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Where to take visitors to eat in Dubai – on a budget

March 31, 2013

Eat on a budget Dubai on mycustardpie.comDubai means five-star (and seven star) hotels, lavish limos, outrageous gold cocktails and luxury dining doesn’t it? Yes…and no. This city is home to all nationalities and budgets with a wealth of eateries to match. Since we arrived in Dubai in 2000 we’ve had a steady stream of visitors, many returning again and again. Their favourite places to go are not the sparkly, glitzy ones (although they like those too) but the street cafés, holes in the walls and other unique eating haunts. So when you’ve maxed out your credit card at the Skyview bar, in Dubai Mall or at Dubai World Cup, here are the top three favourite budget places to eat as road-tested by my friends and family. Highly recommended whether you’re a tourist or resident – just don’t expect linen napkins. And I better mention that they are all un-licensed (i.e. no alcohol) – and all the pics were taken on various nights out (and cameras, iphones etc).

Ravi restaurant (Ravi’s)

Ravi restaurant Dubai

Sit on plastic chairs by the side of one of the busiest streets in Dubai, with the sound of honking horns as a background, eat Pakistani curries in front of the neon sign which is emblazoned Ravi Restaurant in brightest green.  It’s a legend in Dubai and I have it on good authority that it hasn’t changed in twenty years (apart from tin plates being replaced by plastic). While still frequented by taxi drivers (you’ll see them dining inside), get there early to find your table on the pavement.

What to order: The menu is extensive (brain curry anyone?) and confusing for the uninitiated but don’t expect any help from the staff. I recommend chicken tikka (on the bone and fresh from the grill), aloo paratha (bread stuffed with potato and chilli and fried in ghee), dhal, any vegetable dish, chicken ginger and chicken achari. Meat tends to be on the bone so ask for it without if that’s what you want (although less tasty).  We’ve never tried anything from the Chinese menu (and why would you?). Freshly baked flat bread (go to the alley at the side of the restaurant to see it being made), salad and water are brought automatically.

What to do: Go and visit the kitchens (see below). Spoof for who pays the bill.

Where to find it: Satwa Dubai. Follow the main road through Satwa heading in the Al Diyafa (2nd of December street) direction. Ravi’s is the last restaurant on the right hand side before the road curves round to the left. If you go straight on, there is a small car park to the left. Ignore the earlier Ravi restaurant on the left hand side. Tel: 04 331 5353

Bu Qtair

Note: Bu Qtair has moved – the pictures are of the old location.

Once a little known portacabin serving tea and meals to surrounding labourers this has morphed into one of the most popular places to grab an earthy eating experience. Set in a building inside a car park in the Fishermen’s Accommodation area between two dhow (traditional wooden sailing boat) building yards and behind a small port, on a patch of sand, the fish is caught locally and delivered fresh every morning.

How to order: Go into the hut restaurant as soon as you arrive and wait to be served at the hatch. Choose from the fish and prawns behind the counter – they’ll show you what they have piled up in containers. Ask what they have on offer and tell them how many people will be eating. There is a rumour that there are two prices and it goes up if you look affluent so question it if it sounds too much (maximum 120 AED for three people). Don’t pay now, leave your name and go outside and sit on the small stools at the side. Don’t worry, they’ll find you a table before your food arrives however haphazard the system looks.

What to order: Hammour is very over-fished so avoid if you have a conscience; Perch and Sheri are good, as are the prawns. All fish is coated in a spicy paste and shallow fried. At the table ask for roti (bread), rice, and curry sauce. A small salad of onion and cabbage is served. Water and soda drinks are available.

What to do: Take a metal knife with you to cut the fish, otherwise just tear off pieces with your fingers (there is a small sink inside the portacabin or take wet wipes). Go early in the evening to avoid the queues (or wrap up warm on a rare chilly night).

Where to find it: Heading out of Dubai on Jumeirah Beach Road, take a right hand turn immediately after The Chalet ( before Al Thanya street junction and Umm Suqeim Park). Turn right at the end of the road so you are driving parallel to the sea. It’s set back after the first dhow building yard inside the Fishermen’s Accommodation car park next to the fishing harbour. Also read a review from Pear Tree Diaries.

Breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

This is about the whole experience rather than the food alone – although it’s a jolly good breakfast. The strapline for the Centre is ‘open hearts, open minds’ and it’s an experience that every visitor I have been with has talked about for ages after. They also do walking tours, lunches and brunches. In the heart of Bastakia, you can wander round the art galleries or down along the creek afterwards.

