Visitors to Expo 2020 Dubai could never go hungry. With more than 200 restaurants, cafes, bars and food lorries — from exotic molecular gastronomy to gooey gluten-free biscuits — there's something for every palate and budget.
But there's also a set of restaurants with deep roots in the UAE, ones that have earned their place in the country's heritage.
Popular Pakistani restaurant Ravi's; Maraheb Yemeni restaurants; Sarouja Restaurant and Cafe specialising in Syrian cuisine; Al Farwania Restaurant which serves karak tea and snacks; Arabic sweet shop Firas; Filipino restaurant Dampa Seafood Grill; Indian grill restaurant Chicken Tikka Inn and Al Reef Lebanese Bakery are all represented at the world's fair.
These local gems are household names in the UAE and showcase the melting pot of cuisines and cultures that make up the Emirates.
The Sharjah-born architect behind the design of a dozen of them is Pallavi Dean, who has lived in the UAE for almost all her life.
“These are restaurants I grew up with, they are woven into the fabric of the UAE,” said Ms Dean, 40, who runs the architecture and interior design studio Roar, based in Dubai Design District.
“We were tasked with creating the 2020 version of them, which was really exciting. We wanted to keep the sense of the nostalgia of that brand and build on it. So we started by figuring out the DNA of each restaurant.”
The journey towards designing the restaurants was fast and furious. Ms Dean and Roar won the contract just before Christmas, and created interior plans for 20 restaurants in only four weeks.
“It was insanely busy, but everyone in the studio was excited to be working for Expo, it wasn't just me,” said Ms Dean, who worked on the projects with 13 of her colleagues.
“I grew up with these restaurants. I can think back to moments in my life, for example, when I had a bad parents-teacher meeting and my mum and dad took me to Chicken Tikka, or after a big night out we'd go to Al Reef.”
The spirit of the original restaurants can be seen in many of the intricate details, many of which only locals will spot.
The Roar team intentionally brought nostalgia into every design, and worked closely with the owners and Expo, said Ms Dean.
“Al Reef is known for its terracotta bricks, so we did a whole wall made out of them. Firas is predominantly an Arabic sweet shop, and they have these little barrels where they display their sweets. So we used those barrels, painted them in the brand colours and we created a whole bar counter using them,” she said.
“The original Al Farwania is on Jumeirah Beach Road, where you have all these little grocery stores that have swimming pool inflatables hanging outside. So we put these inflatables inside the new Expo branch, but in neutral tones.”
The owner of Maraheb wanted to include traditional lanterns that he has in all his restaurants, so those were incorporated, while Chicken Tikka Inn has red-feathered lampshades, as a wry nod to the major ingredient of most meals.
Filipino fish restaurant Dampa has a carnival atmosphere thanks to its lights, and fishing nets hung from the ceiling.
Originally 20 restaurants were planned, but the world was a different place in December 2019. By March 2021, only 12 food outlets were built, including one new concept, a coffee shop called Canvas by Coffee + Culture.
Ms Dean believes Expo's decision to include the local favourites was important.
“Expo is all about the future, but I think it's really important to kind of take a moment and look at the roots that the UAE has and not just, discard them but build on them,” she said.
“Don't forget, a lot of our memories are tied up in those restaurants, so it was very sweet of Expo to have this local gems project to really highlight these brands.
“We all knew about them locally, but now the whole world's going to know about them.”