A taste of the good old days

40 years of the UAE: Despite an influx of five-star restaurants, it is often the older venues that are the best-loved.

Dubai, 21st November 2011.  Ravi Restaurant a known restaurant down Satwa area.  ( Jeffrey E Biteng / The National )
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There can be few places in the world where the food scene is expanding as rapidly as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. International brands and established eateries vie for customers, amid a steady stream of restaurant openings.

In the past month alone, Dubai has seen the launch of The W Grill in Wafi, the Argentine restaurant Gaucho, a second branch of the contemporary Indian restaurant Zafran and the much-anticipated Hakkasan in Emirates Towers. In Abu Dhabi, the recently opened Emirates Towers complex, Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort and Park Hyatt on Saadiyat Island have brought with them a slew of new restaurants.

Despite this, some of the region's oldest restaurants remain as popular as ever. Among the plethora of shops and street cafes in Satwa, the Pakistani restaurant Ravi's, which opened 33 years ago, still does a roaring trade.

The same can be said for Lebanese Flower, a branch of the popular restaurant in Abu Dhabi's Khalidiya, where shawarmas have been served under twinkling neon lights for years.

Ali Al Hassani, 27, says he has been frequenting the restaurant for more than a decade. "The shawarma are still great, although they have become smaller over time, or perhaps it is just me getting bigger.Lebanese Flower is an institution - and rightly so," he says.

Emma Stinson, 28, was born in Dubai and says that in her lifetime the dining scene has changed dramatically. "In the days gone by, it would have been inconceivable to have so many five-star restaurants here. When they came it really was a big deal," she says. "Perhaps this is why I still see fine dining as being a huge treat and still frequent and love the old haunts of Dubai, such as Sind Punjab in Karama or Ravi's in Satwa or Eat and Drink."

This sense of loyalty to the region's more mature restaurants is shared by many. Emma Akielan first visited Dubai in 1977 and says that Kwality, a north Indian restaurant in Bur Dubai, has remained a family favourite ever since. Her son, Charlie, a group account manager for Sept PR, says: "It still serves the same food and is overall a quality place to go. My parents have been going there since it first opened and it has turned into a bit of a family tradition."

Lizzie Eschauzier arrived in Abu Dhabi 25 years ago and says while choice may have been limited back then, this did not detract from the enjoyment. "It didn't matter that there weren't many restaurants," she says, "we made our own fun. Everywhere you went, be it La Mamma at the Sheraton or Le Beaujolais, you would meet people you knew - there was a real community feel."

Ms Eschauzier says that two of her favourite restaurants were the Fish Market at the InterContinental, which she still visits today, and Bu Tafish, when it was in its original location. "Sometimes we would eat on the boat and other times we would order the grilled fish to take with us on a picnic. It was such a shame when it relocated to Hamdan Street."

Donal Kilalea, an Irish national who was brought up in Africa and arrived in Dubai in 1986, was similarly nostalgic: "The old days were great fun. The small restaurants in Deira and Bur Dubai were in the heart of the city and you felt it when you went to them."

Shirley Ali has been living in Abu Dhabi for almost 30 years and remains loyal to her old favourites. "The Hilton hotel is ageing now, but back in the mid-90s, their coffee shop was one of the only places that I would feel comfortable going to alone," she says. "Some of the staff are still there and they always ask after the family, which is so nice."

Fast food restaurants and mall food courts have also had a significant impact. In 1994, the first McDonald's opened in Dubai's Al Ghurair Centre. In August this year there were about 90 outlets operating in the country, with plans for more.

At the other end of the market, celebrity chefs have made their mark in both emirates over the past decade or so, with Gordon Ramsay making headlines when he opened (the recently closed) Verre in Dubai in 2001. Others, including Giorgio Locatelli, Pierre Gagnaire, Vineet Bhatia, Gary Rhodes and Marco Pierre White, followed suit.

What will happen next remains to be seen, but with evermore openings, an increased number of home-grown, local restaurants and weekly farmers' markets now being held in both emirates, the future looks good enough to eat.