Local Flavor: the best places to eat and drink in Dubai

While growing up in Dubai in the early 1990s, our family’s culinary adventures were mostly limited to shawarma and falafel takeaways, dining at Indian and Pakistani restaurants, or American fast-food chains.

Today, as a travel writer living in Dubai, I’m completely in awe of its wildly exciting dining scene filled with innovative restaurants, avant-garde concepts and bold chefs keen to show off their creative genius in a city where original ideas are favored and quickly accepted over old-fashioned rules.

Dubai is home to over 200 nationalities and nowhere else does this diversity shine as brightly as it does in its culinary culture. From authentic dosa joints and Afghani bakeries in my neighborhood in old Dubai to Balkan specialties, homegrown burger restaurants, and food that looks like art elsewhere in the city, I’m proud to say that I’ve yet to find another city in the world that does international cuisines with as much flair as here. These are some of my favorite insider spots that I consider to be the best places to eat and drink in Dubai.

The writer enjoying chilli-oil drizzled eggs for breakfast
Natasha enjoying breakfast at 21grams Urban Balkan Bistro © Natasha Amar


Located within walking distance of Jumeirah Beach in the unassuming Meyan Mall, 21grams Urban Balkan Bistro is my top spot for breakfast in Dubai. Founded by Serbian restaurateur Stasha Toncev with chef Milan Jurkovic, this homegrown bistro keeps diners like me coming back for its delicious breakfast and brunch dishes, friendly service and inviting aesthetic.

I order the same dish every time as my tastebuds are unapologetically fixated on the pindjur eggs – poached eggs sitting in a rich slow-roasted tomato and pepper relish surrounded by a luscious chili oil-drizzled yogurt and garnished with fresh basil. It’s served with freshly baked somun bread with which I can’t resist soaking up the tomato relish-yogurt mixture until my plate is wiped clean. Save some space for a slice of their fresh-from-the-oven phyllo pie – my favorites are the creamy spinach and the goat cheese, honey and thyme. They serve breakfast dishes till 5pm, so it’s my go-to spot for a lazy weekend brunch. If you go on a weekend, expect to wait between 15 to 30 minutes for a table – but it’s worth it.

I also like to bring visiting friends and family to Arabian Tea House, an Emirati restaurant set within the restored traditional architecture of Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, a short stroll from Dubai Creek. With chatter-filled courtyards, sepia-toned photos of Dubai on the walls, and bread baking in the traditional oven, this place reminds me of traditional homes in the Dubai of my childhood.

I recommend the Special Emirati Breakfast Tray to sample dishes such as balaleet (slightly sweet vermicelli cooked with cardamom, cinnamon and saffron, topped with an omelet), dango (chickpeas), bajella (fava beans), baked beans, cheese, date molasses and rose jam, all served with breads like khameer, chebab and tanoor. An equally good choice, the Egyptian Breakfast Tray comes with perfectly crispy falafel, hummus, white cheese and tomato, and flavorsome musaqaa (eggplant and pepper dish). If you’re a sandwich lover like me, you’ll enjoy the refreshing halloumi, cucumber, tomato, and olive-stuffed za’atar-spiced khameer. Wash it all down with a karak iced tea.

Brix is a favorite for breakfast and croissants with views of the Jumeirah Fishing Harbour. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, don’t miss the chocolate espresso ganache and mascarpone-filled tiramisu croissant while the truffle croissant and the cheese-tomato-basil Italian croissant are excellent savory choices, along with good specialty coffees.

Dubai coffee shop styled with sparkling lights
A nitro-infused cold brew coffee at Nightjar Coffee Roasters © Natasha Amar

Karak and coffee

When in Dubai, why not try karak, the pick-me-up of choice for many locals? With its roots in the Indian masala chai, karak is sweet milky tea prepared from black tea brewed with cardamom and occasionally saffron or other spices, and fresh or condensed milk. Some cafeterias in Dubai sell thousands of cups of karak a day and won’t reveal the exact recipe to anyone.

With several locations around Dubai, Filli Cafe on Kite Beach usually has a queue of regulars on the weekends and on rainy days, waiting to sip on their zafran karak (with saffron). Some swear by the karak at Koukh Al Shay Cafeteria in Al Hudaiba (and other branches) which tastes even better alongside the omelette paratha with Chips Oman – that’s essentially spicy chips tucked beside an omelette wrapped in a paratha and it is glorious!

