Dubai’s restaurant scene is constantly shifting – one day you’re in and the next you’re out. Why is it that even celebrity chefs can’t find longevity?
These are tough times for Dubai’s restaurateurs. Blink and you could miss the entirety of a venue’s lifespan. Greg Malouf’s Zahira, with its elevated take on Levantine fare, lasted just seven months. Morah, a fusion of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, failed to reach its first birthday. So did Flavio Briatore’s Crazy Fish and the Peruvian restaurant Totora Cebicheria Peruana. Galvin Bistrot & Bar, the French restaurant run by brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin, closed its doors after 18 months. Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera gave up the ghost after 16. “The days of opening a restaurant and making loads of money are long gone,” says Colin Clague, executive chef at Rüya Dubai and Rüya London.
Restaurant closures are nothing new, of course. Why they close, however, is a difficult question to answer. A multitude of factors are at play – overheads, location, concept, business acumen, venue size… Some investments can reach in the millions of dollars only to close within a year. Then, there is the simple question of quality. The naive or the romantic will tell you that great food and service are all that’s required for a restaurant to succeed today; yet the dark side of Dubai’s restaurant scene tells a different story.
It’s a sensitive topic, and one that few are willing to openly discuss, especially when the wounds remain fresh. The Galvin brothers state simply that they would “prefer not to talk about the closure” of Galvin Bistrot & Bar, while Briatore alludes to the ever-changing nature of Dubai’s restaurant scene. “You have to constantly evolve because what you put in place now will be obsolete in six months,” he says.
If it’s any consolation, the numbers aren’t in anybody’s favor. The emirate has one of the highest restaurant per capita rates in the world, with the Department of Economic Development revealing in May last year that at least two restaurants opened in the city every day. In total, there were 11 813 restaurants in Dubai as of December 2018. That’s one restaurant for every 280 people.
“Dubai is such an international city now that you can eat good food from anywhere in the world,” says Clague. “But there are too many restaurants for not enough people. It’s absolutely unsustainable.” The biggest killers? Payroll and rent, says Scott Price, one half of Nick & Scott, the duo behind Folly by Nick & Scott at the Madinat Jumeirah. “You can go into any new venture with the belief that it’s going to be an amazing success and sometimes you can be blinded by that belief. If you haven’t done your numbers properly, it’s easy to get into trouble.” Many restaurants provide accommodation for their staff as well as paying for medical insurance and providing flights home. “The initial outlay before you even open the doors is massive,” says Clague. Then, there are the costs associated with kitchens, interior design, and furniture, all of which can be potentially crippling in the short-term.
Such outlays and overheads can only be covered if the concept, location, and quality are right. Even so, running a restaurant can feel like you’re walking a tightrope. “People say location, location, but a big part of Dubai is just that,” says Price, who first came to the emirate to relaunch Verre by Gordon Ramsay at the Hilton Dubai Creek. “Ten years ago the Marina was where it was at. Now it’s Downtown. But if you live in Downtown, do you need to go to the Marina anymore? Probably not.” Throw in demographic changes, the rising cost of living, and the sheer scale of some of the restaurants and you begin to get a better understanding of the challenges involved. Mix by Alain Ducasse, for example, seats a total of 525. Morimoto Dubai seats around 250. “It all sounds good on paper but to fill those sort of venues you’re talking about a casino-style operation,” says Price. “It boggles my mind. It’s frightening.”
Then there’s price, which Clague believes contributed to the downfall of Jean-Georges Dubai. “I hate to say it, but they just kept putting the prices up,” says Clague, who left the restaurant before it closed in 2018. “There’s a certain point where people are going to say you’re just too expensive. Obviously, there’s a lot of investment that goes into a restaurant of that caliber and they try and get that money back. But instead of paying it back in two or three years, they think, ‘Maybe we’ll do it in a year and a half.’ Then the prices go up and you kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” He adds, “You hear stories. First, the staff don’t get paid. Once those rumors emerge and suppliers start ringing you up saying they haven’t been paid, it’s difficult to get your ingredients and then, in this part of the world, you’re finished.” Some restaurants close overnight. Others announce their demise in somber tones, promising to re-emerge in an alternative location. Invariably they never do. Tables and chairs are sold off, kitchens are repurposed, egos are bruised.
“I believe you’ve got a three-month window in this city to tick all the boxes,” says Price. “You have the influencers that are almost like a swarm of locusts flying around and they go to each venue each week and they won’t come back if you don’t impress them. But you have that moment where you have to get it right. And if you don’t make it in those three months, I don’t think there’s any way back.” Clague agrees. “With so many restaurants opening people will try them once but there’s no second attempt,” he says. “If you go and it’s not quite what you expected, you’d rather go back to where you’ve been before.” That includes venues such as Zuma and La Petite Maison, both in DIFC, arguably the city’s prime dining location. They have become Dubai institutions, as has Coya at the Four Seasons Resort. “People will try out other restaurants but if you’ve maintained your standards and you stick to the quality you’ve got, people will always come back,” believes Clague, whose Rüya Dubai was named Middle East restaurant of the year in February. “But if you start letting standards slip and people start staying away, you’re on a slippery slope and it’s difficult to get back. You have to maintain your integrity; you have to maintain the quality of your ingredients. Call me old-fashioned, but I do think it’s all about food and service.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Vogue Man Arabia