Image Credit: GN Archives

Tucked away in a busy bylane of Al Fahidi with budget diners, shawarma counters and hole-in-the-wall groceries all around it, the Astoria is now a shadow of its former self. The hotel – a property of the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the father of modern Dubai, that was rented out to businessman Lakhmichand Lulla to meet the growing demand for hospitality in Dubai in the seventies – has changed a lot over the years, I realise, walking in one afternoon in search of Russel Johnson.

Russel Johnson Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Russel, of the legendary tex-mex restaurant and night club, Pancho Villa’s, is currently operations manager at Astoria. As old (and as famous) as Pancho’s is, he has been its custodian since Astoria opened its doors to its patrons in 1978. While the hotel allowed its guests to experience the heritage of the old town, Pancho’s let Dubai groove to its tunes in the evenings.

The Dubai of the seventies saw people from oil workers and businessmen to regular workers arrive almost every day from across the globe seeking their fortunes here. At the time, there were few places in town to let your hair down. For those who loved the great outdoors, there were barbeques at Chicago Beach, where Madinat Jumeirah now stands.

But for those who loved and wanted to experience the city’s night life, there was only George and Dragon at the Ambassador in Bur Dubai, or the Lodge in Al Nasr Leisure land, and of course, Pancho’s.

The last was Dubai’s premier tex-mex restaurant. Its delicious chicken fajitas, baby back ribs and enchiladas helped it earn its patrons, who were just as excited about the throbbing nightlife they experienced here after sunset.

The young Johnson was handpicked in India to work for the Astoria and came to Dubai in 1977.

‘I’ve been here ever since,’ he admits proudly. Back then Pancho’s was called The Supper Club. It was a fine-dining French restaurant known for its impeccable service.

‘People came here for a sit-down black-tie dinner. It was only around 1984 that we leased out the outlet to an American oiler Jim Larson who wanted to have a place for his buddies to enjoy tex-mex food with some country and western music.

‘He renamed it Pancho Villa’s after the legendary Mexican bandit. Around 99 per cent of the clientele at that time were Americans. For the Brits in town it was The Red Line at the Materopolitan, and both nationalities were very clear of their preferences.’

Entry to Pancho’s was strictly by membership, Johnson reminisces. ‘In Dubai the place was part of your must-do list. You had to visit the Dubai Museum, go for a desert safari and spend the evening at Pancho’s.

‘With the Americans taking over, it changed its character quite dramatically. It was the first tex-mex restaurant in the Gulf and it had an informal joie-de-vivre to it. In fact, it was so popular with the expat crowd that at one point we were doing 130-140 covers for lunch and two-seating dinners – one from 7-9pm and the other from 9-11 pm. People came here for our caldo loco soup, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas.’

Pancho’s, besides being a famous night club, also earned a reputation for being a family-friendly restaurant. ‘We had a kiddies club and children had their own membership cards that helped them earn a discount. There were special programmes for children on Halloween and Christmas and this helped us become popular.’

Image Credit: Supplied

But it was the special themed nights that gave Pancho Villa’s its fame and reputation. ‘We started the famous Tuesday Ladies Nights. We were also the first to bring in the lookalike nights. People dressed up as Michael Jackson and Madonna, and there was so much fun. We did promotions every month – there was the Mardi Gras festival and the Limbo nights. Calypso Nights was on Sundays, Retro Nights on Saturdays and Members Nights on Thursdays. Fridays were reserved for kids.

‘We also got in a hypnotist once to have some fun. It was always a packed house,’ says Russel, who admits to missing the crowd. ‘People showed off their membership cards, you know? They were so proud of it. Where have they all gone? I miss it. It’s not the same anymore. People met here and married; it used to be such clean fun and I have been there to see it all,’ he says.

Russel remembers the days of the First Gulf War when business boomed for the restaurant. ‘Journalists from around the world made Pancho’s their hub to network, relax and socialise. It was a big hub of activity. The international media covered us and we got famous. The place was also frequented by members of the US navy who used it for their rest and recuperation. They got off their carriers and came straight to Pancho’s. We sure did make a lot of money around that time.’

It was around the mid-nineties that Pancho’s changed its character once again. ‘From being predominantly American, we had the British come in, and then it was a mix of other nationalities. Dubai was opening up to more and more people from around the world. Also, it was a time when the beach properties in the city were slowly becoming famous and traffic was an issue. So, people from Jumeirah found it difficult to arrive in Pancho’s. We had to change with the times,’ says Russel.

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At one time, Pancho’s was famous as the only club with an all-live band that included entertainment manager Phil Pendelbury as the lead guitarist Image Credit: Supplied

From being famous as the only club with an all-live band – Pancho’s entertainment manager Phil Pendelbury was also the lead guitarist and singer in those days and Dubai FM92 had its DJs perform here – to having a belly dancer, a Russian band and an Indian DJ these days, for Pancho’s it has been a struggle for survival.

‘You see, back then Dubai was very small. You started out in G&D (George and Dragon) in the Ambassador’s, then you came over to Pancho’s for a meal and a dance and then ended up at The Lodge in Al Nasr Leisureland, the only club that served breakfast at six in the morning.

‘There were only a few places and you made an evening out of it. But now it’s a different Dubai. I miss the crowd, I miss my friends.’

Image Credit: Supplied

In his 42 years at Astoria, and Pancho’s, Russel has hobnobbed with some of the best. ‘I have no regrets. I have spent the most wonderful moments with American rock singer and songwriter Suzie Quatro, British musician Leo Sayer, Greek performer of Forever and Ever fame Demis Roussos, Mohammad Ali, and Indian and Sri Lankan cricketers.

‘Today, everyone is busy. But I have lived a full life and it’s time to hang up my boots and call it a day!’