afternoon, tables in short supply in the snug interior and non-existent on the lakeside terrace.
“I think that’s where it should be headed,” she adds.
Bait Maryam, which opened in 2017, is the baby of chef and founder Salam Dakkak, who can still be found in the kitchen every day – or chatting with diners in the congenial dining space, which is charmingly decorated to resemble a relaxed living room. Once a school owner and cooking teacher in Saudi Arabia, Dakkak felt compelled to bring her moreish style of cooking to Dubai to offer a taste of home to those living away from their families.
“It’s about traditional Arabic food, made by her with fresh ingredients,” says Darraj. “The whole reason for this place is to give people a delicious meal that they’re used to at home.”
Chef Salam interjects: "Made with love and passion." The pair stumbled upon their spot in Cluster D by sheer coincidence. "She wanted to open somewhere close to her house," says Darraj. But they're happy they did. "It's becoming the new thing, the most populated cluster in all of JLT.
"Since I've been in JLT, all the restaurants I've seen are more on the authentic side, rather than the places in Downtown or DIFC," says Darraj.
“Here, if you want Arabic food you can find authentic Arabic food, if you want Asian food, there’s authentic Asian food.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Lily Hoa Nguyen, owner of Vietnamese Foodies, who believes the area is particularly rich in offerings from the continent, naming Betawi, Little Bangkok, Hako Sushi and Streetery Food Hall as among hungry diners’ options. “Asian food, especially from Vietnam, is on-trend in Dubai and the world in general, as it’s light, healthy and tasty,” she says.
“Most restaurants in Cluster D are home-grown concepts and owner-operated, which is not common in Dubai. We restaurateurs are foodies ourselves, and we work towards offering the most authentic flavours to our clientele, even if it means having to go the extra mile in sourcing the right kind of ingredients or recruiting the right people.”
'We are one of a kind in Dubai'
Indeed, the chefs at Vietnamese Foodies, which opened last year, are all from Vietnam, while at Streetery, on the other side of the cluster, kitchen staff also hail from Asia.
“These people know their thing to the T,” says Streetery manager Soham Changrani. The chefs come from Thailand, Malaysia and China. “We’re creating authentic South Asian food, not any kind of fusion thing. We’re doing the traditional food, but doing it well.”
Streetery is Cluster D's newest arrival, opening in December, and brings a trio of brands together under one roof: Singaporean cuisine courtesy of Fat Aunt's, Hong Kong-style barbecue from Hing Kee and Thai curries and Chinese noodles by Zen. "It's not a restaurant, it's a location," says Changrani. This foodie hub concept is popular in South East Asia but was lacking in the UAE.
“We are one of a kind in Dubai,” he says. “The menu is small, but we have the best of everything. Everything is fresh – even the simplest egg noodles.”
Bait Maryam and Vietnamese Foodies share the same focus, dishing up hearty plates of unpretentious, unfussy, wholesome fare, from steaming pho to tender lamb chops laced with honey.
"There is nothing that can replace a good bowl of pho for me, and most of the time I couldn't find authentic Vietnamese food abroad," says Ho Chi Minh City-raised Nguyen, who started Vietnamese Foodies as a cooking school in Istanbul before moving to Dubai in 2015.
Keeping people connected
Aside from the traditional dishes, Darraj also cites Dakkak's personable, customer-facing approach as a reason behind Bait Maryam's success. "She builds a relationship with all of her customers. They come in and say, 'Mom, what did you cook for us today?' I feel like restaurants are shifting towards the authentic side rather than 'oh, we just want to open a thing'. You have to have a story and a reason to be because it's a very competitive industry."
And Cluster D’s offerings appear to be flourishing thanks to that approach. Pitfire’s Pizza, with its puffy, savoury crust and artisanal cheese, is among Dubai’s best, rave online reviews claim, while the Desi Inn is crammed with late-lunchers every time I venture past. The vegan doughnuts at Il Donaccino also deserve a shout-out for their masterful flavour combinations. “The people out here appreciate good food,” says Changrani. “Everyone puts a lot of effort into their products here in cluster D – that’s the best thing.”
Darraj agrees, with a firm belief that a customer-centric focus is also behind the area's culinary success. "At the end of the day, customers are the ones making this place a success, so we always try to involve their opinions and ideas so they feel they're part of the place," she says. "It's not only about food – a restaurant should be about many different aspects. It should be about service, about people feeling connected emotionally."
Connected the crowd seems to be, as diners still lounge on tables outside, the sun setting as the weekend creeps ever closer. The atmosphere is best summed up by the Chinese characters that lie just inside the door of Streetery. “It means ‘we are all neighbours’,” explains Changrani.
“It’s a community out here.”
A community in which you can eat your way around the world in 100 paces, it seems.