“Regional lists show us that diving deeper into a certain culture and market has great benefits ... for a region’s cuisine and hospitality sector, as well as for people interested in gastro tourism, wherein they travel not only to see a new place, but also to be part of its food scene,” says William Drew, director of content for the World’s 50 Best.
On February 7, at a ceremony in Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers, the 50 best restaurants across the Middle East and North Africa will be announced – chosen by a panel of 250 anonymous voters from the F&B, travel and publishing industries.
In the run-up to the awards ceremony, correspondents from The National’s various bureaux put together a list of recommended restaurants – based on our predictions and predilections. Whether any (or, indeed, all) of these establishments make the final cut-off remains to be seen, but here’s a guide to 20 much-loved eateries in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE.
Bon voyage and bon appetite.
Fusions by Tala
Recommended by Katy Gillett, features editor, UAE
Tala Bashmi is doing nearly the impossible: something unique. The award-winning chef is the recipient of the first Middle East & North Africa's Best Female Chef Award, and is reinventing Bahraini cuisine to appeal to younger and wider audiences. Bashmi takes traditional recipes, and uses her western training and influence from renowned chefs to create utterly innovative dishes: lobster and mango spring rolls; black-lime-marinated beef tenderloin on khubiz with bone marrow jus and edible “charcoal”; and green tea tiramisu. These are creatively plated and served in a beautiful and vast restaurant housed in Gulf Hotel Bahrain, one of Manama’s oldest and best-known hotels.
Recommended by Kamal Tabikha, correspondent, Egypt
Located in an alley in Downtown Cairo, Fasahet Somaya serves different dishes depending on seasonal produce chef-patron Somaya El Assiuty finds in the markets each morning. The set menu is announced on Facebook before the restaurant opens, from 5pm to 7pm.
Promoting Egyptian cuisine is at the heart of Fasahet Somaya, which offers dishes such as molokhiya soup, slow-cooked lamb with chocolate, kawareaa (beef knuckles with spinach), mombar (sheep casing stuffed with rice and meat), stuffed pigeon, sheikh al bazenjan (eggplant with rice and meat), zucchini in Bechamel sauce and meat with prunes.
What the Crust?
Recommended by Kamal Tabikha
The family-owned Neapolitan pizzeria is the only African restaurant to be certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. Located in the upmarket Maadi neighbourhood in Cairo, the restaurant offers pies handcrafted by a pizzaiola certified in Naples, and all the ingredients are imported from Italy.
On the menu are classics such as marinara, margherita and diavola as well as versions with buffalo mozzarella, anchovies and pesto. For dolci, sample the Nutella-filled calzone dusted with sugar.
Jadiriyah Floating Restaurant
Recommended by Sinan Mahmoud, correspondent, Iraq
Set in the upmarket Jadiriyah neighbourhood in Baghdad, the restaurant is housed in a huge ship moored on the Tigris. It serves Iraqi and western dishes, but is best known for its version of Iraq’s “national dish”, masgouf, a grilled fish, which is cooked using the traditional method of hanging the fish vertically on two wood sticks in the centre of an open-flame “fire altar”. This and other dishes can be enjoyed to the sounds of a live band performing classical Iraqi maqam.
Recommended by Amy McConaghy, video journalist, Jordan
Italian cook Luca and his Jordanian wife Hind run this cosy, communal kitchen in the heart of Jabal Weibdeh in Amman. The focus is very much on healthy, locally sourced and socially responsible ingredients, and the seasonal dishes change on a daily basis – and on chef Luca’s inspiration for the day.
The five-dish menu is made up of a soup, juice, pasta, vegetarian and meat option. Recent dishes have included soups of potato-fennel and spinach-lentil; pasta with basil, tomato and Parmesan sauces; minced veal stew and chicken steaks with marinara sauce for mains; veggie options such as black rice with sweet potato; red quinoa with beetroot, sunflower seeds and a balsamic dressing.
The restaurant doesn’t deliver and encourages patrons to bring their own containers for takeaways.
