There’s something in the water. Or perhaps it’s in the bread. Either way, change is afoot for a number of home-grown UAE restaurants.
If you’re a long-term resident, cast your mind – and your taste buds – back 10 years and imagine the fine-dining scene. Calling it monotonous wouldn’t quite be fair, but the landscape was primarily populated by celebrity chefs, imported global brands and franchise operations. Sure, all the ingredients for a good (albeit expensive) meal were there, but you were often left with a lingering taste of the formulaic.
How different things are today. Our multifaceted home-grown dining movement not only has depth and diversity, but also celebrates the talent and tenacity of the chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, concept developers, businesspeople and dreamers that call the UAE home.
Now it feels like we’ve reached the next step of the journey. In something of a role reversal from a decade ago, a number of the UAE’s most-loved local restaurant brands are going global. And we’re predicting this is just the start of the revolution.
The Maine goes to London
Let’s begin with The Maine. It's been six and a half years since the New England-inspired Oyster Bar & Grill on JBR swung open its doors and began feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for freshly shucked oysters, crispy fish tacos and handcrafted drinks.
A casual neighbourhood-style joint in Studio City (The Maine Street Eatery) and the sophisticated Maine Land Brasserie in Business Bay followed suit.
“All our outlets deliberately reflect their location, whether that’s the seafood-focus and nautical theme of Oyster Bar or the more casual vibe at Street Eatery. At the same time, they’re all unmistakably The Maine venues,” says Joey Ghazal, founder and managing partner of The Maine New England Brasserie Co.
Ghazal puts the success enjoyed thus far down to solid foundations, in terms of brand identity and concept, as well as company infrastructure and management.
“We’ve shown that if we stay true to our core pillars: warm ambience and service, great quality drinks and crowd-pleasing brasserie favourites, we can succeed and adapt in different neighbourhoods.”
The Maine’s next neighbourhood is rather farther afield and the location is an impressive one. Situated in the middle of historic central London, The Maine Mayfair at 20 Hanover Square is in a restored Grade II-listed Georgian town house, spanning three levels and boasting five distinct rooms, with the capacity to seat 350 guests. Hopes are pinned on an autumn 2021 opening and the project is currently under way.
Introducing a UAE brand abroad is not a step Ghazal and his team have taken lightly.
“The part I had to reconcile in my head was which elements of The Maine, as we know it in the UAE, should we take, and what extras or twists do we need to introduce or adapt to make it work in that market and location, particularly given its history and significance.”
In terms of the food, while the menu at The Maine Mayfair will feature signature dishes (including those tacos), it will also reflect the results of extensive audience research and focus groups, and the location itself.
“You have to localise a brand wherever you go and part of that is not just knowing what will appeal to your customers, but also working with local farmers and producers, and creating a real association with the market,” Ghazal says.
The experience, which will fuse old-school British brasserie elegance with The Maine’s very specific style of New England cool, “will provide a cross-generational, multi-occasional space that offers a sense of event and celebration”, Ghazal says.
“We want to create the perfect mouse trap: somewhere you can spend the entire day and not want to leave.”
Akiba Dori, coming soon to Jeddah
As any fan will tell you, there’s nowhere quite like Akiba Dori, the home-grown, trendy Japanese restaurant housed in Dubai Design District. This uniqueness is, founder Samer Hamadeh says, inspired by what he identified as a gap in the international market for Japanese restaurants that offered high-quality food at an accessible price point.
With Akiba Dori, Hamadeh and his team set out to challenge perceptions of what a Japanese restaurant should look, feel, sound and taste like. Thanks to the funky, deliberately incohesive design, a specific type of Japanese street-style comfort food and a playlist that’s renowned for featuring Tokyo’s coolest underground hip-hop beats, they’ve ripped up the rule book. If all goes to plan, there will be five Akiba Dori outlets in operation by the end of 2021 – two more in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Bay and another in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Hamadeh says that while he has always wanted to expand both regionally and globally, he was biding his time to secure the right spots.
