When Flavio Briatore revealed plans to bring his successful nightclub-turned-theatre restaurant franchise Billionaire to Riyadh in early 2021, the Italian entertainment mogul told The National it would come with a twist.
The glitzy and hedonistic party vibes, responsible for packing in celebrities from Sardinia in Italy and Spain's Marbella to Dubai, will be replaced by more refined entertainment options and a greater focus on the brand’s signature blend of modern Italian and Asian cuisine.
Even with such amendments in respect of the kingdom’s cultural traditions, the decision to bring the venture to the Saudi capital is a bold move.
In Dubai, the theatrical and acrobatic performances are eye-popping. The overall vibe is fun and, before the introduction safety measures to curb the pandemic, its dance floor would be packed with revellers into the early hours.
Even if Billionaire Riyadh manages to tame some of the popular excesses, can it work?
And while Saudi Arabia’s entertainment and culinary scenes are thriving, is Riyadh ready for what is arguably the first western theatre-dinner concept in the city?
A novel concept
The mission was intriguing enough for manager Alessandro Olivieri to relocate from Italy nearly two years ago to open the venue.
"It is a big challenge but that's what comes when you are trying to be a pioneer here," he says.
"This is really an amazing moment in Saudi Arabia and for Billionaire to be involved in that evolution is amazing.
“The country has grown a lot and so fast and we have to follow."
Olivieri admits the venue needed some time to find its bearings.
"It was a little difficult at first because we adapted Billionaire to Saudi culture because we respect it.
“That means adapting the show and some of the costumes and then we grew, little by little, along with the Saudi population," he says.
"We also worked with our Saudi partners who gave us valuable advice on the right way to appeal to the local market and it has been really rewarding.”
An elegant affair
The effort is paying off. Billionaire Riyadh exudes an understated elegance missing from its sister site in Dubai.
Located on Dabab Street in the leafy Sulaimaniya district, exclusivity is promised with a small carpet leading to a suited security guard who ensures the dress code, smart elegant or national dress, is met.
Once inside, visitors are whisked up a flight of stairs (an elevator is available) to the grand dining hall.
Dimly lit chandeliers shine down on a series of tables and booths made up of luxurious red and blue fabrics and a mahogany brown wooden floor.
European waiting staff, sporting bow ties, place guests near centre stage.
A medium-sized stage features nearly two dozen singers and acrobats performing throughout the night, while diners can also watch chefs at work in the 20-metre open kitchen, known as the Live Fire Grill.
What's on the menu?
Billionaire Riyadh doesn't serve a fusion of Italian and Japanese cuisine, but dishes from both nations.
Its expansive menu, featuring more than 100 dishes, is neatly split between Italian and Asian starters, mains, sides and desserts. There are also sections for Italian pizzas, Japanese sushi and caviar.
The burrata with cherry tomatoes, which costs 220 Saudi riyals ($58), is a winner, as is the Wagyu beef carpaccio (SAR110), as it packs a welcome crunch and depth of flavour.
The Wagyu beef filet (SAR 445) is also a real showstopper, with its mild but sweet sauce. It's also easy to eat while watching the action on stage.
Rooted in the city
While the performances are more low key than Billionaire Dubai, there is a lot to enjoy.
More emphasis is placed on vocalists, with performances of jazz standards such as Nina Simone's I Put a Spell on You and operatic classics such as the Puccini aria Nessun Dorma.
None of these acts will get you up on your feet to dance but it adds to an overall luxurious charm that Billionaire Riyadh can call its own.
Olivieri is confident the venue will become a permanent feature of the city's evolving landscape with staff members already setting up long-term roots.
"We grew with the city and we love it here," he says.
"A lot of the staff made Saudi friends who invited them over and they feel very welcome. I think we created a real value here in Riyadh, for Saudis and Europeans.
“We have shown that both cultures can come together and that is really a wonderful thing."
Billionaire Riyadh is open daily from 6pm to 1am with reservations recommended on +966 920 011 916. More information is available at billionaire.sa