As a Western expat in Dubai, it’s often easy to forget you’re ever abroad. Surrounded by familiar fast food chains and international hotels, and hearing English spoken at every turn, it’s not surprising that expats fall into predictable nightlife genres, supping drinks at Irish pubs or swanky bars, and grooving to European house or American R&B. But whisper it – a good night out doesn’t have to involve a drink. A revolutionary concept for many Westerners, perhaps, but one I wanted to put to good use.
My concept was simple: I wanted to feel as far from the Western world as I could, as close to my home in Dubai Marina as possible. A trip to Bur Dubai was out of the question; instead, I challenged myself to walk the length and breadth of Dubai Marina, stopping strictly at shisha bars and nightspots that met two criteria: 1) the venue had attracted enough trade to be at least half full on a Sunday night, and 2) I would be the only Westerner in the place.
I began my quest by trekking down to the southernmost tip of the artificial island, planning my visit in time to watch the sunset from Dar Elkamar restaurant (04 395 1933), which sits on the waterside to the east of the bridge that links the winding JBR access road with the mainland. At 5pm there was already the scent of expectation in the air, the terrace busy with single-sex groups soaking up the view. Arabic pop piped through the speakers, interrupted only by the gurgle of shisha pipes.
In the spirit of adventure I ordered the house’s avocado drink (Dhs40), which saw this one-time salad ingredient daringly blended with yogurt, honey and milk: part-sweet part-sour, part-drink part-desert, and highly recommended.
When the sun had set, I began the long trek round the island’s inside curves, hoping to stumble across some overlooked nightspots in the 3km of land separating me from my final destination at the more pumping end of town. Midway, I discovered Arz Lebanon (04 442 1994), where I joined a family crowd supping Turkish coffee (Dhs6). The sanitised view of Marina Yacht Club on the other side of the water was less than exotic, but contrasted with a classical Arabic soundtrack of pounding percussion, screeching strings and wailed vocals.
Things get interesting toward the northernmost tip of the island, where a strip of buzzing nightspots stretch round the curve towards the sea front. The strip begins with the Nasrin Iranian Café and Restaurant (04 273 2609), which advertised shisha for just Dhs20 but had attracted just a handful of punters. Instead I was drawn onwards to the bright multi-coloured lights of Piccolo Mondo Bay (04 447 5449). Sitting on the apex of the Marina’s final curve back towards the ocean, the café is a chaotic expanse of tables and chairs jutting between statues, flags, wagon wheels, plants, and other assorted paraphernalia. The effect is to create jarring themes; part Arabian adventure, part Greek odyssey and part Wild West rodeo. In keeping with the mission statement, I attempted the exotic with an Arabian salad (Dhs30) and a Moroccan tea (Dhs25); the former disapprovingly bland, but the latter lovingly served in a traditional pointed metal pot.
The café had a pleasant hum, but I was ill-prepared for the buzz o f life that awaited me round the corner. The strip comes alive at the Piccolo’s sister Venecia Café, with a male crowd noisily competing over backgammon tables. Busier still is the City Port Café (04 442 4122); entirely full, there was a shisha pipe (Dhs25) not far from every table, the fragrance of flavoured tobacco billowing into the sky enticingly.
Cheaper shisha (Dhs20) is offered further along at the Ninana Lounge (04 447 5571), which also promises ‘Lebanese cuisine with a twist’, but precious few smokers were enticed in. Next door’s ‘smoking tea lounge’, Samovar (04 454 1005), notable from its competitors for glowing neon globes in the centre of every table, was marginally more popular, but neither could compare with their larger neighbour. Sitting at the end of the strip, closest to the bridge over to the Mina Seyahi, Iran Zamin (04 432 9661) was the natural place to end my trek. By now it was approaching midnight and the sprawling restaurant and garden was pumping to the familiar beat of Europop. But dining on a chef’s platter of Iranian meats (Dhs65), while watching families frolic and men suck shisha lustily around me, it felt quintessentially foreign. You don’t need to go far to feel overseas – find the exotic on your doorstep.