In a city as young as Dubai words such as ‘heritage’ and ‘institution’ don’t come up in conversation too often. But if there’s one place that inspires such nostalgia, it’s The Red Lion. It’s the kind of familiar British watering hole where veteran Dubaians have spent decades (33 years, to be exact) congregating nightly to chew the fat over hops, talking about characters called ‘Fast Eddie’ and losing count of their bar tab. Step through its heavy doors and you’ll meet a legion of jovial, ruddy regulars happy to regale you with tales of the good old days.
Yet those days are now drawing to a close: the pub serves its last orders this week, on Wednesday March 14. The next morning the entire 32-year-old Metropolitan Hotel, where The Red Lion is housed, will close to make way for a new Dhs3.6 billion tourism complex and hotel.
‘It’s a disaster,’ says Dan Launder, a 39-year-old Brit we met drinking in the bar a week before the closure. ‘I’ve been in Dubai 18 years and I spent my first UAE Christmas in The Red Lion. It’s like a home from home – when you walk in you always see someone you know.’
‘Dubai doesn’t need another glitzy hotel,’ moans Steve Youlden, a 50-year-old Brit sitting further down the bar. ‘You get a really interesting cross-section of people here – managers, directors, labourers – there are no airs and graces, and you meet people from all walks of life.’
Sitting at a bar stool on a Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by friendly faces and lively chat, it is easy to see what the regulars are talking about. The Red Lion has a distinctly British feel, but it seems genuine in a way so many newer faux-European drinkeries do not.
The large oak bar itself is said to have been shipped direct from a London pub, although no one – even the manager – is sure when or how. Despite the dim lighting and slightly drab decor, there’s a convivial energy in the room as it slowly fills up with more customers stopping by for their routine couple of drinks on the way home. ‘I’ve been coming here since 1992 and all they’ve done in that time is change the carpet,’ laughs Chris Avery, a 44-year-old Brit. ‘The paint is the same – and so is the menu.’
‘It’s not at all sophisticated, just friendly,’ admits the bar’s last full-time manager, Shankar Bathina, who was promoted in 2009 but still oversees the Lion (now it ‘manages itself’). ‘It’s like walking into a house – it’s a meeting point,’ says the 41-year-old, originally from India. ‘I’ve seen so many people become friends here. I introduce people. That’s a barman’s job: a mediator, public relations.’
At about 5pm the bar suddenly falls silent when Mally Munroe walks in. A balding 65-year-old Brit, he’s a notorious face and force in bar, having earned the title of ‘the Red Lion’s most most faithful customer’. Arriving in Dubai within a week of the Lion’s opening in December 1978 (a year before the hotel itself opened), he claims to have drunk here at least five nights a week ever since – Thursdays and Fridays, he tells me, are ‘family days’. Even making a conservative estimate, we work out he must have spent 8,000 evenings propping up the bar, steaming through more than 30,000 pints, and spending more than Dhs500,000 on (his) drinks alone – taking into account the Dhs12 prices three decades ago.
‘I’ve been drinking here 33 years and never had a free drink!’ he proclaims by way of a greeting, although he’s more than happy to see that Time Out is well watered. ‘If I asked for a 10 per cent refund of what I’ve spent at the bar, I could retire,’ he laughs.
Munroe emigrated from his native Manchester to set up a successful industrial roofing company, which is still going strong today. At the time the World Trade Centre was the only notable building on Sheikh Zayed Road, itself no more than a dual carriageway, and The Metropolitan was the final outpost of Dubai before the desert drive to Jebel Ali. The Red Lion he remembers is one of all-night parties, darts competitions, rowdy music and bachelor nights. ‘We’d have 30 people in on one round of drinks,’ he remembers. ‘You might not have to buy a drink for two weeks, but the barman always knew whose round it was.’
Sitting next to Mally is best pal John Deuton, a 57-year-old operations director who has been a regular at the Lion since 1980. ‘You get into habits, you get to know people – it’s exactly the same as having a local back in the UK,’ he explains.
On the other side of the pub, sportsmen gather – many of them Meydan horse breeders and jockeys who live in the nearby accommodation. ‘It’s the end of an era; very, very sad,’ says 38-year-old Australian Craig Peddie. ‘It’s a real sportsman’s bar with a community feel. They know us here. You walk in and they put a drink in front of you before you even sit down.’ Gavin Birrer, a 50-year-old Aussie, says simply: ‘You come here because you don’t have to put up with all the p****.’
Perhaps the wisest, and most honest, summation comes from Simon Lowe, a 44-year-old British lawyer who tries to wrap us his casework by 3pm each day so he can enjoy a few on the way home. ‘The Red Lion has character: it’s dark, it’s dingy and it smells bad, just like an English pub.
We’re dealing with a very fresh country with not a lot of heritage, and this is the loss of an institution.’
More old-school bars
With The Red Lion gone for good, its time to make the most of these Dubai institutions still going strong
Barasti began life in the early ’90s as a beach hut serving refreshments to the workers constructing the DIMC marina.
Le Méridien Mina Seyahi (04 399 3333).
While The Red Lion is the oldest pub on the Dubai side of the creek, the Deira-based Sheraton claims to have a few months on the Lion, opening in April 1978.
Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, Deira (04 228 1111).
Jebel Ali Club
This archaic shack looks like it hasn’t changed since its ’70s heyday, and still hosts a lively buzz.
Near Discovery Gardens, Jebel Ali (04 883 6000).