Imagine sitting at a Parisian Art Nouveau cafe, sipping that perfect cup of coffee and biting into a light, buttery croissant, all the while admiring some beautiful fine art on the wall. Well, travelling to Paris may not be that easy due to COVID-19 restrictions. But, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Dubai, where you can see artworks by famous international artists while enjoying your food or coffee.
Art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination. It is a way of transmitting a feeling. A restaurant that understands this is more than a restaurant, it is a team of artists.
The Food by Gulf News team spoke to contemporary art advisor Julia Pavlovska, and international publicist Chimere Cisse, who is also an art collector, to get a lowdown on some of the best spots in Dubai, where food and art marry.
The duo, who co-founded Art|Kōrero, an art advisory, in 2020, feels that many restaurants in the UAE take art displays very seriously. According to Pavlovska: "Many venues in the UAE are either opening with a fantastic art collection from their debut, or reimagining their offering and introducing art as part of a new experience."
Many venues in the UAE are either opening with a fantastic art collection from their debut, or reimagining their offering and introducing art as part of a new experience.
Food and art, an age-old relation
"Food and art are synonymous in so many ways. Food is both essential but also a great pleasure in life, and art is the same. The culinary and art worlds have held a special partnership, very well understood and celebrated in France. Now we see this trend becoming more popular and understood in other parts of the world," Pavlovska added.
Food and art have held a long relationship. Keeping this in mind we work with restaurant and café spaces to bring artists wider visibility of their work.
Highlighting the relation between food and art, Chimere Cisse said: "We need only look back to the Romans to see many outdoor frescos were painted, whilst banquets of food were enjoyed. Then to the Medieval period, where many artworks show live art used as entertainment as courtiers ate food and danced. When we think of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, their still life paintings of food featuring apples and milk come immediately to mind."
"Even contemporary artists often explore themes of food or use food as a medium. Andy Warhol is well known for his depictions of canned soup and American fast-food brands, comment on our consumer culture. Through to living artists such as Kara Walker, who created a giant Sphinx-like-woman sculpture out of sugar-coated styrofoam recently, igniting discussion around imperialism and slavery in the sugar trade. Food and art have held a long relationship. Keeping this in mind we works with restaurant and café spaces to bring artists wider visibility of their work." Cisse added.
Here are five must-visit places for any art and food lover in Dubai:
1. The Grey
In our hunt for spots to enjoy art and food, the first spot Chimere Cisse took us to was a café on Al Wasl-Safa street. This hidden gem is easy to miss. [Tip, look for a small white building with a large UAE flag, hidden behind a parking lot, right after the Ferdous complex on Safa road.]
Conceptualised in 2020 by Sheikha Al Mheiri, an Emirati entrepreneur, The Grey might look deceptively small from the outside. But, as you enter, you are welcomed to a minimalist yet luxurious-looking bistro, buzzing mainly with Emirati customers.
A pop of yellow cushions brightens the otherwise grey interiors where people sit about with their warm coffee mug while baristas are busy at work behind the long coffee bar at the center of the café.
The Grey opened to the public in early February 2021. For Sheikha Al Mheiri, art was important from the very beginning. Sheikha, who was born and raised in Dubai, said: "After traveling abroad to the UK for my higher education, I caught the travelling bug and developed a passion for exploration. The one thing that intrigued and fascinated me was the fashion of dining."
Sheikha realised that, very often, conversations and meaningful encounters were made around a table of food. As a young and spirited woman, she sat and observed the customs, practices, dishes, and dining around the world and decided to implant those ideals within her restaurants along with her Emirati heritage. She said: "Amongst the components that enrich a restaurant, art is the one aspect that evokes conversation and curiosity. In homage to the villa where The Grey resides, I decided I wanted the aesthetic to display the timelessness and dominance of the space as it is over 40 years old and a nostalgic nook for many Dubai-ans. The best way to portray this was through a minimalistic approach, as minimalism has often proved to showcase a purified form of beauty."
"The champion piece in the venue, Dune by Vera Dieckmann. The limited, one-of-three wall artwork is the one piece that centralizes the space and directs guests to the heart of the locale. The interiors of The Grey exhibit greys cascading into blacks, mimicking the depths of our universe. Dune is the one stellar art piece that creates an equilibrium to the venue, much like the sun. This custom-made piece was also designed to reflect the luxury and land of the UAE, with its wavy textures that mirror the dunes in our desserts and the gleaming gold that can be seen all over our abundant city," Sheikha added.
Where there is engaging artwork displayed, there is a conversation, curiosity, and instagrammable moments, according to Sheikha. "I have encountered many instances where customers have inquired about the unique styling of the venue. A scenario that remains etched in my mind is a conversation between a group of modern Emirati women during lunchtime at The Grey. They were discussing with each other what they thought the value of Dune might be. I walked over and introduced myself and revealed my identity and explained that Dune was custom made for The Grey."
