End of a road less travelled: Ghantoot restaurant popular amongst commuters takes a hit

A new diversion on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi motorway promises to make or break decades-old roadside cafeterias, long reliant on customers parking in the hard shoulder.

Days of weary drivers stopping at the Al Saha Restaurant, off the E11 motorway, may be numbered. Even in the short time since the roadworks were completed, Al Saha’s clientele has dwindled. Sarah Dea / The National
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It wasn’t the safest restaurant car park – hardly surprising as it was the hard shoulder of the E11 motorway on the Dubai-bound carriageway at Ghantoot – but it was one of the most convenient.

Generations of hungry drivers have pulled over for a bite to eat or a cup of tea at a trio of roadside diners on the Abu Dhabi side of the border between the two emirates. Not any more. A green fence and a new slip road have brought order to ordering your lunchtime biryani or afternoon karak.

In the past, the sight of the clogged-up emergency lane was a hallmark of the journey, with motorists parking opposite the Ghantoot Polo & Racing Club. From there to your table was just an easy, albeit sandy, walk.

Now Abu Dhabi Municipality has created a permanent diversion, with new roads stretching from either side of an Adnoc petrol station and rest stop. To those accustomed to parking next to Al Saha Restaurant, the only clue of how to get there now is a small red sign, visible near the exit of the Adnoc, which reads “restaurant” in English and Arabic.

As cars zip by, the restaurant’s gritty exterior makes it immediately apparent that parking has long been an issue, with a sign warning: “No parking road side”.

Inside, however, customers still tuck into biryani of all varieties and, most importantly, karak and masala tea.

“This road outside finished about one month ago now – we’ve lost a lot of business,” says Kunhabdulla K C Mamu – Abdulla for short – the restaurant’s Keralite manager.

He speaks forlornly, albeit with a sense of acceptance. “Before, this was all open,” he adds, pointing towards the motorway, now blocked off with a green wire fence.

Mr Mamu says the restaurant, which is open from 6am until midnight, has lost at least 80 per cent of its customers since the diversion was completed, with most people now just “going straight” past it.

While he has worked at Al Saha for six years, he says the restaurant is at least three decades old. Until a month ago, customers had parked on the adjacent hard shoulder.

Tea costs Dh1 per cup. Whether a competitive pricing strategy, or a charming remnant of past pricing, this previously allowed the restaurant to sell between 2,000 and 3,000 cups a day – come fog or sandstorm.

“Now, we’re mostly selling more like 100 to 150,” sighs Mr Mamu. “The busiest time now is lunch time – before it was every time, the whole time. Morning, lunchtime, dinner and evening tea time: it was always crowded.”

It is hard to hear him amid the loud rumblings of conversations, both hearty and morose, throughout the bustling restaurant. Emiratis stop for tea and quick bite to eat, while groups of workers take their time.

The back wall is lined with branded refrigerators and the walls and floors are a tile-maker’s dream. Meanwhile, the early afternoon sun shines through small photos of Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi, offering an abstract edge to the otherwise humble decor.

Mr Mamu continues: “The entrance to this restaurant is in the petrol station. In the evening this petrol station gets very crowded and traffic gets stuck. So, people who pass the entrance see there are too many cars and don’t come inside.”

Mr Mamu oversaw the installation of two red signs at the petrol station, which indicate the way to Al Saha. However, these are impossible to see from the motorway and if you miss the exit, it is a long detour to get back, one that most drivers would ill-afford the time to take. “I don’t know what I can do – that road closure is our main problem,” says Mr Mamu.

Because there are no residential areas to serve in the immediate vicinity, he says the restaurant’s main customers now are its most loyal motorists.

One of those is Krishnan Peter Fernando, a supervisor at cleaning company Tanzifco Emirates. Dressed in a white polo shirt, branded with his company name, he speaks enthusiastically about why he loves the restaurant.

“I’ve been coming for more than three years,” he says. “Everything is very good. The food is very good, it’s nice and healthy. The place is very clean – everything is very good.”

He visits the restaurant daily with a team of cleaners, who tuck into chicken and mutton biryani. He is equally fond of karak, as well as Arabic, Asian and European food.

Mr Fernando not been put off by the new diversion and has not found it problematic. However, whether this is because nothing will get between a man and his biryani, or the fact that he is visiting at lunchtime – when the petrol station is quiet – remains uncertain.

“Before I used to stop over there,” he says, pointing to the hard shoulder, “but now it is much safer.”

On the opposite end of Adnoc, there is another slip road, one that cuts back towards Abu Dhabi. It is subtle and almost camouflaged, with no signposting, but leads to Ghantoot Hill Palace Restaurant, a slightly glossier cafeteria with tables and chairs stacked outside.

Behind the building, a rooster and three chickens seek shade underneath a large palm tree. They are shortly joined by several more hens, emerging from a makeshift coop. An elderly, bearded Pakistani man relaxes against the wall, opposite a lorry carrying a large generator tied down with rope.

It is clear the restaurant is being renovated, and for good reason, according to the Indian manager, Asharaf Kulamullathil.

“We’ve been ‘fully closed’ for about three months. But for about five years we have been ‘half-closed’, because we’ve had no business,” he explains. Mr Kulamullathil says the restaurant has managed to retain its most loyal customers – some of whom have been regulars since it opened 17 years ago.

Aside from the renovation, he hopes that the new road will also bring good fortune once the restaurant reopens next week.

“Before, there wasn’t a fence. There was no crossing. It was open, but sometimes there would be accidents. People would sometimes lose control of their cars and cause accidents.”

The new Hill Palace will serve a range of food that includes Arabic, Pakistani and Indian cuisine, as well as the usual suspects: burgers, biryani and fresh juice.

It is one of many restaurants owned and operated by the Hot Burger Group, which has 10 signature Hot Burger outlets across Sharjah and Ajman. “A lot of our customers are Arabic people from Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“At the old Jebel Ali Emarat petrol station, we have a brand called Qasr Al Jabal and they have customers from the UAE defence force who have visited there for 20 years.”

However, despite such successes, he firmly believes that Hill Palace is the group’s best location, and a prime piece of real estate, due to its position on the E11 motorway.

“There are no rest places like this for drivers leaving from Abu Dhabi: they don’t have this much parking for big vehicles. And we have also have a refreshment area and toilets. We also built a prayer area,” he continues, pointing towards a small, shaded veranda.

The restaurant, which will start with ten staff members, hopes to reap the rewards of the new diversion. However, Mr Kulamullathil concedes that only time will tell.

“We will change gradually. We are just renewing some small things right now because we don’t know what will come – but we expect it will be good.”

halbustani@thenational.ae