From the street corner schwarma to the sophisticated dining spot, the UAE boasts a range of eateries to suit all tastes and wallets.
But you don’t have to spend your pension to enjoy a night out. There are less expensive, equally charming options, too, the sort where napkins are made of paper, not starched linen. For although a restaurant’s interior is important, so is atmosphere. How depressing is the five-star buffet hall, hushed apart from the sound of one solitary soup spoon being dragged across the bowl? Quite.
Markus Thesleff, the co-founder of Dubai’s scarily hip restaurant Okku, knows about getting both style and atmosphere spot on. He says that there is fierce competition when it comes to restaurant interiors in the UAE. “Design here is extremely competitive, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world.”
And it’s true; from trendy bar to cosy, local bistro, there are plenty of good-looking options out there. So check out our list of the UAE’s coolest interiors to help you narrow things down a bit.
The Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi is excelling itself at the moment. In February came Cho Gao, an upmarket but intimate Asian eatery. And now next door, there's the Italian restaurant Spaccanapoli. On two floors, the downstairs side of things is less buzzy than the upstairs restaurant and small bar area. There are several great elements to it: entry is not through the hotel, so you feel as if you're eating in a restaurant where actual people are visiting rather than lonely businessmen on layovers; there is a proper pizza oven; pizzas are served by the quarter or half-metre; the tiramisu is excellent and the staff are smiley. Not terribly smart, but as Italian as Berlusconi. Word is getting around about this little treasure though, so it's worth booking in advance.
Spaccanapoli, Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, Hamdan Street, 02 621 0000. www.ichotelsgroup.com.
We suffer no dearth of Indian restaurants in the UAE, but they vary greatly in terms of style and quality. There's everything from the cheapest, street thali option to the sort that dishes out gourmet poppadums. Indigo sits towards the upper end of the scale, serving contemporary Indian food in a modern setting. Wooden screens divide tables from one another, leather armchairs and sofas surround them, cream and maroon drapes hang behind you. It's all conducive to a thoroughly relaxed evening out, from which you will need time to recover after working your way through the menu. Just remember that they don't allow children after 9pm.
Indigo, Beach Rotana, Tourist Club Area. 02 697 9000. www.rotana.com.
This will be divisive for some. Yes, the interior is more charmingly shabby bistro than five-star restaurant. But what it lacks in the way of grandeur (almost everything), it makes up in terms of atmosphere. This is a proper French bistro, from the checked tablecloths to the hearty steak tartare. Tables are lined up intimately close to one another, and should you order one of their fondues then there will be some kind of shuffling about to accommodate it, but it all makes for a fun night out. Buddy, the cheerful maître d', has a special place in the hearts of many Abu Dhabi residents.
Le Beaujolais, Novotel, Hamdan Street. 02 633 3555. www.novotel.com.
Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Grill
Opened in autumn 2009, this is a hushed, masculine restaurant replete with dark, wood-panelled walls, leather armchairs, lacquered wooden floor and a long "flame-wall" of fire lighting up one side of the restaurant, albeit safely behind glass. It's the kind of place you expect to find men's men chomping through thick pieces of fillet and lighting up cigars. But then, given that it was designed by the original bad lad of the British culinary scene, it's as brooding and atmospheric as you'd expect.
The Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Between the Bridges, 02 654 3333. www.fairmont.com.
A grand option, Sayad is the Emirates Palace's seafood restaurant. Serene and aquamarine in colour, it is designed to make you feel as if you are submerged in the Arabian Gulf. Fuller on the weekend, and so more atmospheric, it's trendy rather than cosy and clearly aimed at the style-conscious with expansive wallets rather than expansive waistlines, although the food is exquisite. Lobster gazpacho, truffled watercress salad, crab ravioli, that kind of thing. Adjust your bank balance accordingly.
Sayad, Emirates Palace. 02 690 7999. www.emiratespalace.com
As the name suggests, this is a Japanese haunt. And again, as with Le Beaujolais, this is not the kind of place where you go for five-star glamour. The discreet booths and tables, however, make it a winner for discreet dinners. It also makes it properly Japanese in feel. It's based on a Japanese izakaya, a sort of casual hang-out common to the country and a cornerstone of Japanese foodie culture. Cracking sashimi, sushi and yakitori, too. Leave your shoes at the entrance and make like you are lost in translation.
