Where to Eat in Dubai – Street Food, Eat Streets and Neighbourhoods
Where to eat in Dubai depends upon what kind of trip you’re doing. If you’re looking for glam, go for fine dining, but if you want a local experience of Dubai hit these neon-lit eat streets and gritty neighbourhoods for authentic street food from across this incredibly diverse region.
Where to eat in Dubai depends on what sort of holiday you want. If enjoying a bottle of wine or beer with your meal is important then unfortunately you’re not going to find alcohol at the establishments below and will need to stick to five-star hotels. Though many do have bars and pubs close by.
If you want a local experience and to eat where the Emiratis and expats do, then try the street food and traditional regional specialties at stalls, hole-in-the-walls, modest eateries and family-run restaurants that can resemble cafeterias.
Where to Eat in Dubai – Street Food Eat Streets and Gritty Neon-lit Neighbourhoods
Dubai is home to world-class restaurants – we ate out every other night when we lived there. But when we weren’t frequenting five-star hotel fine-diners, we were tucking into local street food, ordering delectable take-away, and feasting on fantastic traditional fare at modest family-ran eateries and humble hole-in-the-walls in our Bur Dubai neighbourhood, a few blocks from Dubai Creek.
Or we were strolling dusty, sun-drenched backstreets to nearby Satwa and Al Karama during the cooler winter months. Years later, after we packed up our apartment, put our things in storage, but continued to use Dubai as a base for our Middle East travels, we’d cross the Creek, seeking out more off-the-beaten track areas for our guidebooks and stories.
Dubai is the most cosmopolitan city in the Middle East, so we were eating everything from Syrian to Southern Indian, Russian to Thai. However, our regular go-to spots, within walking distance from where we lived, specialised in the street food and traditional fare of the region.
In our own neighbourhood, there was food to be found that had travelled as far as the North African Maghreb across to the Levant, down from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, over from the Indian Sub-Continent, and up from Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan.
One of the things we loved to do on balmy evenings was walk to one of our favourite spots, local institutions like Automatic and Al Mallah, for Lebanese shawarmas – the Middle East’s ubiquitous ‘sandwich’, which in our opinion the UAE does best.
We’d stand on the footpath outside the brightly illuminated eateries, perspiration slowing dripping down our backs, as we sympathetically watched the poor guys working the shawarma stands. Beads of sweat permanently on their brows, their shirts so saturated the outline of their singlets were visible. They’d guzzle water from one-litre bottles in between slicing succulent slivers of lamb and chicken off the fiery vertical rotisseries it was their job to man.
When they had a mound of mouthwatering meat, they’d lay out the flat bread that had been warming, slather on garlic sauce and mash some greasy soft potato chips (if it was a chicken shawarma) or spread out a tangy salad of red onion, parsley and sumak (if it was lamb), before piling on the aromatic meat and tightly rolling the ‘sandwiches’ in foil. They’d throw in small plastic bags of wonderful pickles and extra bread.
If we had have been in Beirut, Cairo or Damascus, we would have peeled the foil down and taken big bites right there and then, but when it’s close to 40 degrees out, with 90% humidity, you quickly retreat into the air-conditioning, leaving those poor guys outside, or you briskly walk home to your own icy apartment so you could enjoy them down in the cool with a glass of wine.
Dubai may have a reputation as a pricey destination but it’s also a terrific place to get cheap street food and traditional fare. When Emiratis and expats want to eat well they don’t always dine at flashy five-star hotels, nor at fast-food franchises in shopping malls, as many think. After the sun sets they hit these neon-lit eat streets in Dubai’s grittier middle and working class neighbourhoods for some of the best regional eats this side of Cairo. You should too.
Where to Eat in Dubai – Street Food Eat Streets and the Most Tantalising Neighbourhoods
Meena Bazaar, Bur Dubai
When we lived in Dubai, our nearest Bur Dubai neighbourhood was the city’s liveliest and most fascinating as far as we were concerned. Sprawling along the Bur Dubai side of Dubai Creek it was also the oldest, originally the site of a centuries-old Bedouin settlement and ancient port, and home to Bastakiya, the historic Persian quarter.
It was also the location of what was invariably called Bur Dubai Souk or the Textile Souk by Western expats, but what was known locally as the Meena Bazaar – ‘meena’ or ‘mina’ means port in Arabic and the Indian ‘bazaar’ was used rather than the Arabic word ‘souq’ (souk; market), as the area was predominantly Indian.
While the textile souk itself consisted of a few lovely breezy arcades, remodelled in the late 1990s when Dubai began to think about tourism, and some gritty alleyways than ran off them, the whole neighbourhood of Meena Bazaar was crammed with all kinds of compelling shops, selling everything from shimmering saris and sequinned slippers to cheap electronics and copy watches.
