Diners delight: What makes for an authentic diner experience in the UAE

Popular American diner institution Denny's opened to rave reviews in Abu Dhabi during Eid. We explore the growing American-diner culture in the UAE.

Popular American diner chain Denny’s recently opened at Abu Dhabi Mall. It serves typical diner fare 24 hours a day, including an all-day breakfast, burgers and hot dogs. Christopher Pike / The National
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When Denny’s, the American diner institution, opened its doors in Abu Dhabi this month – on the first day of Eid Al Fitr, no less – the excitement was palpable.

“Denny’s Diner is open in Abu Dhabi Mall and it’s 24 hours a day; check it out guys,” wrote Sheilla Luna on the Best Bites Abu Dhabi Facebook group. “Delicious All-­American Slam breakfast. I love this place.”

It quickly became apparent that she was not alone. Denny’s became a trending topic on the group’s page, with countless reviews of its breakfasts, burgers, refillable coffee, giant pancakes and special pies of the day.

So what is it, exactly, about a classic American-style, all-day diner – complete with neon signs, chrome stools, Formica countertops, red-vinyl seating and rock ’n’ roll music blasting from the jukebox – that commands such a loyal following in the UAE, from people of all nationalities?

“It’s just so American and so fun,” says Randa El Khalil from Jordan, who studied in the UAE for four years before settling in Abu Dhabi. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re there, more than the place itself. Down-to-earth service, no fancy business, good food, nostalgic music – what’s not to love?”

Diners have also seeped into our collective consciousness as an integral part of American pop culture for half a century or more.

They have served as key locations in television shows and films – such as Arnold's in TV sitcom Happy Days, and Jack Rabbit Slim's in the Oscar-wining film Pulp Fiction.

They've even inspired songs – including Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega (based on the real-life Tom's Restaurant in New York, which also featured in TV comedy Seinfeld) and Open All Night by Bruce Springsteen.

The UAE has all the right ingredients for diners to flourish: a healthy appetite and a love of anything that reflects American culture. It’s a welcome formula, which explains the spread of diners across the country.

“What I love so much about Denny’s is that it’s familiar,” says Linda Roster, who moved to Abu Dhabi from Chicago four years ago. “It’s cleaner, fancier and better decorated than a diner back home, but the food is the same and the service is great. I find myself going to Denny’s here and even made the drive to Dubai before the Abu Dhabi branch opened.”

The place is often packed, and having to wait for a table is not unusual.

“As an American, it’s crazy to me that Denny’s should have a wait for a table,” says Cassie Destino, a regular. “But anything so typically American is always popular here, and people love a well-known franchise.”

That may be one of the reasons, but it doesn’t explain the popularity of home-grown diners such as U-Turn, which opened nine months ago, and the HWY 55 diner, which arrived just over two years ago, both in Abu Dhabi’s Al Mamoura area.

“I come back for the burgers,” says Tarek Ghazaly. “One thing a diner has to know how to do is a good burger, and U-turn has figured it out.” The restaurant offers more than 16 varieties of burger and hosts regular ­burger-eating contests.

“At first, we had so many American customers all the time – maybe they missed home,” says Alexander Buravlov, U-Turn’s assistant manager. “A lady from California had tears in her eyes when she first walked in – she’s been coming back almost weekly for months. Now, our customers are from all over – everyone loves a good burger.”

The environment at U-Turn screams American kitsch. The retro decor features black-and-white checkered floors, a jukebox belting out vintage tunes, and an electric-blue train-carriage replica with four private booths. The walls are heavily decorated with vintage ads for Coca-Cola, Corvettes and motor oil – typical ­iconography of 1950s America.

“All this is great for Instagram – people love to take pictures of our decor and post it online,” says Buravlov. “And our milkshakes, too – they are so huge and decorated, people ­order them just to Instagram a ­picture.”

With the exception of U-Turn and Denny’s, both of which feature a wide range of traditional diner food on their massive menus, most diners in the UAE tend to stick mainly to burgers, fries, hot dogs and shakes. Such is the case at HWY 55, the Johnny Rockets chain and Fly Hotdog in Khalidiyah.

“People want a good burger that’s better than fast-food burgers, and they want to enjoy eating it somewhere relaxed where they can dig into it,” says Vincent Sablay, a short-order cook at Fly Hotdog. “So there’s nothing better than a diner burger.”

