From new restaurant openings to losing Gary Rhodes: The culinary highs and lows of the UAE's food scene in 2019

We look back at the events, openings and closures that have changed the dining landscape across the Emirates

From left: Gary Rhodes; scallop carpaccio by Diana Chan at MasterChef, the TV Experience; unicorn water; a robot waiter at Tanuki

It’s been a year of delicious innovation for the UAE’s bustling food industry. Top-notch restaurants by dozens of celebrity chefs opened doors, world-class festivals attracted foodies by the thousand and robotic hosts, servers and mixologists kept diners at the edge of their seats. Here, we take stock...

New restaurants

The UAE has always attracted some of the world's most distinguished chefs, and this year was no different. It kicked off with the launch of Indya by Vineet at Le Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai, in January. Returning to the UAE towards the end of the year, Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to earn two Michelin stars, also opened a second restaurant, Rasoi by Vineet, in November, in Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi.   

Corn koftas with spinach saag at Indya by Vineet. Courtesy Indya by Vineet

Other chefs lauded by the Michelin Guide (which is yet to come to the UAE) who now have outposts here as of this year include: Massimo Bottura, who opened Torno Subito, his first restaurant outside his native Italy, at W Dubai on Palm Jumeirah in February; French chef Mathieu Viannay, whose Rue Royale opened at The Pointe on Palm Jumeirah in the same month; Jose Avillez, who opened Tasca, his first restaurant outside Portugal, at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, in March; Korean-born American chef Akira Back, whose second Dubai restaurant Paru opened at Caesars Resort on Bluewaters Island in June; and Vikas Khanna, who launched his restaurant Kinara at the JA Lake View Hotel in October.

"Torno Subito is different to any restaurant in the world," Bottura told The National soon after it opened. "They [other restaurateurs with their lighting] always go very dark, sometimes you can hardly even see the food you're trying to eat. We want sun, we want colour and we want to be happy. I mean, we're in Dubai and we're on the beach."  

March also marked the opening of Italian restaurant Marea in DIFC, an eatery that holds two Michelin stars in its native New York. "Following 10 years of success in New York City, we are delighted to bring the first Marea to the Middle East and return to my own roots," said Ahmass Fakahany, Altamarea Group owner and chief executive. "New York and Dubai are two exciting global cities, and we look forward to hosting our international clientele in both, bringing a little New York vibe to the Emirates."

Marriott International Hotel

Other New York eateries that came to Dubai this year are Motorino, a famous pizzeria from Brooklyn, and steakhouse Bull & Bear. Meanwhile, Indochine, Manhattan's famous celebrity hotspot, opened this month.

But it wasn't only restaurants from the Big Apple that made their way to our shores. UAE residents no longer need to hop on a plane if they want to dine at LeBurger from Austria, The Butcher from Amsterdam, Amazonico from Madrid, Nammos from Mykonos and Antika from Beirut. First-time venues aside, some popular restaurants added new branches to their portfolios in the Emirates. Notably, Taiwanese import Din Tai Fung opened at Palm Jumeirah and in The Dubai Mall; and healthy Australian eatery Jones the Grocer opened at the Holiday Inn, Downtown Abu Dhabi.

Some other establishments of note that were born in 2019 in Dubai include: Japanese hotspots Netsu at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira, and Reif Japanese Kushiyaki at Dar Wasl Mall; Mexican cantina Meshico at The Pointe; White and the Bear (touted as the "world's first restaurant for children") in Jumeirah, Fika and Aya (both by Dubai chef Izu Ani), Cantonese fine-dining restaurant Shanghai ME in DIFC, and healthy Nigerian eatery The Gbemi's Kitchen in JLT. Cookery show fans, too, had plenty to celebrate as MasterChef, the TV Experience, opened its doors at Millennium Place Marina, offering diners a chance to sample winning dishes from the show's candidates.

Chicken and beef anticuchos at Vakava Abu Dhabi 

And from TVs to computer screens, 2019 was a good year for social-media lovers – who eat with their eyes first. With the launch of internet sensation Salt Bae's burger joint in DIFC, and Richard Sandoval's Instagram-friendly Mr Taco at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa, there was plenty to savour and snap. Sandoval also rebranded his Toro Toro restaurant in Abu Dhabi and opened in its stead Vakava, a pan-Latin restaurant at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.

Other newbies in the capital include: Greek import Mazi, which set up shop at The St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort; Blaze Pizza, a Californian pizzeria backed by basketball legend LeBron James, which came to the extension of The Galleria on Al Maryah Island, alongside branches of popular chains such as The Cheesecake Factory and P F Chang's; and celebrity chef Marco Pierre White's second restaurant at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr serving New York-style Italian fare. A movie on Pierre White's life was announced last week, and will reportedly star Russell Crowe.  

Bidding farewell

It was a year of ups and downs, and while it was filled with several delicious moments, there were some sad ones, too. January brought the news that UK-born Australian chef Sean Connolly would no longer helm his eponymous restaurant at Dubai Opera; The Loft opened up in its stead. Ruth's Chris Steak House – an American institution located in Dubai Marina – also shut up shop. Peruvian joint Aji, located in Dubai's Club Visa Mare on Palm Jumeirah, announced its closure; and Abu Dhabi residents said goodbye to Bu!, a beloved Latin American restaurant at World Trade Centre Mall.

This year, the culinary world also lost a legend, when celebrity chef Gary Rhodes died in Dubai at the age of 59. His family confirmed that he died from a brain injury after falling in his Dubai home.