Romero Rest House
Recommended by Amy McConaghy
While all the Romero restaurants dotted around Jordan are known for delicious meals, the one in the Decapolis-era town of Umm Qais is particularly special, thanks to its elevated position and scenic surroundings. The rest house has a wonderful view of the Golan Heights and Lake Tiberias, and serves simple but tasty Middle Eastern mezze, plus the famous Jordanian gallayeh, a traditional dish of sliced meat, vegetables and fresh herbs, sauteed in a savoury sauce.
Recommended by Samia Badih, Arts & Culture editor, UAE
The first thing that strikes patrons on entering the lush space on the ninth floor of Hotel Albergo is its distinctive decor, which has everything from Persian rugs and Ottoman chandeliers to tables inlaid in the Damascus mother-of-pearl style.
The food is a masterful mix of Mediterranean dishes, with a penchant for Italian flavours – from sliced Portobello mushrooms with goat’s cheese and salmon served on a cedar plant to a soul-warming minestrone – and comes in generous portions.
Recommended by Sunniva Rose, correspondent, Lebanon
No best restaurant list can be complete in the current culinary climate without a vegan contender. An interesting option comes by way of the family-owned, farm-to-table restaurant Coara, which is located in the ancient village of Deir Al Qamar (Monastery of the Moon).
Lebanon’s first 100 per cent vegan eatery puts a plant-based spin on popular regional dishes, including shish barak dumplings, baked quinoa kebbe, zucchini lasagne with a creamy cashew sauce, pizzas with almond cheese, and even does a vegan knefe.
Recommended by Sunniva Rose
The trattoria and cafe in Hamra serves a lovely mix of Levantine and North African dishes (the carrot, halloumi and coriander starter is a must-have). Perhaps more importantly, it is evocative of Lebanon’s enduring spirit – Mezyan turns up the music on Friday nights to encourage people to get up and dance, if only between its socially distanced tables. The owners also recently opened a bookshop near by, a brave decision considering the current economic crisis.
Recommended by Erin Clare Brown, correspondent, Tunisia
Hidden in an alcove above the olive sellers in Marrakech’s grand bazaar lies Tiznit, with its fluorescent lights, rickety plastic chairs, oilcloth-covered tables – and the most glorious b'stilla you might ever eat.
Perfumed with rose and orange blossom water and stuffed with a perfectly seasoned mixture of eggs, coriander, cinnamon and chicken, the dish is served as an individual pie rather than tyre-sized rounds, maximising the crunchy pastry-to-filling ratio.
Other specialities include a fragrant sweet and savoury rabbit tagine served with fluffy air couscous.
Recommended by Janice Rodrigues, Lifestyle writer
One of Muscat’s oldest fine-dining restaurants, Mumtaz Mahal is located atop a hill overlooking the Gulf of Oman on one side and the lush Qurum Park on the other, with views of Muscat city glittering below.
The focus is more on quality than quantity here, but the heartiness and deliciousness of the North Indian fare make up for that. The restaurant offers a variety of chicken, seafood and meat tikkas, kebabs and rolls, plus spiced curries that can be enjoyed with naan or a rich biryani. It also has a large and tasty vegetarian selection.
The Beach Restaurant
Recommended by Janice Rodrigues
Set in the opulent Chedi Muscat, this restaurant redefines luxurious beachside dining. It’s located just a stone’s throw from the water, so you can hear the waves lapping at the shore. The dim lighting, long columns and stone fire displays add to the exotic ambience, even as the menu makes good on Oman’s coastal cuisine, serving fresh seafood delicacies, from Omani lobster and tiger prawns to Dover sole fillets.
Recommended by Mariam Nihal, correspondent, Saudi Arabia
The Nikkei cooking style is all the rage among fans of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines, and fine dining restaurant Kuuru has been serving an impressive array of fusion dishes since its 2021 launch in Jeddah.
On the menu are Wagyu sliders served with aji amarillo chilli peppers; plenty of ceviche, tempura, nigari and sashimi options; freshly cooked robata grill meats; and an intriguing king crab served with a cream cheese and almond samosa, and a drizzle of spicy passion-fruit honey.