But, it's not just the art that keeps people coming back for more. Google reviews and Instagram posts say people love the breakfast served at The Grey.
2. Maisan 15, Al Barsha
According to Chimere Cisse, the next restaurant creating waves on the art scene in Dubai is Maisan 15. "It's showing local artists pushing boundaries, selected by differing curators," she said.
A hidden gem nestled in Al Barsha's Maisan Residence, Maisan 15 will keep you returning not just to enjoy the art and the underrated charm of the restaurant but also the food. From their delicious homemade bread to the wagyu cheeseburger with rosemary potatoes, visitors rave about what the restaurant has to offer.
Founded by Emirati artist Rami Farook in 2018, this independent café is unlike any other in Dubai. Farook told Food by Gulf News: "I’m currently showing paintings I created over the last year. The exhibitions are usually developed by debit curators presenting emerging artists from the Emirates. For Maisan 15, I prefer organic materials, methods, and colours that assist in nutrition and digestion where possible."
He added: "Art adds another element to the experience, an emotion, curiosity... I believe it also helps in taking us to different places as our exhibitions change. To me, the works are alternative windows. Also, art is mostly viewed by going to it (museums, galleries), so here we’re doing the public a service by bringing it to them."
The 40-year-old artist and producer recalled: "There was an artwork that was vandalised, because the patron saw it against his political leanings, even though it was of a historical documentary nature."
3. La Cantine Du Faubourg
International artist Taher Jaoui is ecstatic. For the first time in his art career spanning 15 years, the 43-year-old artist will have murals of his artwork displayed at a restaurant. Jaoui, who has Tunisian roots, has lived in France, Germany, and now in Spain, is currently in Dubai to complete his mural at La Cantine Du Faubourg, a French restaurant at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel near the World Trade Center. The restaurant is currently undergoing renovation but will soon reopen with Jaoui's work on two walls.
According to Sylvain P. Gilliard, director of Opera Gallery: "We found Jaoui's work well suited for this elegant project. This restaurant is a place where people will not expect Jaoui's style of art. That will make it a conversation starter."
Speaking to Food by Gulf News, Jaoui said: "My artwork here is abstract and figurative. I did not work on a specific theme. Like my other artwork, it was very organic. I take inspiration from the space I am working in and the style of the restaurant. I see La Cantine Du Faubourg as a vivid place where people meet for work and business, to innovate and build projects. They share energy and inspiration."
Jaoui's mural reflects his usual style - contemporary and graffiti-style art with a burst of colours and movement. Jaoui added: "Art is a communication tool, and displaying art at restaurants and easily accessible public places, makes it more democratic. It helps bring art to people, and connect with them."
4. The Rove café, Foundry Downtown
It's a café, a contemporary art gallery, and a workspace for artists, all in one. Foundry is hard to miss when walking down Downtown Dubai. You can see the beautiful art displays through the huge glass windows as you walk by, and the aroma of coffee from the café is inviting.
An Emaar spokesperson told Food by Gulf News: "A coffee shop is a perfect venue to sit and discuss projects, new ideas, and visions. The Rove café at Foundry is the perfect location to get inspiration while devouring a delicious cup of coffee."
The café that officially opened along with the gallery in December 2020 quickly became a popular neighbourhood coffee spot and co-working space for the residents of Downtown Dubai.
"Art galleries are very welcoming spaces for those who seek inspiration and a break from ‘everyday life.’ Indeed, having a coffee shop at the art gallery diversifies the offering and also attracts more people to the space. Customers come to Foundry for the art and tend to stay longer at the café to catch up with friends and discuss the various exhibitions. It serves as a welcoming space for all- friendly familiar faces and the curious, new guest," the spokesperson added.
Julia Pavlovska said: "The Foundry Downtown, is currently showing the work of Kico Camacho, a wonderful emerging, mid-career artist. Bright, colourful, and impactful. This is certainly a style we see beloved of venues in Dubai. For a city built on innovation, speed, and creativity, it makes sense. It's commercial in style, but it’s also fun and engaging. We also see venues taking more risks in their art display."
Kico Camacho, a 72-year-old artist based in Madrid, told Food by Gulf News: "As an artist, I believe that art should be displayed everywhere. It should be part of our daily lives. I think that a place of leisure such as a restaurant or an art café is a wonderful place to display artworks as the viewers are in a relaxed state of mind, enjoying life and thus receptive to the beauty surrounding them."
Camacho added: "The UAE has become the art centre of the Arab world. There are amazing museums such as the Louvre, the Sharjah Art, the Maraja Art Centre, the Dubai International Art Centre, to name a few have brought contemporary art to this part of the world, and its acceptance is magnificent and Art Dubai’s success is a reflection of this. The construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by Frank Gehry is a very exciting addition to the vibrant cultural scene of the Emirates. I can only say that I am thrilled to have my exhibition at The Foundry and of its success."
