Al Ibrahimi
The interiors of Al Ibrahimi Restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The restaurant is located in the Saeed Al Kalili building on Zayed the First Street and is so famous that most people would not be able to tell you the building’s official name. Instead, they would simply refer to the spiral building with interlocking balconies as the “Al Ibrahimi building”.

Al Ibrahimi, the multi-cuisine restaurant that specialises in authentic Pakistani fare, was last month recognised as an ‘Urban Treasure’ of Abu Dhabi by the emirate’s culture sector regulator, the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi). Having opened in 1983, it is one Abu Dhabi eatery that nearly every resident in the city will have sampled.

Its journey began when an enterprising Pakistani expatriate, Khan Zaman Sarwar, arrived in the UAE in 1969 as a sprightly young teenager. Sarwar initially worked as a heavy equipment operator, then served a variety of other stints in royal palaces, oil and gas firms, dredging companies and engineering firms.

Sarwar with UAE's founding father, late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Image Credit: Supplied

First venture

Then, an agreement with a friend presented a break for Sarwar. The two of them set up Sarhad Restaurant in 1981, a small Pakistani eatery on Falah Street.

“There were a few Pakistani restaurants around at the time, but there was definitely demand for another one. My friend left before we could open the restaurant, but I went ahead with it. And Sarhad proved to be hugely popular among the South Asian expats in Abu Dhabi,” Sarwar, now aged 70 and the managing director of the establishment, told Gulf News. Sarhad is the Urdu word for ‘frontier’, and the restaurant was named after the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, which is often referred to as the ‘frontier province’.

Al Ibrahimi opens

Even as Sarhad continued to remain popular, Sarwar chanced upon another Pakistani restaurant in Abu Dhabi — Al Ibrahimi Restaurant. It was based out of Saeed Al Kalili Building. It was opened in 1980, but was struggling. In 1983, Sarwar bought out the facility and added his personal touches to it.

“I took it over, then added new staff members and brought in new chefs. And to the Pakistani menu, we added items from Indian cuisine, Arabian fare and Chinese dishes. Apart from the biryani and our grilled items, the ‘mandi’ and the ‘hareesa’ became crowd favourites,” Sarwar said.

Khan Zaman Sarwar with the other members, the day he was elected to the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce Board in 2014. Image Credit: Supplied

Initially, the facility could only seat about 80 people. Sarwar took over additional floors and created room for about 400 people and introduced the buffet concept with its famous kababs. “I found it heartening that the restaurant was seeing patrons not just from countries that were familiar with Pakistani cuisine, but also numerous Arab diners as well,” Sarwar said.

Growing popularity

The restaurant continued to grow in appeal and Sarwar opened four other branches in the capital, as well as three outlets in Dubai and Sharjah. In addition, the restaurant opened a special outlet and a banquet hall in Islamabad’s Bahria Enclave.

Outlets across the UAE, including the original Abu Dhabi restaurant, continue to serve a variety of cuisines today, but its Pakistani grills and biryanis are still the best loved. The daily buffets, meanwhile, feature 70 different dishes. Ramadan is an especially busy period and Sarwar said diners have even been seated at time in the office areas! There have also been many loyal diners and staff members over the years, with one former staff member recently having taken over the Sarhad Restaurant.

Continuous efforts

Sarwar shows no signs of slowing down, despite having undergone a bypass surgery a few years ago. His younger brother, Wisal Ahmad, who earlier worked as an accountant in the UAE, finally took over as Al Ibrahimi Group’s chief executive officer in 2019, while Sarwar’s three sons manage a number of the family outlets. However, the founder can still be seen chatting up restaurant patrons on many a busy afternoon.

Wisal Ahmad

“My brother’s forte has always been service. Even when he had first launched the restaurant, he would sit down with his patrons to share a meal, or walk past the tables to see what more could be done to improve our restaurant,” Ahmad said.

Cherished memories

For his part, Sarwar said he was overwhelmed by and grateful for the love he has found.

“The UAE is one of my two homes and I owe this land and its leaders for the many successes that have been granted to me. In fact, one of my most cherished moments is when I visited Baba Zayed in the late 1990s,” he said, recollecting his meeting with the UAE’s founding father, late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

“Baba Zayed had just returned from abroad and he met the Pakistani community formally at the Sea Palace. What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting became a three-hour chat and Baba Zayed stressed that we should get in touch if we ever needed anything. We felt so fortunate to be in his presence and assured him that we were well taken care of through his leadership,” Sarwar said.

The original outlet of Al Ibrahimi Restaurant in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

He added that late Sheikh Zayed’s generosity has inspired many a soul and that he is one of the fortunate ones. “The UAE is truly a land of humanity and fraternity and it has helped me do my bit for the needy population in Pakistan. We’ve been able to set up a charity hospital and are also setting up multiple vocational education centres in Pakistan in honour of Baba Zayed,” Sarwar said.

'Urban Treasure' award

Receiving the Urban Treasure award for Al Ibrahimi is another feather in the cap for this expatriate family — another gift from the UAE, as Sarwar calls it. “It is a lovely recognition from the land that has nourished and educated us and I hope to use it to spread the blessings,” Sarwar said. “We are privileged to be among the most-loved restaurants in Abu Dhabi and the recent recognition by DCT Abu Dhabi only spurs us on to continue serving the community,” Ahmad added.