The (then) largely working class area was also home to fantastic food. This included everything from tasty, deep-fried Indian street food snacks like samosas, pakoras and bhaji, sold from busy stalls in the textile souk (pictured above) to countless kinds of cheap stews, curries and biryanis dished up at humble sit-down eateries with a handful of tables and stools or larger, ceramic-titled, cafeteria-like restaurants that would be crammed with workers every evening.
When it comes to where to eat in Dubai, this neighbourhood is my top pick. The area is home to some of Dubai’s cheapest eats specialising in Pakistani, Persian (Iranian), Arabic and Arabian (there is a difference), Nepalese, Chinese, and Indian regional cuisines (Hyderabadi, Mughlai, etc) – or sometimes offering a few of those on the one menu.
Don’t miss: Quirky family-owned Special Ostadi, also called Al Ustad Special Kabab, on Al Musallah Road. This Persian eatery has mythical status and loads of character: photos plaster every inch of the walls, memorabilia and foreign currency lie under glass table tops. Established in 1978, the restaurant has been keeping punters happy ever since, serving up southern Iranian specialties, including its legendary kebabs. Regulars eat here for owner Mohammed’s rich stories as much as the cheap delicious food.
2nd December Street (Al Dhiyafah Road), Satwa
When it comes to where to eat in Dubai, Satwa is most definitely a must-do. Home to old iconic Dubai eateries like Pars Iranian Kitchen (Persian), Ravi’s (Pakistani), Delhi Darbar (Indian), and Al Mallah (Lebanese/Arabic), Satwa is tucked between Sheikh Zayed Road’s lofty skyscrapers and Jumeirah’s affluent low-rise beachside suburbs. Many of these legendary eateries lie on a single neon-lit strip, 2nd December Street, formerly called Al Dhiyafah Road.
During the cooler winter months our late afternoon ambles would often bring us to Satwa. While most people here for the food make a beeline for the main drag, we loved exploring the residential areas, where chickens scratched sleepy sand-swept streets and workers played games of cricket in vacant lots on their days off.
It was always a delight to stumble upon an Afghan hole-in-the-wall bakery in the backstreets, where the bakers would pull piping hot flat bread out of the hole-in-the-ground ‘oven’. Sold for as little as one dirham (about thirty cents), we’d eat it piping hot, ripping off pieces as we walked. If we’d waited until we got home it would have been hard as a rock.
Al Dhiyafah Road was also home to many traditional sweets shops and chocolate stores, but I preferred the juice joints with their over-the-top, layered fruit shakes that the Middle East does so well, such as Seashell Cafeteria.
Late at night, Al Dhiyafah’s traffic would be gridlocked and its footpaths heaving with people looking for a snack. In recent years the old Persian, Pakistani, Arabic, and Afghani eateries have been joined by an increasing number of Filipino eateries, as well as fashionable cafés and dessert spots.
Don’t miss: Another legendary spot, Lebanese eatery Al Mallah remains as popular as ever. Order shawarmas and falafel to eat on the footpath or take away if you’re in a hurry or sit down inside the brightly illuminated interior (you may want to keep your sunglasses on) and enjoy a spread of traditional Lebanese specialties, made to perfection. We nearly always ordered the same dishes: hummus with pine nuts, muttabal, fattoush, fried kebbe, shish tawouk, and a mixed grilled.
If Bur Dubai’s Meena Bazaar area has been the city’s ‘Little India’, then multicultural Karama was its ‘Little Manila’, home to some of Dubai’s first Filipino eateries, and a large expat community from the Philippines, many of them working in F&B in the tourism and hospitality industry.
The old Karama souk was where I took family and friends souvenir shopping. Staff would usher us up narrow flights of stairs and into dark back rooms where they stored their stashes of copy watches and “genuine fake” designer bags. I used to go here to buy my colourful Moroccan lanterns and rummage around for old Arabian bric-a-brac.
But even better than the shopping were the dusty backstreets that ran between the low-rise apartment buildings where expat workers would hang out in the evenings to catch up and chow down on some of Dubai’s most delicious street food – everything from Pinoy to Parsi – and some of the cheapest eats in town. When it comes to where to eat in Dubai, this cosmopolitan neighbourhood is a must-do.
Al Attar Shopping Centre remains the centre for Filipino treats, with compact eateries and kiosks selling everything from deep fried orange quails eggs (called ‘kwek-kwek) to fried chicken skin. For Parsi food, try Kebab Bistro, which claims to have the most comprehensive spread of Parsi favourites.
However, the quintessential Karama specialty has long been chaat, India’s famous deep-fried snacks. Chaat Bazaar (in the Mabrooka Building) has always had the longest queues of regulars lining up to order bags of bhaji (vegetable fritters) and vada pav (mashed potato patties).