5. MINA Brasserie, DIFC
The next on the list is MINA Brasserie. Here, art is not just on the walls, it’s in the beverage you order too. The restaurant has a superb art-themed beverage menu. Get ready for some Dali or Monet. The star attraction is Banksy's famous artwork, Girl with Balloon, in your mocktail. It comes with a side of drama (scroll down for video).
Ibrahim Khalaf, the General Manager at MINA Brasserie, at Four Seasons Hotel, DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre), recalled how the idea came about during a team meeting. He said: "It may sound clichéd, but we are a family at Mina Brasserie. At our team meetings, along with discussing the day's proceedings, we encourage sharing and brainstorming. The art-inspired beverage list came about in a casual discussion in January 2020 about how we can emanate the DIFC lifestyle in an exciting menu item. It certainly helped that our restaurant is studded with artwork and that every one of us passes by some of the region’s best galleries daily on our stroll into work. We thought, how can we create something that is as appreciated as a Dali or Monet masterpiece..., and that was it! Our talented mixologists had gleaming eyes, and the team suggested their favourite works of art. A month later, we had a full beverage menu that served as a homage to the world's best artists."
Khalaf added: "Mina Brasserie and Four Seasons Hotel, DIFC, partner with some of our neighbouring galleries to present art pieces in the restaurant and installations at the hotel. Wherever you are seated in the restaurant, you have a piece sourced from a DIFC gallery that greets your gaze. We are very particular about aesthetics and every element of our guest experience fitting into one canvas. Art is in our ethos, so every detail, from the team's uniform to the table set-up and the presentation of every dish is treated like a brushstroke that forms an overall painting."
With 14 years of experience in hospitality, Khalaf added: "Art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination. It is a way of transmitting a feeling. A restaurant that understands this is more than a restaurant, it is a team of artists. This is what we aspire to be, always. Artworks that are displayed influence how our guests feel. And, it certainly helps us when it comes to social media, which is the vehicle for the digital age's word-of-mouth. Most of our guests snap their favourite art piece on our walls and share it. Our art beverages also tend to draw phones and cameras out!"
"I like to think that with each piece of art you encounter, you are richer. People go to art galleries to spur deep thought, creativity, and ultimately emotion. A restaurant can serve a very similar purpose in a more social setting," Khalaf said.
Art, an important investment for restaurants
Why should a restauranteur include art in their decor? Julia Pavlovska explained: "Art can create a specific mood and hospitality can benefit from this greatly. When you are surrounded by art, it can uplift and have a positive effect, both on the clientele and also the staff. Promoting wellbeing and inspiration. That’s a huge ROI (Return on Investment)!
Chimere Cisse added: "For any restaurant that wants to truly participate in the global creative discussion, it must be part of their consideration. Both from an interior design perspective, a conversation starter and potentially as a store of value. A work that has been seen, discussed and loved increases in price, a great financial investment, yes, but additionally many restaurants can become famous for selecting works of art with impact."
She added: "I always remember the giant gold statue at Buddha bar in Paris. I can’t remember what I ate there, but I’ll never forget the size and scale of that incredible work. Likewise the Tramshed restaurant in London that whilst under the HIX group featured one of Damien Hirst’s giant cow in formaldehyde works, or the wonderful Miro sculpture suspended at La Colombe D’Or in Nice. These works of art make their dining experiences as memorable as their food."
Other places to explore, where food meets art:
The newly open restaurant in Dubai silicon Oasis offers Levantine cusine, colourful interiors and art. According to Niveen Ibrahim, COO at MBT Development and executive director at MBT Restaurant Management: “Grand Beirut was born out of the vision of bringing art and food together. The interiors combine raw concrete surfaces with bold and colourful art pieces that boast rustic details and unique Lebanese surprise. The artwork selection features murals of iconic musicians in an artistic treatment that pays tribute to their legacy. Every corner in Grand Beirut speaks for Beirut’s art and culture.”
Arabian Tea House Café:
Set in the historic Al Fahidi district in Bur Dubai, the Arabian Tea House Café is a large courtyard with plenty of seating for locals and tourists. The cafe serves more than 100 different teas, and salads, sandwiches, and traditional Emirati cuisine.
Sketch Art cafe, Jumeirah
Unleash your inner artist and try some drawing, painting, sculpting, and mosaics at this café-art studio. Get creative with your coffee cups and it could go on display.
All under one roof you’ll find an art gallery, an antique gallery, interior design services, a café, a library and a schedule of various art workshops and events.
Housed inside the XVA Gallery in Dubai's Al Fahidi district, which has rotating exhibitions, this café offers a range of home-made Middle Eastern inspired vegetarian options, all served in a cool traditional courtyard. And, it's pet-friendly!