Dishing up the UAE's past

Nothing brings back memories quite like smell and taste – and for many in the UAE, some of the most evocative smells and tastes are fast-food chains or local Indian restaurants

This evocative photograph shows the Kentucky Fried Chicken on Airport Road near Al Bateen Ariport at the time of its opening in 1975. The first in Abu Dhabi, it is still serving meals today. Winfield Parks / National Geographic / Getty Images
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One can explore new cafes and restaurants almost every weekend across the UAE and never finish tasting new dishes, with new places setting up shop almost every other week. But sometimes when there aren’t many choices, one ends up loving whatever happens to be available.

That was the case for many living during the UAE’s formative years of the 19702 to 1990s, with fast-food chains the regular hangout places for families and bachelors alike.

“You were bound to meet someone you know at one of the burger places here,” says Ahmed Al Mazrouie, 35, from Abu Dhabi.

“Fast-food places were places where everyone knew your name and those serving you knew what you wanted the minute you stepped into the restaurant.”

When people were not eating at home, they were going out to the same places everyone else was going to.

Long before McDonald’s set foot in the UAE, there were other American fast-food chains ruling the stomachs of the UAE and Gulf population, such as Hardee’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a popular chain that most didn’t even realise was based on a character from the Popeye cartoons: Wimpy burgers were named after J Wellington Wimpy, Popeye’s sweet yet cowardly and lazy friend who loved burgers. There is still a Wimpy in operation near the gold souq in Deira in Dubai.

Then there was Popeyes, a restaurant serving chicken and seafood, which is still going strong across the UAE.

“We always had a Wimpy burger after school,” says Leila Mohammed, who is in her 30s and from Lebanon, but who grew up in Abu Dhabi.

“Our parents would buy us burgers and fries all the time and we would drink Pepsi like it was water. No one cared about calories and healthy dishes back then,” she says.

There was also a greater selection of soda drinks that have mostly disappeared from menus, such as Shani (a fruit drink), Teem (a lemon-flavoured drink) Mirinda (an orange drink) and 7 Up (today often replaced by Sprite). Fido Dido, a stick-like character introduced on 7 Up cans, is still fondly remembered today. Tang was another popular drink, made at home by mixing powder and water, as were powdered milk drinks such as Nido and Milo.

There were many pizza places, such as Shaky’s, that didn’t survive the arrival of the stronger international chains such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut (for the longest time its fans would pronounce it as “Pizza hot” and sometimes it was misprinted as such on menus or ads here).

Floating restaurants on dhows were popular among residents back then, although today they are mainly visited by tourists.

One such iconic restaurant is Al Dhafra in the fish market of Abu Dhabi. It has two parts: A large dhow and a shore-side restaurant Al Arish, named for the palm fronds from which its walls are made.

“It was the place to go to on a weekend. It is still popular, but just a different group of people come to it now,” says Mofeed Ahmed, the manager at Al Dhafra for more than 14 years.

“The fish dishes are popular. The ambience is warm, like the cosiness of a home, when we serve traditional Emirati cuisines as well as an international buffet,” he says.

Al Arish has French Renaissance chairs set against walls made of palm fronds, water tanks filled with live fish, and rows of photos of the late Sheikh Zayed, who opened the restaurant in 1993. The dhow restaurant, which can be rented as a cruise experience, can accommodate up to 200 people.

“I used to go there with my family every time we had someone visit us from abroad,” says Khaleed Jumaa, 40, from Egypt.

“There are so many options today, we actually forgot about the old restaurants of our youth.”

Back then, school weekends were Thursday and Friday, and most parents only had Friday off. Many parents worked a type of split shift – 8 am to 1pm and 5pm to 9pm, for instance. Thursdays were often half days. This allowed for far more family time and outings.

Some still remember YumYum and Sindibad restaurants, which were popular hangouts at Dubai’s Al Ghurair Centre but were closed down a few years ago with the mall’s renovation and expansion.