Al Diar Mina Hotel, 02 678 1000. www.aldiarhotels.com.
Pearls and Caviar
"We felt it was important to capture the pearl diving and fishing heritage of the UAE in the design of this predominantly seafood restaurant," explains the Shangri-La's general manager, Adrian Rudin. "The most significant part of the design is the Arabic poem that wraps around the exterior of the building about the history of fishing in this part of the world." A poem? We suspect you've never noticed it before, so pay more attention next time. Silver and black inside, with cascading curtains of bling-bling beads, it has Arabian vases and urns dotted throughout. Only the glamorous need apply.
Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri, 02 509 8888. www.shangri-la.com.
Elevated one level above Dubai Marine Resort's courtyard, Flooka is just the sort of relaxed place to go for a weekend lunch. Given that it concentrates on seafood, it is perhaps unsurprising that the interior is nautical in theme. Wooden tables, chairs, decking and rope details all suggest that you might be on a boat bobbing about on the Mediterranean. Meander along on a Friday afternoon, sit yourself down and tuck into delicious flatbread and mezze to start, then chase it down with fish chosen from the iced-display cabinet. You can comfortably settle in here for the afternoon's duration.
Dubai Marine Resort, 04 346 1111. www.dxbmarine.com.
Housed in the Monarch Hotel, Okku opened at the beginning of last year, since when (bar one short break) its floating jellyfish have been in attendance behind the bar. "We faced particular issues with spreading the weight of the jellyfish tank, as well as initially getting the tank into the venue after all the walls and windows of the hotel had been completed," explains Markus Thesleff, the restaurant's co-founder. The bar and restaurant area is dimly lit, with tables and booths tucked away on the second level's wooden balcony for those who want to be more discrete. Dress up, it's where the beautiful people go.
The Monarch Hotel, 04 501 8888. www.themonarchdubai.com.
This JBR staple technically welcomes families but is more of a place for grown-ups to kick back without their rambunctious offspring. Note the starched, white tablecloths. The interior was designed by the Singapore-based firm, DBTA International, and is big on comfortable, soft furnishings that make the place feel suitably luxurious but not too uptight. The atmosphere is buzzy, with live piano notes tinkling over the top from the bar area. Good for weekend dinners with friends when you don't have the prospect of work in the morning.
Al Fattan Towers, JBR. 04 399 4311.
Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire
An obvious one, but for jaw-droppingly impressive surroundings this is the place you need. Whereas plenty of upscale restaurants in this bracket can feel macho and businesslike, pink chandeliers, fuchsia carpets and velvet chairs lend this restaurant a more glamorous air as befits a creation of the French designer Christian Ghion. But then, zut alors, Pierre Gagnaire is a three-starred Michelin chef, so the surroundings need to match the quality of food dished out. Try to sit comfortably in your throne-like chair and forget about the battering your credit card is about to take.
InterContinental Hotel, Festival City, 04 701 1111. www.ichotelsgroup.com.
Strictly speaking, it's a bar, not a restaurant, but it makes the cut because of its posh oysters and seafood, and because it's the place to have noted in your little black book as first-date territory. "This place is probably best described as an adaptation of Art Deco opulence and the outrageous decadence of the 1920s," explains Helen Skea, an associate at WA International, the firm behind the design. On the 63rd floor of the Address Downtown, it's worth getting there for opening time at 6pm so you can catch sunset over the city. Expect black marble flooring, mirror-polished, stainless-steel columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, and park yourself at a table and gaze happily out at the view or in at your glittering surroundings.
The Address Downtown, 04 436 8880. www.theaddress.com.
Shakespeare and Co
At the lower end of the food chain, these kitsch, fun cafes have been referred to previously as having an air of granny-chic about them. And that's not wrong. You're essentially in a chintzy boudoir where Marie Antoinette herself would feel comfortable picking over an éclair. The food is not going to start a revolution, but if you're looking for a slice of cake (or maybe a chocolate and banana crepe) and a coffee while catching up with friends, this is the laid-back spot for you. There are eight of them spread across Dubai, and they're child-friendly, too.
See www.shakespeareandco.ae for all branch details.