We visit Dubai's best new bars. From the trendsetting Submarine Club to the great views of Vista these are the hottest new venues in town
Rockwell Café: It’s not often you find a decent new dive bar in Dubai. Sure, there are plenty of dumps that take the word far too literally (pseudo Brit pubs, you know who you are...). And there are hundreds of five-star cocktail bars that would rather gag on black olives than tolerate being described as the slightest bit rough round the edges. But we’re talking about the kind of laid-back, lived-in joint, where the sofas are all battered leather, the location is slightly tucked away and the pool table’s always busy. And Rockwell Café , with all due respect, is one of the city’s best dive bars.
Formerly Henry J Beans, the entrance is still off to the right of the Capitol Hotel (complete with its own doorman), and the space inside is still gigantic – if oddly laid out. When we visited, on a Sunday night, the crowd clung to the bar while the resident Canadian band entertained an empty dancefloor round the corner. But the wife-beater wearing punters still nodded to the group, as they covered Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder and other hip hop and pop tracks. As cover bands go, they weren’t that upsetting at all, while we’ve heard the bar’s Filipino band, who croon on Fridays, rock well too (rather aptly).
After studying the busy drinks menu, we plumped for the sippable Dhs29 house red, before wandering upstairs. It seems more people should take the trouble. As well as another bar and more booths, there’s a distinctly VIP-looking area. With leather armchairs and a coffee table complete with the day’s papers, it’s exactly the kind of snug in which you’d imagine a mob of mafioso’s huddling, busy figuring out their next hit through a fug of cigar smoke. In fact, it’s probably just as well people don’t venture up there all that often.
Belgian Beer Café: Walk into the Intercontinental’s new Belgian Beer Café and a sense of Europe slaps you across the face like an EU directive. From the shiny trumpet, weathered leather satchels, amusing postcards and hundreds of other eye-catching clutter hanging from the coat stands and walls, everything is authentic; flown in directly from the land of chocolates and French-haters itself.
And the imports don’t stop at the trinkets. All the food, wines and obviously the competitively priced beers are strictly Belgian (including Stella for the less adventurous), right down to the correct glasses for the different brews. Indeed, the management plan to introduce Belgian drinking traditions too, such as ‘the shoe stealer.’ No, we didn’t have a clue what it was either until we asked a Belgian friend. Apparently, when you order a certain beer, it comes in a huge, expensive glass. So when barmen serve it they ask the customer to take off a shoe, kept in a same-sized glass until they finish their drink. (Note to self: remember to wear matching socks.)
We were lucky enough to preview the place ahead of its scheduled January 2 launch. Even punterless, the cosy space had atmosphere. We could easily imagine it packed with Saturday brunchers or the Thursday post-work, loosened-tie crowd, with every one of the 120 seats filled and the al fresco Creekside terrace taken – quite probably, with plenty of shoeless men.
Crossroads Bar: Singapore has one that’s nearly a century old; Long Island’s came about during prohibition; The Pisco sour, meanwhile, contains a blend of eggs and lemon – strange but lipsmackingly true – and is the Peruvian national drink. Dubai, however, for all its global posturing and column inches, has only recently been blessed with its own signature drink, courtesy of the pioneering mixologists of Raffles Dubai. A take on the classic gin-infused Singapore sling, the Dubai sling is a sharp, crisp cocktail served over Titanic mounds of ice and contains, among other things, chili and sage-infused liqueur and fig jam. The bar housing this Dubai cocktail is a Balinese inspired indoor/outdoor affair called Crossroads. A sumptuous affair boasting an extensive (and expensive) array of drinks, the bar offers over 45 specialist rums and tequilas which we’re assured are unique to Dubai.
And with panoramic views of Dubai’s skyline outside, plus a cosy semi-circle bar at which you can strike up a conversation with one of the highly knowledgeable bar-staff inside, there are plenty of distractions. Which is just as well, really – anything you can do to keep your mind off your spiralling bar tab is a must: A glass of the cheapest bubbly here costs Dhs105, and the most basic cocktail will leave you Dhs50 poorer.
Not that this will discourage Dubai’s flashpack. When we visited we were one of only five people in there. Now that the hotel is fully operational, that should all change very quickly.
Submarine: As anyone who has seen The Hunt For Red October will testify, submarines are small, dark places that are crammed to capacity with people. The Submarine Bar, housed in the basement of the Dhow Palace Hotel, is small and dark, but at 10.30pm on the Saturday we visited, it was far from crammed. The startling neon entrance is only a warm up for the equally garish bar and illuminated tables, and the portholes on the wall add to the nautical theme.
Arriving at this time, however, means that you can grab a couch and enjoy table service, choosing from a good selection of beers, spirits and cocktails. Whilst it’s off-putting to still be outnumbered by the bar staff at 11pm, don’t be disheartened. Instead, find a table near the stage, as later in the evening the resident band, Something Extra, power-up their amps and in a heartbeat, the place comes to life. A thoroughly entertaining troupe that plays the most unlikely requests, they launched into our deliberately difficult calls without batting an eyelid.
Pretty soon, people flooded in to listen and the bar went from sleepy nightspot to bustling live bar in the space of an hour – we like to think it was our choice of songs. The erratic attendance rates should even out over the coming weeks – at present Submarine is only two months old and as such is still building a reputation for itself. The weekly programme is not yet set in stone, so it’s worth calling ahead to find out which nights the band is playing. Although we do know that trendsetting promoters Kazeen are starting up their regular Plus Minus Weekly Sessions on January 10, and we can’t wait.
Vista: In the case of many of Dubai’s bars, your wander to the bar involves mooching through a mood-killing shiny mall or outdated hotel reception bleating brain-melting muzak. However, the route to Vista at the new Festival City Intercontinental is so awe-inspiringly good you may want to strut up and down it a few times as though it were a runway. The grand, high-ceilinged entrance, flooded with light from the full-length windows during the day, is on a par with the Kempinski when it comes to lobby scores (Yes, we subconsciously compare hotel receptions. How ‘Dubai’ is that?).
And if you liked the reception – you may well become a little overcome once you reach your final destination. Vista is divided into three distinct areas. Round the first corner and you hit the piano bar, where a tuxedoed tinkler taps the ebonies and ivories, droopy chandeliers sparkle and couples rekindle romances or start something special around the cosy tables.
Carry on further and you hit the sort of clean, sharp cocktail bar Ian Schrager (the man behind some of London’s front-running hotel bars) would be far from ashamed of. The modern, minimalist space is truly set off, however, by the view outside. The third and final area of the bar is a wooden outdoor terrace where you can fully inhale the stunning setting properly. There you can gaze out over the Creek, sandwiched between the new Festival City Marina and the ever-soaring Sheikh Zayed skyline, cool cocktail in hand.
Indeed, Vista, is certainly so-called for a reason. Just like its sister bars at Intercontinentals across the world, its view has been snapped and is showcased in a series of spectacular photographs in the menu (for us it’s a close call between Bora Bora, Sydney and, of course, Dubai for the top look-out spot).