“I care about the neighbourhood before the location itself. I look at the community, the surrounding area, what’s happening. Then I think about how to treat the space uniquely while still encompassing brand identity; it’s never going to be about grabbing a spot and just sticking a concept there.”
With Yas Bay, that means offering a nod to the nautical location in the colour palette, ensuring that the restaurant looks fantastic during the day and at night (the expectation being that dinner will be the focus here, rather than the lunch-crowd-populated D3 location) and keeping the Akiba Dori design vibe running throughout, so it feels instantly familiar.
The menu, meanwhile, will offer enough variation to get people excited and provide a point of difference, while still delivering on signature dishes (Akiba Dori’s chicken katsu curry is a must-eat).
Design, execution and implementation for the location in The House Hotel City Yard, in Jeddah, will follow a similar pattern.
“The space will feel made for the mall; there’s a 1980s vibe going on and we’re rejigging the venue to look like a fake street. You’ll know that you’re in an Akiba Dori, but it won’t feel seem like a copycat, which is important,” Hamadeh says.
Reif Kushiyaki comes to Cairo
As he prepares to launch his first franchise and international outlet – Reif Japanese Kushiyaki Cairo – in early July, the culinary force that is chef Reif Othman agrees that the key to successful expansion is the ability to maintain consistency and brand identity, while being agile enough to respond to market and location needs.
"You have to be in it for the long-term, establish yourself and your brand, know how you want to be perceived, then take things to the next level," says the chef, who was recently given the Dubai golden visa.
With a prime location in Cairo’s financial district, Othman says visitors can expect a refined, upper-scale Japanese dining experience with the added flair that encapsulates brand Reif, plus a nod to the local market and audience.
La Serre targets Saudi Arabia, Qatar, London and New York
Next on the list is award-winning La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, which has established itself as one the region’s favourite high-end restaurants, with a near decade-long reputation built on quality, consistency, immaculate service and impeccable food. This year the La Serre brand will grow significantly.
Confirmed openings include the launch of two more outlets in the UAE (in Dubai’s Habtoor Palace and a mall location in Abu Dhabi), a spot in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District in Saudi Arabia and a 3,153-square-foot space in London's luxury department store, Harrods. A multiple restaurant expansion into Qatar has also been confirmed and serious discussions about New York are ongoing.
Ralph Homer, founder and chief executive of Lincoln Hospitality Group, says that while this sort of growth has always been part of the plan, he was acutely aware that doing so at the right time would be critical to the success of the various ventures.
“I’ve constantly been looking at our business model and asking myself: do we have the right team on the bus, is the product we’re serving unique enough, is the business profitable, can we sustain the quality if we expand? And when the answer to all those questions was yes, the natural progression was to move forward and expand.”
Once again, adaptability is key. Homer says that the initial opening in Saudi Arabia and Qatar will emulate the existing UAE experience, while in London and New York the focus will be on “keeping the brand essence, but certainly not at the expense of being stiff. We’re smart enough to know that we need to understand local taste buds and adapt accordingly.”
What all this seems to suggest is that the appetite for expansion is certainly there for these UAE-born businesses to thrive on the international stage.
Other home-grown spots going global
More from La Serre
Although yet to be officially announced, Homer revealed further growth plans are in the pipeline, with the proposed launch of a series of La Serre Boulangerie cafes in both Dubai and London. These outlets will offer the same quality award-winning breads, baked goods and coffee in a fast-service, highly accessible environment.
Dubai-born Operation Falafel is growing, with New York being next on the expansion list for the popular modern Middle Eastern street food brand that already has 20-plus outlets in the region, as well as locations in London and Paris.
Il Borro Tuscan Bistro London promises to bring a taste of the Italian elegance, sumptuous design and simple yet sophisticated cuisine that has made Il Borro Dubai such a success to Knightsbridge towards the latter end of 2021.