Recommended by Mariam Nihal
Operating since 1976 in Jeddah’s Al Ruwais area, Spinzer serves authentic South Asian food from India and Pakistan. In-the-know locals often choose this spot to host occasions – from dinner parties to weddings – and the restaurant’s general manager, Mohammed Ali, is famed for his warm hospitality.
On the menu are popular Indo-Pak kebabs and curries, from butter chicken and mutton handi to shrimp masala and lamb chops. The chefs also serve a handful of “desi Chinese” dishes – think chicken chilli, chow mein noodles and Manchurian.
Recommended by Erin Clare Brown
Tunisian foodies often complain that the dining-out scene in the capital Tunis suffers from a lack of imagination, with nearly every restaurant serving an identical menu of red-hot, harissa-infused staples. El Houche, however, a small, casual eatery in the La Goulette neighbourhood, adds a delicious twist to regional specialities.
Dishes that come highly recommended are spicy, fragrant Djerban rice served with herbs and fresh shellfish; a whole octopus served Sfaxi-style over nutty farro; and bourzgan, a dish from the western mountain town of Kef, with lamb braised in rosemary, milk, butter and dates, and served with a nut-studded couscous infused with the braising liquid.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Recommended by Panna Munyal, Lifestyle editor, UAE
A favourite among discerning diners, 99 Sushi at the Four Seasons Hotel on Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi is appreciated for its consistently good food and service. Seating options include a cosy private dining room, a terrace with water views and a vertical garden, and a main dining hall that’s at once romantic and vibrant.
Japanese Kobe Grade A5 and sushi rolls aside, the menu includes fine-dining Japanese dishes with innovative flavour profiles: think king crab served au gratin with creamy yuzu mayo; umami crystal toast with caviar; and sauteed fish in a bouillabaisse of yellow chilli mussels and foie.
Recommended by Janice Rodrigues
Classic French cooking techniques are the bread and butter for most highly rated chefs in the world, and few places in Dubai apply said classic techniques as well as Couqley, a cosy, unassuming and ever-packed Parisian-style bistro in JLT. The signature steak frites and French onion soup are masterful, but delve into the menu further and you can sample such gems as foie gras with strawberry coulis; creamy mushrooms in a puff pastry; pappardelle pasta in a truffle sauce; and fresh mussels.
Recommended by Laura Koot, managing editor, UAE
The restaurant in Abu Dhabi’s old trading port of Mina Zayed is very popular with the local community and has expanded to about four times its size in as many years. The team, led by chef Nabeel, do what they do very well, which is mouth-wateringly good, simple, grilled food. The page-long menu includes a variety of steaks, “grandma-style shrimp” and original grilled chicken breast, plus baklava. The restaurant famously has no refrigerators. A second branch is scheduled to open in Rashid Port in Dubai later this year.
Recommended by Panna Munyal
The fine-dining French-Mediterranean restaurant in The Galleria Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi is famed for its buzzing vibe and innovative dishes, sent out from a theatrical open kitchen.
Even the simplest of flavours are elevated to gourmet proportions, as is evident from the buttery green lentil salad (the global LPM chain’s signature starter for more than a decade), to the tiger prawns grilled in their shells with a dash of olive oil.
The restaurant recently introduced its first brunch, which will take place every Sunday starting this month, and will also host chef Julien Royer (from Odette, Singapore, which has topped Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants twice) for one night on February 6, before the award ceremony in Abu Dhabi.
Recommended by Panna Munyal
Akin to Noma in Copenhagen, the current number one eatery on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Tresind in Dubai’s Voco Hotel is known for pushing the culinary envelope to delicious new proportions. In addition to liaising with international chefs for one-off meals, chef Himanshu Saini has curated a menu that’s bold, flavourful and suited to diners prepared to experiment. We’re talking an Indian-style chutney with flavours of Argentinian chimichurri; galouti kebabs made from avocados; shisho khakra with burrata and raw mango, and garden herbs served fresh in a pot to be plucked at will; and a khichdi served on an India-shaped plate with a garnish from every state.