It's back! Last year, the news that the Hard Rock Cafe was to open at Dubai Festival City divided the city along the lines of those who remembered the first one, on Shaikh Zayed Road, and the rest. As a litmus test of a person's longevity in the city, the old building's enduring presence is second-to-none — after all, some remember it as being the last building on the road before one reached Abu Dhabi.
I arrived just after the closure of the guitar-fronted spot, and to add insult to injury, I've never been to a Hard Rock Cafe in my life — I guess I always ranked it somewhere between Planet Hollywood and Chilis. But when the excitement over the new spot — which opened with a big spot on the front of DFC — reaching fever pitch, I knew it had to be worth a try. And who am I to turn down a burger and live music?
Having never been to a Hard Rock, I brought along a veteran of the restaurants from around the world for background. First observation: this place is big. Like '80s rock band hair big. Around the stage at the front are dozens of tables, each capable of taking a big party — and in fact, there were some in full swing when we arrived, early on a Saturday evening. The room then moves up in a terrace style, giving tables and booths a view of the band above each other's heads; it ends with a bar. Of course, dotted around the room is rock ‘n' roll memorabilia, from one of Elvis' white jumpsuits to Shakira's jeans via countless star-strummed guitars.
My dining partner remembers HRC as a pretty grown-up venue, so we were surprised to find ourselves seated next to so many families with small children. Then again, it's a restaurant attached to a mall on a weekend early evening, so we shouldn't have been too shocked; in fact we are quite thankful that there is now a place where we can shop in the day and go for much-needed refreshment afterwards. A week later, the dining clientele changed slightly — Boy George and his band Culture Club had a bite to eat there before their Tennis Stadium gig.
Nachos and burgers
On to the food. It's big, American, Memphis-inflected bbq, burgers and more. We started with a plate of nachos (Dh46) — a classic, well done, with hot crispy corn tortillas, cheese, salsa and beans. Just the thing to take the edge off a Marks and Spencer-induced hunger. The chicken and pineapple quesadilla (Dh47) wasn't as great, a bit over-cheesed and not massively flavourful, which left me wishing I'd gone for the hickory-smoked chicken wings instead. I'll be back for them.
Mains send us solidly into burger territory. Although our server did get one of our burger orders wrong — we were brought a very healthy looking California burger with cucumber, guacamole and ranch dressing instead of the requested S.O.S. burger, it was very quickly rectified. S.O.S (Dh57) is the spicy one, topped with smoky chipotle chilli sauce, cheese, guacamole and onions. It's thick, cooked medium as requested and the bun was good quality — no falling-apart sponginess.
I chose to sample the pulled lamb sandwich (Dh46), a twist on the Southern BBQ dish to suit local sensitivities. The meat is slow cooked until it's tender enough to be shredded by hand, then it's piled onto a bun with a vinegary sauce (that's Memphis style and my favourite; you can get a thicker, sweeter BBQ sauce on request) and topped with coleslaw. The lamb flavour is subtle but it's moist enough that you won't miss the original.
I have to confess that we didn't have space for the desserts, and having spotted a lady behind me eating an ice-cream sundae that was bigger than her head, I was a little intimidated. I have plans to return to try the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie Bite, but we ended the night as Hard Rock Cafe would want us to — we gave up our table (by this time the place was heaving) and headed to sit up at the bar, from where we had a perfect view of the house band, Shine, performing covers, and the wait staff's occasional synchronised routines to songs such as YMCA.
A sweet enough ending for us
Where: Hard Rock Cafe, Dubai Festival City
Open: noon-1am (Sat-Wed), until 2am on weekends Call 04-2328900
Ambience: Loud, funny, friendly — their motto is "love all, serve all".
Decor: Cavernous room aping a music venue, with 350 covers and all that rock memorabilia.
Must-haves: Nachos, pulled lamb sandwich and burgers.