Dubai, UAE, September 30, 2014:

Chef Gary Rhodes has opened a new restaurant inside of the Grovesnor House. Rhodes W1 is a welcomed addition to the crew of restaurants inside this hotel. 

Seen here is the Chef in his new domain. 

Lee Hoagland/The National

The chef had a long relationship with the UAE, with restaurants Rhodes Twenty10 in Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa and Rhodes W1 in Grosvenor House Dubai, as well as an in-theatre dining concept in association with Vox Cinemas, Theatre by Rhodes.

Delicious food festivals

This year marked the return of some much-loved food festivals as well as the launch of some new ones. Abu Dhabi celebrated its first Seafood and Music festival at Yas Marina in March, while Colombo’s Ministry of Crab, by celebrity chef Dharshan Munidasa, brought a three-day pop-up event to the capital’s Shangri-La Hotel in April. In December, StrEAT Feast, a new event part of the Abu Dhabi Moments initiative, brought workshops and live cooking stations to Electra Park, while Umm Al Emarat Park celebrated World of Food Abu Dhabi.

Prawns moilee curry from Namak at Taste of Abu Dhabi 2019 

The biggest food extravaganza in the capital was Abu Dhabi Culinary Season, which featured six weeks of fun-filled events – and even broke the world record for largest variety of desserts served. The sixth annual Taste of Abu Dhabi was part of Culinary Season, and included a performance by UB40, and subsidised dishes from the likes of Namak by Kunal Kapur, Dino's Bistro Italiano and Todd English's Olives, plus cooking sessions and demonstrations by chefs John Torode, Eric Lanlard and Assia Othman.

Dubai had its fair share of festivals, too, as the sixth Dubai Food Festival kicked off in February, with events such as Beach Canteen, Restaurant Week, Cheese Fest and Street Food Fair, culminating with Taste of Dubai at the Media City Amphitheatre in March. This was headlined by former Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, and served up treats such as truffle cheese wheel pasta from Gia, steak frites from Couqley, octopus ceviche from Andes, and chicken and avocado tacos from Nobu.  

Foodies who enjoy sourcing fresh produce are probably familiar with the Waterfront Market in Deira, but in March this year it launched its own food fest – the Waterfront Market’s Foodie Carnival.


Meet the market traders at Dubai's Waterfront Market:


Meanwhile, those hankering for a taste of Filipino food had a chance to learn about traditional ingredients, dishes and styles of cooking with Filfood Fest, a month-long celebration that started on June 12 that was held at various restaurants in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The cooling weather also brought with it the much-loved Truckers DXB (now Truckers UAE) food and music open-air fair at Emirates Golf Club in October.

Culinary trends

Each year brings with it a number of trending ingredients and dishes – some healthy, others not so much. After the craze of unicorn shakes and ice creams last year, unicorn water became the next big thing as people started to drink boiled cabbage water (the “magical” part? It changes colour with a squeeze of lemon). Not a fan of cabbage? Cauliflower also had its time in the sun, expanding from its rice form to pizza crusts, sushi rolls and tacos.


Read more: Eight top food trends for 2020: from West African cuisine to supper clubs


Middle Eastern fare, too, was in focus this year, with research compiled by food delivery service Gousto in May noting that shawarmas are the most tagged food on Instagram from the Middle East. Not taking spelling variations into account, the humble shawarma was tagged 544,230 times and in several languages. In November, British supermarket Waitrose reported that interest in tahini has spiked by 700 per cent, and named the sesame seed paste as one of 2019's most popular foodstuffs in its annual Food and Drink Report.

Unicorn water became a trend in 2019. Courtesy Scott Price 

The year also carried forward 2018's trend of conscious and mindful eating. Beyond Meat, which first came to the UAE last year, exploded on the culinary scene, with a number of outlets offering plant-based burger patties. In another big win for veganism, this year marked the launch of "the biggest vegan restaurant in the world" in Dubai: Veganity in City Walk serves about 200 dishes from around the world, and there are plans for an Abu Dhabi branch to follow.

As diners become more aware of their impact on the environment, many restaurants cut back on plastic, while some took on the cause of food waste. The team behind Lowe in Dubai introduced Waste Not suppers, serving gourmet dishes made from the likes of potato peel and fish heads. "In an effort to reduce our environmental impact, Lowe is going off-menu, turning would-be waste products into a delicious multi-course meal," Jesse Blake, one of the chefs behind Lowe, told The National in August. Boca Dubai followed suit in November, with its own version of a no-waste dinner. Meanwhile, chef Bottura came back to Dubai at the end of the year to promote Food for Soul, his non-profit organisation that combats hunger and waste. 

While it remains to be seen how we handle the subject of food waste in the future, the UAE is already on top of the latest culinary technology. Japanese and Chinese restaurant Tanuki unveiled a state-of-the-art robot host in its Dubai Mall branch, while Cavalli Club at Fairmont Dubai introduced a robot bartender to its team as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations. RoboCafe – literally a cafe run by robots that take orders on iPads – launched in Dubai Festival City. Another endearing use of the gadget came from the UAE's first cafe run by people of determination: The Bee Cafe in Abu Dhabi is a part of Zayed Higher Organisation for People of Determination's Bee the Change initiative, and incorporates the use of iPads to help the team.

The robot sings, dances, and hands out food tokens at Tanuki restaurant. Courtesy Tanuki

This also seemed to be the year where the phrase "dining experience" truly came into its own. From the launch of Dubai concepts Kulture House, where guests can enjoy food with a side of art, and Unwind, a board game cafe, to a meal that engages all the senses at Lmnts and a Haunted Hospital experience at Noire, experimental foodies had much to engage with and look forward to.