A barrel of fresh peanuts is also on hand, ready for customers to nibble on as they await their order.

“They usually sit at the counters and watch us cook on the grill – they love that they can see their burgers being made in front of them,” says Sablay.

“We get eat-in customers, of course – it can get busy in the evenings when the weather is good – but maybe 80 per cent of our business is deliveries and takeaways.”

And therein lies one of the differences between local diners and the originals. ­Although the typical American diner is well-loved here, tweaks are needed to suit local tastes.

At Denny’s, for example, hash browns, much-beloved in the United States, are often considered undercooked by UAE patrons. “People have complained about it, and we’re going to cook them longer than we were told to do during training. We have to listen to what our customers want here,” says kitchen manager ­Mohammed Faisal.

Flame & Bake, just down the road from Fly Hotdog, is well aware of this need to adapt. Despite its typical diner decor, the restaurant specialises in shawarma and grills, and biryani is another bestseller.

“We are an Arabic spin on a diner,” says operations manager Rany Mahfoud. “We’ll be redecorating soon and won’t even resemble a diner. A diner is something very specific, and I don’t feel we offer the right ingredients to call ourselves that.”

This is a good point – it is not enough simply to have the decor and play Elvis Presley on the ­jukebox.

Joe Beroy, a supervisor at Denny’s in Abu Dhabi, thinks the combination of big portions of comfort food and the right location help a diner stand out, not to mention 24-hour service, always with a smile. “It doesn’t matter what time of the day, at 2am or 3am or 4am, we still have customers and we still have a full staff ready to wait on them,” says Beroy, from the Philippines.

The Lumberjack Slam breakfast, a Denny’s bestseller – Dh46 for two large buttermilk pancakes with eggs, hash browns, sausages, turkey ham and bacon – is popular any time of day, just like it is in the US.

“We serve breakfast all day, we bring in ingredients from the US, we have free coffee refills – everything a diner should have,” says Beroy.

Dyala Asad Raoufi is a huge fan of Denny’s free coffee refills, a typical feature for a diner and one not often found in the UAE’s version of diners. “I found Denny’s coffee not too strong. I actually had five refills on my last visit.”

At Johnny Rockets, dancing is a signature addition to the diner experience. Every 30 minutes, staff stop what they are doing and dance to an classic tune, offering added entertainment to their customers.

“It’s about the ambience and the atmosphere – that’s what people like in a diner, so when we dance, we add to that,” says supervisor Dina Enarne. “We do song requests, too, and we have a milkshake of the month that changes and keeps people ­coming back.”

The bottom line is this: whatever the diner formula, it works. Grill up a burger, serve it somewhere with red, white, black and chrome decor, add some catchy tunes, and the diners will come.

Diner top picks

Abu Dhabi

U-Turn Diner

Order the OMG Burger if you dare. It has three 120-gram beef patties, topped with cheddar cheese, cheddar sauce, bacon strips, a hash brown, an egg, coleslaw and grilled onion (Dh89).

Golden Tower in Al Mamoura; call 02 418 2500 or visit www.uturndiner.com

Fly Hotdog

Keep it simple with the Fly Burger, made with Australian Angus beef, topped with red-leaf lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese, pickles and the restaurant’s special sauce, a delicious, creamy garlic mayonnaise (Dh35).

Behind Corniche Tower Apartments, Khalidiyah; call 02 633 3508

Dubai

Firebird Diner

This diner is a cut above the rest – think gourmet. Expect all-American comfort food with high-end flair. The All American Burger (Dh110), for example, is served on a brioche bun topped with smoked Gouda, a “secret” sauce, romaine lettuce and onion marmalade, with a side of herbed chips fried in duck fat. Also try the molten chocolate cake sundae (Dh42), a sugar bomb of cake with double cream, ice cream, whipped cream and caramel sauce.

Four Seasons Hotel in DIFC; call 04 506 0100

Bob’s Easy Diner

­Customers rave about the Louisiana chicken wings (Dh39) and the curly fries smothered in cheese and ­jalapeños (Dh36). For dessert, try the Devil’s ­Chocolate Cake (Dh28).

The Walk in JBR; call 04 439 3710 or visit ­www.­bobseasydiner.com

artslife@thenational.ae