From Depachika to South Market: how food halls are bringing a new flavour to the UAE's dining scene

They’re packed with flavour, feature local and artisan brands, and value the culinary experience above all else; it's little wonder the trend is flourishing in the UAE

Time Out Market Dubai at Souk Al Bahar is the newest addition to the UAE food hall scene
Powered by automated translation

The idea behind food halls – where diners have access to a variety of vendors, artisanal produce and eclectic brands in a stylish setting (think vaulted ceilings and plush cushions) – is not new. These market-like destinations have been around in the UK, Europe and US for years, and are often nestled within aesthetically pleasing, even historical buildings – Harrods in London, The Plaza in New York and Mathallen in Oslo being prime examples.

They are, however, getting more popular than ever; according to research by commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, there was a 700 per cent increase in the number of food halls in the US from 2010 to 2017. And now, they're whipping up a storm in the UAE, with a number of additions over the past year.

Food halls in the UAE

Depachika, which launched in Nakheel Mall last January, was among the first in the UAE. With “depato” translating from the Japanese to department store and “chika” to basement, it is inspired by the popular basement-­level food halls found in Japan. Inside, guests can access more than 40 vendors presenting a mix of ready-to-eat food – Lime Tree Cafe, Kilikio by Mythos and Moishi ice cream – as well as retail and gifting options from brands such as Florette, The Lighthouse, Royce’ Chocolate and Protein Bakeshop.

“Depachika has only been improving thanks to the great reception in the market, the food-loving community and the support of the area’s local residents,” says Monica Metzger, food and beverage manager, Nakheel Mall.

Over the past 15 or so months – and despite 2020 being a slow year for the food and beverage industry – numerous other halls have cropped up in the UAE. In July, South Market food hall launched in the Dubai International Financial Centre, giving customers access to everything from Thai cuisine from BKK Bistro, and milk tea from MAD, to sweet treats from Cereal Killer Cafe.

Meanwhile, Al Areesh Club, complete with a bakery, butchery, speciality coffee shop, deli and soft-serve ice cream parlour, presented myriad dining options to those in Dubai Festival City upon its launch in September 2020.

And then there's Food District, a two-storey, seasonal food hall that opened on The Pointe at The Palm Jumeirah in November, which champions home-grown brands, including Dibba Bay Oysters and Boon Coffee. This will close for the summer on Saturday, April 10, and reopen when the weather is cooler.

Fried chicken waffle cones from Get Plucked at Food District, Dubai

The newest kid on the block is Time Out Market Dubai, which opened at Souk Al Bahar in Downtown Dubai on Wednesday, April 7 in partnership with Emaar. The indoor culinary destination offers visitors some of the best views of the Burj Khalifa and easy access to The Dubai Mall, and spans about 4,000 square metres, making it the largest food hall in the emirate.

“Visitors will get a true taste of the city from 17 of Dubai’s top chefs and celebrated restaurateurs,” says Sandy El Hayek, general manager, Time Out Market Dubai. "This curated mix of cultural and culinary experiences gives visitors a chance to experience the best of the city under one roof."

A snapshot of the dishes at Time Out Market, which opened on April 7

The capital, too, is set to get its first food hall – The Botanic Atrium. This is scheduled to launch in Mall at World Trade Centre Abu Dhabi in June, and will feature a sushi counter, momo restaurant and more.

“I’ve been visiting Abu Dhabi over the years, and was amazed by the city and its development,” says Shabaz Rasool, an Amsterdam resident who is one of the partners behind the project. "However, the one thing that I didn’t see was a food hall, which is why I thought it would add value to the local scene."

Rasool says The Botanic Atrium was inspired by his love for food halls, and he has plans for its future, including introducing technology that allows guests to order from different brands while sitting in one place.

A rendering of The Botanic Atrium, scheduled to open in Abu Dhabi this year

“When you go to a food hall with a group of friends who want different cuisines, you end up standing, visiting different restaurants individually, which can eat away time otherwise spent socialising. We want to eliminate that completely,” he says.

Whether one prefers the traditional or the technological route, having a mix of cuisines is a food hall’s greatest selling point. As Samantha Wood, founder of impartial restaurant review website, puts it: “[At a food hall], a family or group of friends can dine in the same destination, yet each can eat something different, with all dietary requirements catered for.”

Food hall vs food court

It's easy to confuse the two, yet experts are quick to differentiate between a food hall and a food court, as the latter involves many brands co-existing in the same space and with self-serve options.

“A food hall offers a more elevated, refined dining experience – where you can feast on restaurant-­quality food at an affordable price point,” explains Wood. "The interior design and service are of a high standard. A food hall typically also boasts a retail element, in addition to dine-in options."

Metzger adds: “Nakheel Mall has a food court situated on the second floor, but what Depachika offers is an experience, more than a quick-dining option. Meanwhile, the variety that we provide, from a cooking school to a cheese room, complements and elevates our dine-in options.”

One of the biggest differentiating factors between food halls and food courts can be found in the brands each associates with. Unlike in food courts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a McDonalds, Burger King or Pizza Hut in a food hall.

“While food courts tend to constitute fast-food chains, food halls typically include a good mix of local artisan restaurants,” says El Hayek.

Rasool says: “Moreover, the thing about having big brands or fast-food franchises is that you can’t change them. They operate in a certain way and have a certain dish that can be found everywhere, and that’s why I sometimes find food courts soul-destroying. At a food hall, you know you are getting a unique experience, something you won’t be able to taste anywhere else."

Helping home-grown brands and restaurants

All the vendors at Food District at The Pointe, Palm Jumeirah, are home-grown

One sure-fire way to offer guests something they would seldom find in another country is to champion brands not found elsewhere. This is why a number of food halls work exclusively with home-grown concepts. Working with boutique restaurants has other benefits as well. “It’s important that our market reflects the diversity and culture of the city, and home-grown talent is the way to ensure we stay true to that,” says El Hayek.

Metzger points out that the relationship is mutually beneficial. “We provide a space that helps vendors or home-grown talent increase their exposure to residents. Meanwhile, many of these vendors come with faithful customers who follow them.”

Reif Othman, chef and co-owner of Reif Japanese Kushiyaki, is something of a food hall whizz kid, as he has branches at Depachika Food Hall, Food District and Time Out Market Dubai.

Chef Reif Othman has numerous concepts at food halls in Dubai

Othman, who serves a limited selection of dishes at these venues, makes no bones when he says food halls are a good option for home-grown brands for financial reasons.

"We believe in stand-alone concepts, provided the rent deal is right. [But] opening a stand-alone restaurant is much riskier, with many factors at play. Finding a good, understanding landlord these days is challenging, for example," he says.

“With a food hall concept, we have no major start-up costs or fixed overheads, and are only paying a percentage on turnover. We also benefit from destination marketing, and cross-exposure from other vendors, which all bring in quicker footfall and new customers.”

Donburi bowls and ramen from Kushi by Reif, available at Depachika Food Hall in Nakheel Mall, Palm Jumeirah. Courtesy Reif Kushiyaki

Dine-in aside, Othman reveals even the demand for home delivery is high at food halls in Dubai.

With the venues able to cater to many different tastes and budgets, in a stylish, social setting, it looks like food halls are only set to expand. Wood points out that while traditional restaurants may always have their place, “we live in a multicultural society with differing palates – and food halls cater to this easily”.