Dubai used to be a place where the best restaurants had been imported from other parts of the world, a city without a culinary soul. Now, its homegrown brands are the ones flooding other metropolises.
Some of the emirate’s hottest restaurants, from fast casual to fine dining, are opening across the globe as the region’s hospitality businesses mature and expand.
Dubai-based Fundamental Hospitality will spend $140 million through 2024 opening 18 restaurants and clubs—concepts such as Gaia, NYX and Shanghai Me—including a dozen in international locations like London, Miami and Marbella, Spain. Kinoya, a beloved ramen restaurant that grew out of a supper club, will debut in London on Saturday in Harrods department store. And the group behind Trèsind Studio, an Indian restaurant that won its second Michelin star this year, plans to open several spots in India by the end of the year.
The expansion is fueled by Dubai’s burgeoning reputation as a global dining destination, its evolution into a less-transient society and a strong local economy that has kept restaurants busy. Over the past few years, UAE tourism agencies have invested in the country’s restaurant scene, sponsoring awards such as Michelin and TV shows such as Jason Atherton’s Dubai Dishes, which has aired on the UK’s ITV network.
Kinoya started as a supper club in chef Neha Mishra’s house. After feeding about 6,000 visitors, she opened a restaurant that was named the “One to Watch” in 2022 by the inaugural Middle East North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants list—which was funded by Abu Dhabi. The next year, the restaurant landed at No. 7 on the list.
Mishra says she believes the award is what caught Harrods’s attention. “They were here during 50 Best,” she says. “I think we were on their radar.”
For a long time, landlords in Dubai took on only restaurant tenants that had famous international names and wouldn’t entertain the idea of a homegrown concept, says Antonio Gonzalez, chairman and chief executive officer of Dubai-based Sunset Hospitality Group. The company, founded in 2011, has grown to operate nearly 50 venues in more than a dozen countries—with an additional 28 opening soon.
“Now, we have the opposite: Instead of us calling to bring in brands, we have people calling us to take our brands outside,” Gonzalez says.
A further major change: Dubai is no longer seen as a temporary city where expats would drop in for three years, make some tax-free money and leave.
A growing cohort of residents has stayed for more than a decade. The UAE made staying longer more attractive by offering so-called golden and green visas to investors or people with specific skills and talents, from doctors, scientists and singers to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and designer Giorgio Armani. In addition, the UAE has begun allowing 100% foreign ownership of companies, instead of requiring that a local Emirati partner own 51%. It’s become, Gonzalez says, a place where people can “invest with confidence.”
“Removing this temporary perception of Dubai changed the dynamics more than any big event—more than any expo, more than any World Cup,” he says.
An early, high-profile recipient of a UAE golden visa was Izu Ani, a charismatic Nigerian-British chef who develops culinary concepts for Fundamental Hospitality. Back in 2011, when Fundamental’s Evgeny Kuzin co-founded a restaurant group in Dubai, his focus was branches of internationally known spots like Cipriani. Then, in 2018, he and Ani opened Gaia, an upscale Greek concept that has become one of the city’s most popular spots, landing at No. 17 on this year’s regional 50 Best restaurants list.
Dubai has also become an anchoring stop for a certain level of jet-setter that winters in the Middle East and summers in Europe, with a stopover in the UK. Joey Ghazal, a Lebanese-Canadian restaurateur, expanded his Dubai-born Maine restaurant group to London’s Mayfair neighborhood in 2021 and to Spain’s Ibiza this year.
“The amount of people that I’m seeing—clients that I know from Dubai and London that are just in Ibiza—it’s crazy,” he says.
Ghazal opened his first Maine in Dubai in 2015. The location, in the JBR neighborhood, was never ideal: Guests enter through a desolate parking garage in an area devoid of street life. The neighborhood’s traffic jams are so bad, many locals avoid it at all costs. Nevertheless, the spot built a loyal following for its upscale but relaxed vibe and seafood-centric menu, and it soon became a pioneering homegrown destination. Two additional Maine restaurants followed in Dubai. By 2018, Ghazal was looking at London locations.
“When you’re a Dubai brand coming into London, definitely, you’re met with a lot of questions,” Ghazal says. “There’s some hesitation.” The questions, he says, include: How are you funded? Will it be obvious that this is a Dubai brand? After a laborious search and some Covid-related stops and starts, he eventually found a space in a Georgian building off of Hanover Square in Mayfair, which he turned into a three-floor restaurant, jazz lounge, bar and nightclub.
The next step in expansion was easier. In March, Ghazal learned that a space had become available in Ibiza, an island he’s been visiting for 20 years; the next day, he boarded a plane. Eight weeks later, Maine Ibiza opened with the help of 12 people from Maine’s Dubai and London restaurants.
“We have almost 400 people in the company now, so I was like, ‘OK, who’s got an EU passport? You’re coming with me,’” he says.
Several of these businesses are now considering initial public offerings as they grow: Fundamental’s Kuzin says the timeline for an IPO decision is about two to three years away. Sunset Hospitality will consider an IPO in three to five years, Gonzalez said.
In the meantime, Sunset received $35 million in funding from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last year, with an eye toward acquiring another company that’s in the final stages. Several say they’ve received offers to sell. Another Dubai firm, Rikas Hospitality Group, has plans to open restaurants in such countries as Morocco and has had several proposals to sell a company stake, but founder Rizwan Kassim says he wants to find a partner that would bring more than money to the table.
One challenge of expansion, restaurateurs say, is raking in as much money in other cities as they can make in Dubai, where expenses such as salaries and electricity are lower, and the average diner spends more money. “It’s very difficult coming from an exciting market like Dubai, where the profitability is very high,” Rikas’s Kassim says.
Indeed, when Dubai restaurant operators move into foreign markets, they experience the staffing and recruitment problems that have plagued the industry in such places as the UK and EU. “In the UK, it’s slightly difficult now because of Brexit,” Kuzin says. “A lot of European—non-British—they moved out. And it’s kind of difficult to get visas for people.”
That’s no longer the case in Dubai. Almost as soon as Fundamental sends an offer letter, the new hire gets on a plane. “It’s become very easy for us to attract talent from all around the world,” Kuzin says. “Everybody wants to move here and work here. Before, that was not the case. It was, like, you needed to convince people: ‘Come and try, see Dubai.’”
Mishra says it’s been wild to find herself on the world stage, and it’s taken effort to get over imposter syndrome. “Growing up in Dubai, we always looked at the brands from outside and put them on a pedestal,” Mishra says. “We have shortchanged ourselves a lot here by thinking, ‘Well, we could never be good enough to go there.’”
Initially, Mishra was surprised that, out of all the ramen joints in the world, Harrods chose hers. The Harrods team told her that she was better than the other options. “At some point, I had to just stop questioning it,” she said.