Those who have travelled the length and breadth of the Gulf, will know that besides the visual delights and obvious stops along the way, there is also a diverse range of places to take a break and get a taste of the region.
Some are more obvious than others. This weekend as thousands take to the roads across the Gulf to reunite with family, take a well-earned Eid holiday, or perform the Hajj pilgrimage, there will be plenty of travellers looking to make a pit stop or two on their journey.
With this in mind, we have put together a guide to the best places to stop and grab a bite – covering the coastline from the barren salt flats on the Saudi border, to the limestone seascape of Sur and the seasonal tropics of the Salalah rainforest.
We spoke to Iranian traders, Hajj pilgrims, Saudi truckers, and Omani university students to find out where you can get the best meals on the road.
In the last 10 years, roads have been built across the Arabian Peninsula, and even a salon car will get you to remote wadis and sugar-sand beaches.
To many, tea breaks at truck stops are a daily ritual. “It’s for peace of mind,” says Majid Mustafa, 50, a regular commuter. Mustafa drives from Hatta to Sharjah for his work everyday and always stops for a cup of hot tea.
“A driver can’t be sleepy,” says his nephew Usama Ahmed, 22.
Mustafa has driven across the country since he came to the UAE from Islamabad, Pakistan, 32 years ago. He will tell you that wherever there is a road, there is a restaurant. Some of the country’s best meals are found in roadside cafes.
Our list includes modern favourites, like the Chips Oman sandwich and the Titanic falooda, and regional classics like grilled Omani fish and Afghani stews.
“Everything is best,” says Abdul Hafiz, a waiter at Ras al Khaimah’s Al Yaqoot Al Afghani Restaurant when asked for the finest dish in his restaurant. “We have maybe 70 things, popular things.”
Wherever you go, prices are modest, and the flavours are rich. Cooks from different communities within Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Oman and Iran ensure that even at humble roadside cafes stock spices such as cardamom, saffron and turmeric, cloves, cinnamon, chillies, ginger and black lime.
After all, in this corner of the world even the tea is spiced.
These recommendations are a starting point. For anyone who is on the road in the Arabian Peninsula and on the lookout for a restaurant, a safe bet is to simply ask for the town’s best mandi restaurant.
This Yemeni dish of lamb or chicken served on rice is a Gulf favourite, and nearly every town has a mandi restaurant. In many cases, it is the town’s most popular restaurant and a great way to meet people who can recommend local sites worth taking in, ones that simply won’t be in any travel guidebook.
Meat and rice are the staples of this region, but most roadside restaurants do have at least one vegetarian option on their menu more substantial than a green salad – be it samosa, pakora, dal or a selection of mezze items such as hummus, moutabal and tabbouleh.
Apart from the stops, there are a couple of tips for solo female travellers too. Women are always welcome, but should dress modestly.
Many roadside diners offer separate family rooms, though it’s not obligatory to use them. Female travellers are treated with respect, so much so that men may be expected to give up their tables at crowded restaurants.
In rural areas, petrol stations and restaurants also double up as supermarkets. The more remote the area, the better the stock. These roadside stops serve honest-to-goodness food by those who have a story or two to share.
Let this be your guide to the 5,681km coastline, from Saudi Arabia to Salalah.
So, roll out the plastic tablecloth, grab your cup of chai and hit the road.