ABU DHABI //Mohammed Mansour tucked into a tray of biryani and daal at the Al Wahda Mall food court, but what he really wanted was the kind of gourmet or fusion food he can find in Dubai malls.
"Dubai's dining scene has more variety and quality," Mr Mansour noted, adding that he would like to see the capital head in the same culinary direction.
He will soon get his wish: diners in the capital's malls should have many more choices within a few years, an expert study promises.
Abu Dhabi is expected to overtake Dubai's mall space total by 2015, according to a report called Eating Out in the UAE, made public this month.
More malls will mean more diversity in "casual dining" - a long overdue change in Abu Dhabi, according to Stefen Breg, a consultant with Tribe, the company that produced the report.
There are about 150 dining establishments in large malls in Abu Dhabi, while Dubai has almost five times that number. But with five new malls set to open in the next four years, Abu Dhabi's total for such places will triple.
"More choices would be great," Shebs Naras said as she waited for takeaway food at Beirut Restaurant in Abu Dhabi, but "people here are quiet" and might not be drawn into flashy restaurants like the ones in Dubai. Even with recent hotel developments, people still preferred to travel to Dubai for entertainment, she added. "I don't know how it would work here."
Other diners also expressed scepticism. Shine Dominic, who was eating lunch recently at a Popeye's on Airport Road in Abu Dhabi, said certain areas of the capital were already over-saturated.
"But all you're going to find is fast food," Mr Dominic said, adding that while Hamdan Street and the Khalidiyah area had plenty of restaurants, many areas without nearby malls had left most diners with few options.
Abu Dhabi needs more restaurants with fresh, good-quality ingredients, such as Jones the Grocer, said Michael Freeman, who recently ordered takeaway food from the Australia-based chain.
Presently, there are too few dining options in Abu Dhabi. The report found that there are more than twice as many diners per establishment in Abu Dhabi as in Dubai. But with a projected 191 per cent increase in Abu Dhabi restaurants, that gap should close considerably by 2015.
Naveed Dowlatshah, the head of Foodmark at Landmark Group, which operates popular brands such as Caraluccios, The Meat Company and Mango Tree, said there was a huge missed opportunity in the capital.
"Abu Dhabi wasn't a priority two years ago," said Mr Dowlatshah. Now that is changing, he said. Landmark Group, for example, plans to open six new outlets in the emirate in the next 18 months.
Some innovative restaurants are already in the market.
Shakespeare and Co, a cafe and coffee shop with seven locations in Dubai, opened its first outlet in Abu Dhabi's Market Souq last August. The cafe plans two new locations this year, at Paragon Mall on Reem Island and Guardian Towers in the Tourist Club Area.
Suzanne Blake, the cafe's sales and marketing director, said the first cafe met with surprising success. "People in Abu Dhabi are excited to see something new and different," she said. "Abu Dhabi is just starting to have more restaurants."
Mr Breg said places like Shakespeare and Co signalled new kinds of entrepreneurs who wanted to "do their own thing".
The market saturation has brought more innovative locally launched restaurants such as Bateel Cafe, Wild Peeta in Dubai, and The One cafe in Abu Dhabi. "Doing your own concept takes time, it's high risk, and we're beginning to see some signs of entrepreneurs creeping in," Mr Breg said.