Unveiling UAE’s Culinary Capitals
Trendspotting in Dubai and Abu Dhabi's Food Scene
12 June 2023
Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s lavish lifestyles and metropolitan sophistication have cemented their positions as ultimate destinations for exquisite cuisine. These cities offer a dynamic and diverse culinary landscape, featuring everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to bustling street food markets.
As a result, food enthusiasts from all corners of the globe are drawn to these destinations. In this article, we delve into the vibrant food and culinary scenes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, examining the latest trends, highlighting exceptional dining venues, and uncovering what distinguishes these cities as world-renowned culinary capitals.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has transformed into a unique cultural melting pot, with over 200 nationalities calling it their home. Consequently, the region has experienced a proliferation of restaurants that aptly reflect the diverse and vivacious nature of its residents. Dubai's food culture is a prime example, as it is significantly influenced by an array of cuisines and flavors, such as Indian and Lebanese, which embody the rich cultural tapestry of the population.
Besides, the UAE's commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive society with a vibrant and multifaceted culinary landscape to match, was evident during the World Expo 2020. with more than 250 cultural food concepts from 191 countries, the event attracted over six million visitors, making Dubai the go-to destination for the international culinary community.
Furthermore, bringing the Michelin Guide to the Middle East strengthened their endeavors to promote the emirates' culinary scene, elevating the region's standing as a leading culinary destination. Michelin-starred restaurants and other exceptional dining establishments were ranked and acknowledged for their outstanding cuisine, contributing to the region's enhanced reputation.
Being home to several prestigious award ceremonies that recognize and celebrate outstanding chefs and restaurants, the likes of Gault&Millau, 50 Best, and Michelin Middle East have set new standards, inspiring professionals to elevate their practices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These restaurant guides are playing a crucial role in promoting sustainability in the industry and encouraging restaurants to adopt environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices by incorporating sustainability criteria into their rating systems, recognizing sustainable practices, and providing guidance and resources.
Both major cities in the Middle East have seen a rapid expansion of their hospitality sector in recent years, with 26% growth, according to Euromonitor.
With booming tourism and increasing populations, it's no surprise that the restaurant sector is thriving in these places. Even during the COVID pandemic, the F&B market has shown great resilience and growth, with a 4% increase in supply in 2021, according to a report by international real estate services company, JLL.
The report, conducted in September 2021, highlighted Dubai's leading position in the Emirates.
With a staggering 18,000 F&B outlets, Dubai outshines Abu Dhabi not only in the total number of restaurants but also in the number of quick-service restaurants (QSRs), which make up 49% of the market share in Dubai compared to 45% in Abu Dhabi.
JLL’s report further states that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.9% until 2025. This growth is attributed to several factors such as increasing population, rising tourism, and growing demand for food delivery services.
The report also revealed that in 2020, the average spend per capita on food in Dubai was AED 7,930 ($2,159) versus AED 5,068 ($1,379) in Abu Dhabi, which is significantly higher than the global average of $952 per capita.
Dubai's thriving tourism sector, which received 17 million tourists in 2019 compared to Abu Dhabi's 11.3 million, has led to a greater emphasis on accommodating the preferences of visitors from abroad. Considering that visitors generally spend more money on casual and fine dining than residents do, as a result, Dubai has a greater variety of casual and fine dining establishments, as well as social drinking venues.
Notably, Abu Dhabi boasts a significantly higher proportion of UAE nationals in its populace compared to Dubai, with the former exceeding the latter by more than two-fold. This demographic discrepancy has played a crucial role in shaping the restaurant sector, as Emiratis and expatriates exhibit distinct culinary preferences that have prompted the evolution of their respective dining landscapes.
However, both emirates are home to several internationally acclaimed restaurants with worldwide recognition such as:
3 Fils, Dubai, which offers diners premium Asian cuisine with a Japanese influence in a community-style setting by the harbor. The restaurant aims to enhance customers' dining experience by providing a comfortable atmosphere where they can discover and share new flavors.
Orfali Bros Bistro, Dubai, This restaurant defies conventional norms by continuously exploring the frontiers of cooking to uncover fresh tastes and experiences in food and desserts. Its menu encourages inventiveness, excellence, and happiness, providing an infinite range of culinary options that originate from their kitchen.
LPM, Dubai, is a revered icon in Dubai's culinary landscape. Its unpretentious Mediterranean cuisine is delectable and intended for communal dining.
Reif Kushiyaki, Dubai, Chef-founder Reif Othman's culinary focus on Japanese-style street food steals the spotlight.
Hakkasan, Abu Dhabi, serves an alluring and consistently superb selection of southern Chinese dishes prepared by talented head chef, Lee Kok Hua.
Zuma, Abu Dhabi, features a stunning dining area and an extensive Japanese izakaya menu featuring excellent choices which are sure to please patrons.
Although fast food and cafes remain the most popular F&B options in both cities, there has been a growing trend towards healthier and sustainable food choices. The shift towards healthier food options and the growth of plant-based and vegan offerings in both cities have been significant, with plant-based and organic restaurants gaining more popularity in the coming years. This trend reflects the changing consumer preferences and the increasing awareness of the impact of food choices on personal health and the environment. That is why many restaurant operators are focusing on reducing food waste and using sustainable materials.
Furthermore, the rise of digital technologies and the use of online food delivery platforms have transformed the F&B market in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Restaurants are increasingly relying on technology to optimize their operations, improve delivery-based models, and enhance customer experiences.
With a constantly evolving scene and increasing demand for diverse dining experiences, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are regularly introducing new concepts and cuisines. According to JLL, the number of F&B outlets has increased by 3.6% and 2.8%, respectively, since 2020. Both emirates continue to attract international F&B brands and concepts, with the entry of new players and expansion plans of existing ones. This influx of international brands further enriches the already diverse F&B scene in both cities.
The report further states that in 2021, 340 upscale dining establishments were located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with the majority (80%) being situated within financial hubs and 5-star hotels. Historically, liquor licenses were only permitted for hotels; however, Dubai’s recent move to eliminate the 30% tax on alcohol sales and relax regulations surrounding liquor licenses is expected to have a significant impact on the region's tourism industry. This change will pave the way for more fine-dining restaurants to open outside of hotels, catering to the local residential population and bolstering the region's culinary landscape.
The dinnertainment sector traditionally dominated by restaurants catering to children's entertainment would offer adults, live music, and table service. However, in recent years, this segment has witnessed a surge in interactive and licensed dinnertainment concepts, following global trends. These concepts offer diners the opportunity to take a break from their meal and engage in activities such as bowling or electronic gaming. The social interaction and overall dining experience have become integral components of the dinnertainment journey. Although dinnertainment is a relatively new concept, it is expected to grow and expand throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi, particularly as dining experiences become increasingly social in nature.
The main challenge faced by the restaurants sector in both emirates is the high cost of rent with prime locations ranking amongst the priciest in the world, which can put a strain on restaurants’ profit margins. However, lately, landlords are becoming more flexible with their rental agreements, offering shorter lease terms and favorable rental rates to attract tenants.
In conclusion, Dubai and Abu Dhabi's culinary scenes have evolved significantly over the years, reflecting the region's cultural diversity and its residents' evolving preferences. From upscale dining establishments to casual dining and street food markets, these cities offer an extensive and diverse culinary landscape that caters to all tastes and preferences. With a growing population, increasing tourism, and a commitment to promoting the hospitality industry, the food and beverage sector is set to continue growing, cementing Dubai and Abu Dhabi's positions as world-renowned culinary capitals.