Cultura; breakfastWhat to do: Go with an open mind, some questions about Emirati and Arab culture (you can ask anything you wish) and expect to be there for a couple of hours. Wear comfortable clothes, you’ll be sitting on the floor cushions. Make sure you book ahead.

What to eat: You’ll help yourself from a spread of chickpeas, balaleet (a slightly sweet dish of egg and pasta), spiced bread, lgeimat (Arabic doughnuts), cream cheese made from camel milk and date syrup. Tea, Arabic coffee and water is served. However this isn’t just about the eating – you’ll gain an understanding of a very different side of Dubai, Emirati life and Arab culture.

Where to find it: The SMCCU is in House 26 on Al Musallah Road in Bastakiya, Bur Dubai, between the Al Fahidi round-about and Dubai creek (further directions here). Parking is very limited so take a taxi; or take the metro to Al Fahidi station and walk towards the creek (Al Musallah Road has plenty of interesting shops along the way). For booking and more information about the breakfast, lunches and tours visit the website. A cost of 60 AED per person at time of writing.

P.S. Another ‘not to miss experience’ is a Frying Pan Food Tour. Spend 3 to 4 hours exploring little known, cheap eateries and learning about different cultures through food led by ‘Queen of the Street-eats’ Arva Ahmed. Tourists will never find these places unaided and I guarantee even long-term residents will not dream of the culinary treasures that exist down dark alleyways. Book your food tour here.

Have you visited to Dubai (or do you live here)? Where is your favourite budget eatery? Where do you take visitors in your home town?

42 Comments
  1. March 31, 2013 5:11 pm

    Oh, how I remember Ravi fondly! Loved their curries and dhal. I wish there had been a frying pan food tour last March, but I guess I’ll just have to sign up for next year’s! Crackerjack post 🙂

    • April 1, 2013 9:18 am

      Oh do sign up for a tour when you return – you won’t regret it. And I love that word…crackerjack. It reminds me of my childhood…

  2. March 31, 2013 6:19 pm

    Interesting places! I’d love to take part in that breakfast…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    • April 1, 2013 9:17 am

      It’s a ‘must do’ in Dubai I think. Thanks Rosa

  3. April 1, 2013 12:36 am

    Thanks for liking my blog and bringing me to yours! We are only in Dubai for 4 days with 3 kids but I hope to find the restaurants you listed like Ravi and Bu Qtair – saw this on Anthony Bourdain too! Very nice.

    • April 1, 2013 9:16 am

      My teens love Ravi – and the great thing about these restaurants is that the fresh bread keeps coming…usually good for keeping children happy.

      • April 5, 2013 1:31 pm

        We didn’t end up getting to these restaurants, unfortunately as we ran out of time. Thank you for the suggestions though!

  4. April 1, 2013 7:28 am

    Excellent post and thank you for the sweet mention! This is a post that I’ll be sure to share with my tour folks when they ask me for recommendations in the city!

    SMCCU is my top pick amongst these three places. Bu Qtair, I love their prawns, though I’ll admit to finding cheaper, tastier and more sustainable seafood at Seamood in Satwa. Or even Calicut Paragon or Canara in Karama (though they probably do serve hammour and the other ones-who-must-not-be-eaten). But nothing beats the ambiance at Bu Qtair – something about that that shack and eating out on the beach, that too steps away from the ostentatious Burj Al Arab, just brings the experience up a notch! 🙂

    • April 1, 2013 9:15 am

      Really, really appreciate your comment and thanks so much for the recommendations. I agree 100% about the food at Bu Qtair and I probably should have made it clearer that actually there are better places for food in Dubai. For instance, we absolutely love the Pakistani food at Kabab BQ. The places above are chosen for the whole experience. Ravi is probably a bit cliched but people love it (and actually Pakistani friends really rate the food there), Bu Qtair is almost a victim of its own success – but queuing in a portacabin then perching on plastic chairs on a bit of sand between the hulls of wooden dhows is something you won’t be able to do in rainy UK. You’ve reminded me to go and explore Karama again though – with or without visitors. There a Sri Lankan food hall which is supposed to be fantastic. Oh yes and MUST go to Seamood soon…. with you?

  5. vijayfntsofttech permalink
    April 1, 2013 7:59 am

    Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal, so it will be helpful info for my works.

  6. April 1, 2013 9:47 am

    Fantastic post Sally!