Nightjar Coffee Roasters is a fantastic excuse to head to Alserkal Avenue where art galleries and boutiques sit next to indie theaters and performance venues. Come here for artisanal coffee roasted in-house and nitro-infused cold brews that I’m convinced are the best in Dubai. There’s a DJ playing on the weekends, ideal for when your caffeine-fueled feet start tapping to the beats. If you get hungry, you can’t go wrong with the spicy chicken frankie, lamb kheema toastie and ricotta pancake stack.

The writer eating a lunch of chicken sliders
L: Chicken Cheetos sliders at Salt; R: Natasha has lunch the seafood restaurant Bordo Mavi © Natasha Amar


To sample the city’s long-held obsession with burgers, head to homegrown favorite Salt on Kite Beach for a quick lunch with sand between your toes. I love the Chicken Cheetos Sliders – there’s something so satisfying about the crispy Cheetos crumbs combined with the piping hot chicken fillet. The sliders (two in each order) are perfectly-sized to bite into comfortably. I get mine with a side of fresh and crispy truffle fries. On a hot day, their Lotus softie feels like a treat.

Set on the Jumeirah Fishing Harbour, Bordo Mavi is currently my favorite seafood restaurant in Dubai. The breezy decor, lush indoor plants and harborfront terrace at this casual restaurant make me feel like I’m on holiday in a Mediterranean coastal village. Conceptualized by Turkish fishmonger Ersan Yılmaz who was inspired by 200-year-old generational recipes, dishes are prepared from seafood that is sourced fresh daily. There’s a fishmarket-style seafood display on ice where you can choose from seabream, turbot lobster and more, but I recommend ordering a few dishes from the menu and enjoying them sharing-style.

I like to begin with the smoked pickled anchovies, wheat yogurt, tomato salad and yogurt-drizzled crispy potato chips while I wait for the butter shrimp casserole, which is just buttery-garlicky goodness on a sizzling plate, and the flavorful seabass pomodoro. The seabass fish kebab served on wheat is beautifully spiced too.

Natasha and family enjoying dinner in dubai
L: Natasha and friends enjoy dinner at Al Ustad Special Kebab; R: Dinner at Oralfi Bros Syrian restaurant © Natasha Amar


For the best Iranian kebabs in Dubai, head to Al Ustad Special Kabab in Al Fahidi. Founded in 1978, this is one of the city’s oldest restaurants and continues to enjoy the loyalty of long-time residents like me who first visited as children, as well as local and international celebrities. Touristy? Not at all. Iconic? Absolutely.

They serve a variety of mutton and chicken kebabs but it’s best to order the value-for-money mixed plates for one, two or more persons so you can taste the different kinds. Don’t miss the cholo kabab (with minced mutton or chicken) served with saffron rice and butter that you absolutely should drizzle onto the rice. The creamy hummus here is also one of the best in Dubai. This no-frills family-run restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so you might have to wait for a table on weekends.

Founded by Syrian brothers Mohammad, Wassim and Omar Orfali, the much-lauded Orfali Bros serves original takes on dishes from around the world with influences from their cultural heritage. A great example of the brilliant creativity in Dubai’s dining scene, this homegrown spot opened its doors in 2021 and quickly rose to become one of the city’s most popular independent restaurants.

Inside, a tower-like open kitchen serves as the visual centerpiece, with chefs skilfully plating dishes. Dishes score highly on the interplay between flavors and textures while the ingredients, local where possible, shine through in each dish. The OB croquettes melt in your mouth, the burghul and shiso leaf salad is a burst of freshness and the miso tahini salmon pleases with its surprising flavors. Make reservations well in advance.

The writer enjoys a cocktail in a dimly-lit bar
Natasha ends the night with a cocktail at Electric Pawn Shop © Natasha Amar


Located in the Trade Centre area at The H Dubai, you can’t miss the cool, edgy vibe at Electric Pawn Shop once you walk through the doors. At this refreshingly unpretentious bar inspired by the 1970s Chinatown of New York, I love that I can show up dressed casually in jeans and sneakers and dance the night away to beats by fantastic DJs.

They do great Asian-inspired cocktails like Gangnam Gimlet with sesame soju and Ipoh Express with pandan and coconut date foam, as well as dishes like Sichuan shrimp dumplings and Osaka-style octopus takoyaki. The friendly service is a highlight.

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