The ME Dubai: Novelty is key to footfall, and new flavours and colours are pretty much everywhere Image Credit: Supplied

From innovative menus to brunches at all hours on all days, restaurants in the UAE have shown time and again that they can rise to changing market dynamics. The coronavirus pandemic has proved no different. Around the world, food and beverage has been a hard-hit sector, but as the economy opens up and we move on from meal-deliveries-with-the-works, the country’s restaurants are finding new ways to entice diners back to their tables.

Health comes first

In the wake of a killer disease, health and wellness has emerged as significant trend. With authorities resolutely shutting down venues that violate Covid-19 protocols, several operators are ramping up safety and wellness aspects. Social distancing and privacy came to d3 recently when Amsterdam-based art-restaurant Mediamatic debuted its famous glass greenhouses in a local pop-up. Brunch and Cake has since embraced the concept, presenting its Instagrammable plates in glass outdoor dining domes.

Others literally put health on the menu. “A healthier 2021 is what we’re all hoping for, and we want to give our guests the options they’re seeking,” says Danelle Ruth Palang, director of marketing and communications at the Dusit Thani Dubai. Its newly relaunched Thai fine-dining restaurant, Benjarong, displays that wellness focus on the first page of its menu. Think Thai-style brown rice and quinoa salad, or steamed tofu, broccoli and prawns on a bed of peanut and soy sauce. Others, such as The 100 Café and Society Café, are literally themed around wellbeing.

The healthy Yum Khao Klong Lae quinoa salad at Benjarong Image Credit: Supplied

Growing vegan appetite

Plant-forward fare has blossomed across the UAE, with vegan and vegetable entrées fast becoming standard items on menus everywhere. Well-known for its gluten-free and vegetarian alternatives Ronda Locatelli’s menu has more than 40 vegan dishes, and others such as Coya Dubai and Zoco have followed suit. But you know a trend has reached a tipping point when casual dining and fast-food outlets dish it up. Ticking the vegan box now are Subway (meat-free subs), Ikea (vegan meatballs) and Mantoushe (yes, vegan shawarma!).

This being Dubai, ice-cream can now be certified vegan, too. The Brooklyn Creamery recently launched a range of new cruelty- and dairy-free ice creams. Flavours include the fruit-heavy acai berry pulp and salted peanut butter, just the thought of which has caused us to have a snack attack. Vasco Valenca de Sousa, food engineer, ice cream expert and chief innovation officer at The Brooklyn Creamery says the trend circles back to health: “As any plant-based person will tell you, being vegan doesn’t mean you have to lose out on flavour. The new varieties not only deliver deeply satisfying flavours, but are also healthier than other desserts.”

Local but new

Novelty is key to footfall, and new flavours, colours and textures are pretty much everywhere. Jumeirah Lakes Towers favourite Café Isan has dug into Thai culinary history to launch pink noodles. Homegrown brand Beetza, at Abu Dhabi’s Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel, has tapped into a micro-trend for Mediterranean fare with its Neapolitan-style za’atar pizzas – which Aztaj Eddoukani, F&B and culinary director, says puts an up-to-date spin on comfort food.

There’s a strong emphasis on homegrown concepts because the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of supporting local enterprises, says industry insider Samantha Wood of the restaurant consultancy Foodiva. “Good independently operated restaurants are the current and future stars of the dining world. UAE residents want to support homegrown concepts rather than imported chains, franchises and hotel-based establishments,” she says.

The recessionista returns

Finally – and again perhaps predictably, price-conscious UAE residents are looking for value. As Beetza’s Eddoukani says, “We opened the outlet a few months ago and have ensured our pricing is competitive despite the premium ingredients being used, as this is the need of the hour.” Not only are brunches with house beverages around the Dh300 mark easy to find, but the Delta Hotels by Marriott, JBR, has been offering staycations for Dh399 – inclusive of room service. “Due to an impact in disposable income, customers are being more selective on where they spend their more limited funds,” Wood says. “At the same time, we are seeing more compact menus which help restaurants manage food costs and limit wastage.” Indeed, entire new concepts – such as the licensed food hall Depachika on The Palm – are built around a value-for-money model. A dinner out that doesn’t cost Dh1,000+? Bring it on!