Dubai’s restaurant scene – like many around the world – has faced unusual challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. But as it gets back on its feet, two of the city’s most popular home-grown concepts are planning international expansion and have announced they will be opening in London next year.
DIFC’s acclaimed Greek restaurant, Gaia, will open in the heart of Mayfair in the second quarter of 2021 and The Maine, which now has branches across Dubai in JBR, Studio City and Business Bay, will take its brasserie-style dining to the British capital sometime next spring or summer.
Gaia London a ‘natural next step’
Gaia, which opened in the financial district's Gate Village in October 2018, has firmly established itself as one of the city's biggest home-grown success stories and counts Dubai royals among its high-profile guests.
A combination of an elegant aesthetic and masterful Mediterranean and Greek cuisine – spearheaded by chef Izu Ani – has been an award-winning formula that helped the brand expand first into the glamorous dining scene of Monte Carlo.
For its third branch, Gaia will open in London’s upmarket Mayfair district, a move that Bulldozer Group chairman and co-founder Evgeny Kuzin describes as a “natural next step".
“London is an important location for us to expand and include in the Gaia portfolio,” Kuzin says.
“The Gaia philosophy focuses on humble, well-made, quality cuisine served within a relaxed environment and its welcoming and inviting approach contrasts from many of the upscale establishments in London. We aim to provide a balance between London’s casual dining scene and the fine-dining landscape.”
About the restaurant in the UK, Gaia co-founder and chef Ani says his dream was “to keep it as honest as it was when we opened and make sure that our philosophy does not get diluted. Our goal is to grow as a business while keeping the ethos and quality intact.”
Kuzin and Ani both agree that despite it being a rare occurrence, exporting a brand from Dubai to the international market is advantageous.
“The cosmopolitan blend of nationalities and expatriates from all corners of the world [in Dubai] forces us to consider our audience and tailor our offering to suit them. By accommodating such a wide range of cultures and preferences, our reach and ability to resonate significantly increases,” Kuzin says.
This, he says, gives Dubai-born restaurant brands a unique advantage when entering the international market.
Ani agrees, saying: "We have such an amazing pool of talent here, from all corners of the world – people that are passionate about the industry and really care. This is such an important part of a restaurant."
And, despite the pandemic, cautious expansion continues to be on the group's agenda.
“In the future, we aim to expand globally with Gaia London, as well as the first international export of [Asian restaurant] Shanghai Me,” says Kuzin of Bulldozer's growth plans.
A beach club, cafe concept and food-focused technology start-up are still to come in the UAE, while Bulldozer will take no fewer than 10 renowned brands to Saudi Arabia as it outlines expansion in the kingdom.
The Maine makes its move
In January, restaurateur Joey Ghazal announced that his popular home-grown brasserie The Maine would open its first international branch at the end of the year in London.
But a lot has changed since then.
"We were ready to go – and then Covid-19 put a wrench into everything," says Ghazal, who now expects to open The Maine London in the spring or summer of next year.
Although the City was the original location of choice for the restaurant, an area the team recognised as having a crowd most similar to that of The Maine restaurants in Dubai, Ghazal says he is open to considering other areas.
"While Covid-19 has cancelled a lot of plans, I'm actually seeing it as an opportunity. I am looking at sites every day. There are so many prime properties out there that never would have been available before."
But why now? "Firstly, not only in London, but internationally there is no brasserie concept that is New England-inspired – it does not exist – so we kind of inadvertently stumbled on something that is quite unique," Ghazal says.
"Secondly, The Maine has legs; it is multi-occasional and cross-generational. As a brand, it attracts all different ages and groups and income brackets and occasions. So you can come for a date night, you can come to celebrate a business deal, you can come for a quiet dinner, or you can come to party – it has that kind of flexibility."
Though London will be the first international opening for the brand, there are more in the pipeline. “We are definitely doing it,” The Maine owner says. “We cannot announce it yet, but it’s happening.”
Despite the trials that the restaurant industry has faced over recent months, it's a promising shift to see brands that were created in Dubai looking to make a splash on the international market after many years of the city being dominated by imports.
On the subject, Ghazal says: "I just think it's great that there are home-grown concepts going international. We operate in Dubai at a very high level and if we can maintain that level in the London market, Gaia and ourselves will do really well."