In Abu Dhabi, the old is set to become new once again. As part of the Urban Treasures initiative, Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism has invited residents to nominate some of the capital's oldest shops, restaurants and small business that have played an influential role in the country's development.
While this move is a great opportunity to give official thanks to many of the city’s unsung heroes, it also formalises what many Abu Dhabi residents have already been doing for years.
As someone who spent the first nine years of my life in the capital (1981 to 1990) and then returned 20 years later, I have steadily built my own Urban Treasures map of the city that I often share with colleagues and overseas visitors.
It was a concept handed to me by my friend, Tarek, a Sudanese accountant and cafe manager who has spent nearly all his 30-something years in the capital. Sharing a shawarma at Sannine Restaurant & Grill on Hamdan Street, a stop on his own Urban Treasures map, he told me that he needs to visit these old haunts occasionally. They not only remind him of a simple and care-free period of his youth, but also underscore, for him, the importance of tradition in building a viable business.
When it comes to my own nostalgic route, I visit places that, simply through their existence, inspire me. Whether it is an old-school bakery or a small tailor’s shop, these businesses epitomise the life lesson that good work often gets acknowledged, even if it takes a couple of decades. Here are four spots that I nominate as Abu Dhabi’s Urban Treasures ...
Al Saada Bakery
Al Saada translates to happiness and this bustling bakery on Defence Road has been spreading joy for the best part of three decades. There is no real secret to why it is successful – it simply does the best manakeesh (Lebanese pastries) in town.
When I was first living in Abu Dhabi during the 1980s, Al Saada Bakery was a key stop for students on their way to and from school. Now, on my occasional Friday morning visits to the bakery, some of these former students can be found there with their children, sharing a hearty and carb-tastic weekend breakfast.
I was put on to this hole-in-the-wall cafe on Airport Road by a seasoned Abu Dhabi cab driver. For 42 years, the place – which translates to "As You Like" – has specialised in Indian fast food, and a plate of samosas or delicious mutton curries are sold for under Dh10. The best part of it all is the grungy vibe. The clientele is made up of friendly and weary evening workers conversing as they sit against walls that haven't seen a paint job for a couple of decades. My favourite aspect is how they came up with the name, a story the twinkly eyed manager, Mohammed Mammotty, told me seven years ago. "I told the municipality man that I wanted to register my business and he asked me, 'What's the name?' I said, 'I don't know.' And then he laughed and said, 'OK, Ala Kaifak,' and I said, 'OK, why not put Ala Kaifak?' so here you are … As You Like Restaurant."
Located opposite Ahlia Hospital, this small store holds grand memories. Set up in 1968 by Freddy Goveas, this men's tailoring shop was the go-to destination for western diplomats, thanks to its bespoke suits and dinner jackets. While Goveas died in 2000, his protege, Henry Sequeira, continues to run the shop under his mentor's name. "He taught me how to speak with customers from all countries," Sequeira once told me. "Freddy may be gone, but we still work the way he always did. Because the name Freddy's is there, the customers know that nothing has changed and they know, too, that there will always be good service."
This place should be designated as a museum. Opened 46 years ago and located in the heart of Khalidiyah, Technical Scissors is a mini tailoring empire that has threaded uniforms for generations of UAE police officers and army troops, in addition to school and hospital uniforms. The highlight of this store is the dozens of mannequins wearing all sorts of uniforms, from outfits in the medical profession to military garb of generals to troops. It is all rather disorienting and unsettling, but you just can’t keep your eyes off them. And before you have any ideas, you need official military ID if you were planning on getting a uniform of your own.