Don’t miss: Some of the cheapest eats in Dubai are at the Arabic bakeries dotted around town, selling savoury snacks and sweet treats. The city’s best is Karama’s Al Reef Lebanese Bakery, opposite the post office. Try the wonderful manakeesh (Lebanese ‘pizza’) topped with za’atar, ground lamb and spices, cheese, or spinach. Then order dessert from the tempting trays of sweets. We recommend namourah (sticky semolina slices soaked in orange blossom syrup), borma (crunchy pistachio filled rolls), and baklava (honey-soaked, nut-filled, filo-layered pastries). Also good: ma’amoul (shortbreads), awama (fried dough balls), and (barazek) sesame coated biscuits.
Al Mateena and Muraqqabat Streets, Deira
Dubai’s first downtown area, bustling and interminably dusty Deira rarely features on any visitor itineraries these days, but it was our first destination when we moved to Abu Dhabi in 1998 and had our first weekend away in Dubai. When it comes to where to eat in Dubai, it’s a no-brainer: this area is street food central.
I still recall our inaugural meal on the waterfront at a modest Arabic eatery that was one of the best in town at the time, and we thought it was some of the freshest and most flavourful food we’d ever tried – until we visited Beirut a couple of months later. Behind it, there were a handful of equally brilliant spots in the shaded backstreets.
The chaotic little streets around Dubai Gold Souk and the old Naif Souk (which burned down in 2008 to be replaced by a shopping mall) were home to small hole-in-the-wall shops where we’d buy thick, icy mango juices, made to order, then go flop onto tiny stools on a sandy square near the Gold Souq at Ashwaq Cafeteria, where we’d tuck into garlicky shawarmas and crispy falafel. Al Abra Cafteria by the abra (water taxi) station was another favourite for juices and fresh coconuts.
Back then we must have driven down two of Deira’s best eat streets, Al Muraqqabat Street and parallel Al Mateena Street, a hundred times without realising what culinary treasures they held.
Al Mateena became my favourite for its palm-filled median strip where local residents hung out, chatted, play backgammon, and ate during the cooler winter evenings. Massively popular with Emiratis and expats from the region, only the most intrepid of Western foodie expats ventured to these tantalising eat streets.
Lined with Iraqi kebab joints, Arabic and Iranian eateries, and Lebanese bakeries and sweet shops, there is enough to occupy epicureans here for weeks, but at the very least I recommend trying a few of the quintessential specialties.
Don’t miss: Start with the tender lamb shawarma with tangy salad at 35 year-old Aroos Damascus (corner Muraqqabat and Al Jazeira Streets), a Syrian cafeteria-style eatery that’s open 24 hours. While it’s customary to order a spread of food at Pakistani stalwart, Karachi Darbar (Al Mateena Street), at least try the hearty mutton Peshawari Kadai curry, a biryani, and flaky paratha. Make your last stop, Qwaider Al Nabulsi (Al Muraqqabat Street), a Palestinian-Jordanian eatery where you should order the heavenly mansaf, a delicious Bedouin rice dish of lamb cooked in yogurt.
Our Tips for Discovering Dubai’s Street Food, Eats Streets and Neighbourhoods
- While you could jump straight in and start with the spots above, we recommend you hit the ground running on one of Frying Pan Adventures delicious food tours. Guided by the lovely and super knowledgeable sisters Arva and Farida, two self-confessed food history nerds who grew up in Dubai, you’ll discover the culinary secrets of these neighbourhoods and more, and they’ll give you even more suggestions as to where to eat in Dubai. Book the tour here.
- Dubai’s excellent metro system will get you to all of these Dubai eat streets and foodie neighbourhoods, but in the evening, you’ll probably want to use taxis.
- If you’re exploring these areas on foot – even in winter in Dubai – ensure you drink plenty of water and wear a hat and sunscreen. Fruit juices are fantastic, providing a much needed sugar rush, but they are very filling.
- Most eateries have bi-lingual menus in the language of the cuisine and English, and maybe also in Arabic, and probably have picture menus. Don’t look down on those. Not all staff at Dubai’s hole-in-the-walls and ethnic eateries speak English, so if it weren’t for the pictures, you’d need to get by with miming and pointing.
- Alcohol is not served at these eateries; in Dubai you’ll only find alcohol sold at restaurants in hotels and sports clubs.
- Don’t hesitate to ask to take any leftovers with you – you won’t offend anyone.
- Click through for more tips in our post on how to experience ‘the real Dubai’.
Do you have any tips to where to eat in Dubai when it comes to street food and traditional fare? We’d love to hear what your favourite eat streets and neighbourhoods for good food are.