Besides fast food, Indian and Iranian restaurants were popular across the UAE. Jabal Al Nour, Al Mashreq and Delhi Darbar were popular Indian restaurants in Fujairah. People in Ras Al Khaimah will remember two popular places,  Al Ruwais Cafeteria on the Khozam Road across from the RAK Hotel, and King of Berger Cafeteria on the Mamourah Road.

Although their food was standard Gulf cafeteria food – burgers, halal hot dogs and colourful fruit cocktails with equally colourful names – they were so popular because they were part of the RAK cruising culture. In the 1990s, there was no mall in RAK and there was only one park at the edge of town, so there was really nowhere to go. People picnicked in parking areas and socialised from their 4x4s – at the beach, in the sand dunes and in car parks, and Al Ruwais and King of Berger fitted into that lifestyle.

Al Ruwais was also a hit with schoolchildren. It even made school deliveries. Its rival was the south-end King of Berger cafeteria. It was RAK’s answer to Burger King, down the road from Deira Fried Chicken. It got an upgrade a few years ago, replaced goat’s brain with the Burj Al Arab Burger and changed its name to Saif Alkhaleej.

Several Lebanese food places, such as Automatic, have survived the test of time. Dessert options included popular ice cream places such as Baskin-Robbins and Kwality, which in the 1970s became the first ice cream manufacturing facility in the Middle East. And no child’s lunch box was complete without such western chocolate brands as Kit Kat, Twix, Bounty, Snickers and Flake.

“One could easily argue that Arlequin, my family’s catering, bakery and patisserie business, played a pivotal role in introducing finer foods to the Abu Dhabi community. We have made tens of thousands of themed cakes over the year s- and chances are that if you grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, you have definitely had at least one themed birthday cake made by Arlequin,” says Rabih Feghlai, 36, from Lebanon, who grew up in Abu Dhabi.

Arlequin has been around since 1977. It is now located behind the Sheraton Khalidiya.

“One of our favourite restaurants growing up was also the Chinese restaurant at Al Ain Palace. Their buffet was something we looked forward to all week. It was a treat! It was probably the place where most Abu Dhabians tried Chinese food for the first time,” says Feghali.

One thing that was popular as well was the seafood night at The Sheraton Resort and Towers by the Corniche, he recalls.

“We were members at The Gulf Hotel [the Ritz-Carlton now stands on that site]. Spent all our weekends there. I had my first club sandwich there,” he says.

Another expatriate, Nawaf Abu-Ghazaleh, a Palestinian Jordanian who was born in Abu Dhabi in 1971 and still lives in the capital, remembers the old days fondly.

“In the 1980s, life was very social. Every Friday I would go out for lunch with my mum and dad. The restaurants were classy and fast food for us was somehow a fancy thing. Dairy Queen in Khalidiya was one of them, for instance, until Hardee’s opened up,” says Abu-Ghazaleh, whose father was a captain in the Armed Forces and who contributed to the health care of Abu Dhabi. What he remembers: L’Auberge Lebanese restaurant, Mandarin Chinese restaurant, Golden Fish Restaurant and The Club Abu Dhabi in Mina area, where “they had a fantastic Indian buffet, and fish and chips.”

“Before Hamdan Centre was built, my friends and I used to hang out at Corniche Road or Tourist Club. We used to play bowling and ping pong,” he says.

One of the first supermarkets was Abela in Khalidiya and Abu-Ghazaleh remembers the owner used to sit at the entrance and shake hands with regular customers and would know many of them by name.

"In Grade 1, I used to receive Dh10 a day as pocket money. The money wasn't from my parents, it was from our teacher. Apparently, Sheikh Zayed used to distribute cash among residents daily. I remember our teacher Ms Moza used to say: 'Dh10 from Baba Zayed, please wish him a long life an[DH1] d prosperity.' God bless her, she was a really good person."

While many of the places that served food and drinks have long gone, the memories left with their customers last until today. The taste of the actual food may be forgotten, but the memories shared there live on.