  7. April 1, 2013 10:55 am

    When we used to live here in the early 90’s, we would always have a simple meal at Yahallah in Karama (my first shawarma from there in ’89 – for 1dh!) Fond memories. Also Sindh Punjab in Karama for simple, good food, not sure if it is still there. Great review Sally x

  8. April 1, 2013 11:58 am

    Love Bu Qtair! Thanks for the reminder – I’ve been promising to take some friends there for ages! Another favourite is Spring Bamboo near the Movenpick – the menu is mostly in Chinese (and to be honest the English doesn’t make a lot of sense but that’s part of the fun!) but the waitresses are very helpful and we took a friend there who had lived in Beijing for 20 years and she said it felt just like home!

  9. April 1, 2013 12:01 pm

    Bu Qtair sounds amazing Sally! I will definitely go try it . The spices on that fish look mouth watering. Also quite close to where generally people live in Dubai. Thank you for the useful post

  10. April 1, 2013 6:58 pm

    Great roundup Sally…Ravi has been a fav for some time now…Had ventured ou to Bu Qtair last weekend…way too crowded..so will give it a shot on a weekday perhaps.
    Have yet to discover SMCCU…

  11. April 1, 2013 11:57 pm

    I need to plan this Dubai holiday. At this rate, a week will not suffice! Great summary shared!

  12. April 2, 2013 9:13 am

    As always great recomendations. I have not tried the Breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Another thing onthe list of things to do. so much to do and so little time. Might need a pedicure before I do the breakfast……

  13. Nasir Pasha permalink
    April 2, 2013 10:46 am

    Brilliant article, Sally. Ravi remains my favourite (thanks to your hubby Keith who introduced me to the restaurant years and years ago!). The food is always extremely delicious and very affordable. The ambience I think adds to its character. FYI – have tried Brain Curry though, in deference to my friends, I tend to ask for ‘take away’ (quietly). Definitely worth trying.

    Have also tried the fish place – would also thoroughly recommend it though have to admit that the place can get very crowded unless you go early.

    Old timers will also remember The Chalet on Beach Road though of late it’s become commercialised and expensive and the food is not as good as it used to be.

  14. sarahhedonista permalink
    April 2, 2013 6:22 pm

    Next time try the Peshawari Chicken Kadai at Ravi. It’s spectacular – boneless chicken in a slightly zesty tomato and butter gravy. God, melting now just thinking about it.

  15. April 4, 2013 8:45 pm

    What very interesting & useful resto’s & food experiences you give us! The pics were fab too! Thank you!

  16. April 6, 2013 5:55 pm

    Sally, I read about Frying Pan Adventures on one of your earlier posts and booked a tour for me and my parents (they are currently visiting). It was a amazing! Thanks for sharing that and these other places. I have heard good things about Ravi.

  17. April 8, 2013 11:17 pm

    I have to go there , maybe the next Christmas. Thank you for the information very useful .

  18. April 9, 2013 1:52 pm

    Very nice. But lately I’ve started finding Buqtair bit steep, compared to what it was in the past. It’s getting quite a lot of media attention lately. Actually, I forgot to mention before but Golden Fork does serve up very good budget food. I completely agree to full moon drumming! I would also include some walk in and hop into restaurants in Al Diyafa street and Al Riqqa (depending upon which part of the creek you live in!)

  19. April 11, 2013 12:48 pm

    In Dubai, all the things are great and one of the best thing is food.

  20. Chris permalink
    April 28, 2013 4:59 pm

    I love Ravi.

    For awesome (and friendly) Indonesian, can’t go past “Betawi”.

    Bu Q’tair is rubbish. Not for their food, but for their “sliding” prices. There’s no fixed price, some people end up paying 40 Dhs, while others end up paying 120 Dhs for exactly the same thing.

  21. May 2, 2013 9:24 am

    Great round-up Sally.

    I have yet to experience the breakfast at SMCCU – will be looking forward to taking my next set of visitor there.

    And thanks for the link love 🙂

  22. September 12, 2013 2:41 pm

    I’d try the brain curry 😉

    • September 14, 2013 11:34 am

      I think this is a Marmite dish 🙂

  23. January 5, 2014 8:33 pm

    Sally – thanks for stopping by my blog today….further to this post, do you have any recommendations for Abu Dabi? My husband will be there later this month for business and is always looking for this kind of information. Thanks so much! Cheers,
    -CW

  24. January 5, 2014 11:57 pm

    Been here for so long and I’ve only tried two of the ones on your list… Must try them asap! lovely blog… im sticking around and checking out more posts!

    • January 6, 2014 12:12 am

      Cheers Rhey – so much to discover in this city.

  25. May 27, 2014 1:43 pm

    Lovely post Sally. I do miss Ravi’s and the SMCCU are very hospitable sadly I never got the opportunity to take them up on their kind invitations. Your photography is super. Thank you for sharing.
    All the best,
    Petra

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