• Nicola Chilton

The best small restaurants in Dubai to go back to when this is all over

Updated: May 17, 2020

There are so many small businesses in the hospitality industry that are struggling right now, and every day I hear of more and more restaurants and cafes that can no longer survive the impact of Coronavirus. So I decided to share a list of five of my favourite small restaurants in Dubai for you to visit WTIAO, and since we all have slightly less disposable cash in our pockets these days, all of these are deliciously affordable. Some of them are doing delivery during lockdown, and some may even be open for reservations (best to check direct). Until we can resume our regular restaurant-going ways, feed yourself here instead. Bon appetit!



Cafe Isan, Jumeirah Lakes Towers, Cluster B @cafeisan

When I first moved to Dubai from Bangkok five years ago, I suffered major withdrawal for all my Thai street food faves. I searched and searched the city for good Thai food, but most of it was ridiculously expensive, toned down for the foreign palate, or just not very good. Then on one Friday morning internet trawl, I came across a place called Cafe Isan in a part of town I'd never heard of, claiming to serve "authentic Thai street food". I jumped in the car, got lost three times on the way, almost cried in frustration as I kept ending up on roads to nowhere, finally pulled myself together, and persevered until I found it. And thank goodness I did. The menu made me feel as if I was "home" again. The som tum Isan papaya salad was exactly how it should be with the right kick of chilli and fermented fish sauce - and best of all, when you ordered they asked you if you wanted it "Thai spicy" (no toning down of flavours here). They had proper sticky rice, my favourite Isan-style om herbal soup, deep-fried laab cakes, perfectly cooked phad krapow Thai basil stir fry, the crispiest fried eggs, and the creamiest, peanutiest massaman curry I'd ever had. In the five years since I made that discovery, Cafe Isan has become a firm favourite, and I'm happy that I can now call Chef New and Co-owner Lisa friends. If you watched the sitcom Cheers in the 1980s you'll know the feeling - it's a place where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. And if that's not enough, Cafe Isan was recognised as the Best Thai Restaurant in Dubai by Time Out in 2020, an amazing (and well-deserved) accomplishment for a small, independently run, understated cafe. Make sure you save space for bua loi for dessert. If you don't know what it is, you'll have to go to Cafe Isan to find out.



Innlay Asia, Jumeirah Lakes Towers Cluster F

I first travelled to Myanmar in 2005 and was blown away by the food, a combination of flavours that are somewhere between Thai and Indian, but completely unlike anything else. Breakfasts were centred on mohinga, rice noodles in a comforting fish broth topped with boiled eggs, a generous squeeze of lime and a big pile of roughly chopped coriander; lunches were rich curries and heaps of steaming rice served with fresh raw veggies on the side, some of which I've never been able to identify to this day; dinners were a revelation, with the salads (fermented tea leaf, ginger, tomato and peanut) opening up my eyes and tastebuds to new possibilities. I've been searching for good Burmese food ever since. I found one restaurant in Hong Kong, Golden Myanmar, which sadly closed some years ago. I found another in Bangkok called Annapurna, a most un-Burmese name but with some great Burmese dishes. And then, by the magic of Google, I discovered Innlay Asia, another gem in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. The restaurant's friendly softly-spoken Burmese staff always give you a warm welcome, and if you're ever having a bad day, feeling under the weather, or suffering from Covidepression, a bowl of their khauk swel chicken noodle soup in coconut broth is just the thing. I can't get enough of their lahpet thoke fermented tea leaf salad or their pickled ginger salad, both of which taste as authentic as anything I ate in my favourite street-side cafe in Mandalay.



Bu Qtair, Fishing Harbour 2, Umm Suqeim

Bu Qtair was one of my first Dubai discoveries, a portakabin on a patch of sand with plastic tables and chairs outside, incongruously located in the shadow of the "seven-star" Burj Al Arab hotel. I loved it for its rough-and-ready feel, its crowds of people from all walks of Dubai life, and its complete lack of pretension. Since then, Bu Qtair has become slightly more upscale, making the move to an actual building across the street, but it still serves the same fish and prawns fried in Keralan spices, paratha, chopped raw cabbage, curry soup - and nothing else. You queue up, point to the fish you want, request a scoop of prawns as large as you think you can manage (always order more than you think you'll need), and go and wait. And wait and wait. Bu Qtair's food takes time as there are always people who've ordered before you, whether it's taxi drivers, fishermen, local families or groups of expat friends. But it's always worth the wait. Bu Qtair has been operating for over thirty years with the same simple formula, and it works beautifully.


Fish and prawns at Bu Qtair restaurant

Arabian Tea House, Al Fahidi Street @arabianteahouse

Finding Arabian Tea House was, without a hint of exaggeration, a bit of a life-changer. It's a small chain, but makes its way onto my list of favourite small restaurants as it offers something that nowhere else does in the city. Its home is a heritage building in the oldest part of Dubai with a beautiful cosy courtyard where you can sit in the shade of an old tree, with friendly staff who perfume the air with frankincense smoke. It became a Friday morning refuge for me. I would go early and sit there with a book, drinking glass after glass of karak as I slowly made my way through plates of hummus, halloumi and steaming hot bread fresh from the tandoor. I always take friends visiting from overseas, and I also treat myself when I want to be reminded of what a fascinatingly exotic city I live in. Breakfast at the Arabian Tea House followed by a walk by the Creek and an abra ride is an excellent way to start any weekend. Order the Emirati or Arabic breakfast tray (they're more than big enough to share), a pot of karak, and settle down into one of the wicker chairs for one of the loveliest mornings you can possibly have in Dubai.



Raju Omlet, Exit 43, Sheikh Zayed Road @rajuomlet

Raju Omlet is always a winner. Located in a fairly nondescript building just off Sheikh Zayed Road that has been made much more appealing with its retro-kitsch interiors , Raju Omlet specialises in Indian food centred on eggs, which initially sounded like a slightly odd concept to me, but from my first bite I was a believer. Start with a Masala Half Fry, mix the unctuous yolk with the spicy masala, and pile it all up on top of a soft Bombay pav. You'll then want to go for the Eggs Kejriwal, a lovely combo of fried eggs, mushrooms, chilli and cheese on top of a thick slice of white bread, and as many of the outrageously tasty curries as you think you can manage (then order one more for good measure - you can always take home whatever you don't finish). Don't forget to order a stack of hot, chewy paratha on the side and a glass of masala lemonade (don't worry about the powder that floats on the surface. It's delicious. Just drink it.) I love the Eggs Lazeez (eggs and molten cheddar cheese in a spicy tomato gravy), the Crush Bhurji and the Power Boiled Tikka, but order anything at all from the menu. You can't possibly go wrong.



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