There used to a point in time when I knew exactly where in Dubai I wanted to eat next. A list – perhaps 5-6 restaurants or cafes deep – that was easy to manage. And recall.
In the past couple of years that list has grown a lot longer. Part of the reason for that has been the fact that I have had less reason to regularly go out for a meal in Dubai. But a bigger reason is the fact that there are sooooo many new restaurants and dining experiences popping up across the city every week I have honestly lost track.
This September I will mark 10 years in a city I wasn’t really planning on staying in for more than 3. Arguably it has been a decade in which Dubai has witnessed the biggest changes in its history.
When I arrived in 2005, Sheikh Zayed Road – Dubai’s lifeline – was amongst the most dangerous roads to drive on in the world. There was no metro. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was just a series of renderings and concept notes. There were no Smart City Initiatives, no Salik (the divisive road toll introduced in the famously tax-free city), no Palm Jumeirah.
I have watched – and as someone working in communications – marveled at Dubai’s spectacular launch onto the global stage.
My first job in the city required me to drive past the Burj Khalifa (then the Burj Dubai) each day, allowing me the opportunity to track its progress daily as storey after rising storey stacked itself up into a glimmering needle point.
I watched the heart-stopping pyrotechnic show that marked the opening of The Atlantis and simultaneously cemented Dubai’s reputation as the fireworks capital of the world, and also saw the gradual decline in the weight of Property Weekly - the popular real estate listing supplement - as ads for shiny new apartments dried up during the recession.
There was just one airport. And it wasn’t the world’s busiest – yet.
When I arrived in 2005 Dubai was not the gastronomic capital of the Middle East. That title belonged to a city with a history older than four decades. Somewhere like Aleppo or Cairo, steeped in centuries of rich culinary traditions.
But what Dubai lacked in age, it has rapidly made up for in diversity and opportunity. No other city in the Arabian Peninsula has its breadth of authentic cuisines, or its height of headline-grabbing dining concepts. No other Middle Eastern city has seen leading international chefs descend in droves to set up outposts of their famous London, Sydney or New York restaurants literally in the middle of the desert.
I am not complaining. As a foodophile, I enthusiastically celebrate the addition of every new restaurant – big or small – to this city that seems constantly hungry for more. Tapas bar opened by a chef with El Bulli creds? Great! Ethiopian coffee and popcorn dive tucked into the backstreets of Deira. Sounds interesting. New K-Pop joint? Bring it on!
But for every new shutter that flies up, the law of the land states – even a land in which whole new districts regularly spring out of virgin sand – there’s another slowly sliding down. And it’s these sad shutters I want to remember today.
Anyone who has lived here will know that you need to be comfortable with saying goodbye in Dubai. Things change. What’s here today is often gone tomorrow. Friends, jobs, buildings, parks (yes iconic Safa Park – whole swathes of you will be sorely missed!) disappear. Hulking chunks of mega malls get swallowed up in scaffolding overnight to emerge shinier and more impressive a few weeks later. Exclusive new boutiques and clubs open to the flash of society photographers and the old ones vanish in a blink of an eye.
So, much as I love the newest additions to the city’s dining choices – its organic food markets that have enlivened weekend mornings across the city, its food trucks and secret suppers, and its packed calendar of food festivals and promotions – I will hold a fork up to my long-gone favorites.
To The Coconut Grove – that little outpost of Konkan coastal delicacies on what used to be called Diyafah Road - with its glass-walled views over minarets and blocks of traditional low-rises – that always seemed like the perfect spot to enjoy a taste of my real home in Goa and my adopted one in Dubai.
To Aussie Legends – the laid-back Australian pub just a few floors down that played host to many winning pub quizzes that have filled my brain with a load of useful and not so useful trivia.
To Sino Chai – The Taiwanese dim sum joint oddly tucked away in Dubai Healthcare City that I discovered while searching for places I could buy real Taiwanese clay teapots.
And to the numerous other restaurants, bars and cafes that have been renovated to the point of being unrecognisable, dumping memories of meals enjoyed with friends who have long since left Dubai with remnants of discarded bits of furniture and crockery.
I will happily admit that I am as fickle as the next person when it comes to chasing Dubai’s latest foodie fads. But in a city whose moniker is a melting pot, I have to admit that many of my fondest Dubai memories have been cooked up into oblivion.
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