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 local 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 hotels and other licensed venues. Though many of these spots do have bars and pubs close by.
If you want a local experience and to eat where the Emiratis and expats do, then hit the spots below, some of our favourite Dubai eateries during the eight years we lived in the UAE, and try some of these street food and traditional regional specialties at laneway stalls, hole-in-the-walls, modest eateries, and family-run restaurants that can refreshingly resemble bustling cafeterias.
Where to Eat in Dubai – Street Food Eat Streets and Gritty Neon-lit Neighbourhoods
Where to eat in Dubai isn’t an easy thing to decide due to the overwhelming number of options. Dubai has long been home to world-class restaurants – we ate out almost every other night during the almost eight years we lived in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, then Dubai.
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 bustling Bur Dubai neighbourhood, a few blocks from Dubai Creek.
Or we were strolling the dusty, sun-drenched backstreets to nearby Satwa and Al Karama during the cooler winter months and exploring lesser visited local neighbourhoods. 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 Dubai 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 South Indian, Moroccan to Mexican, 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 manage.
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 sumac (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 savour them 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 most tourists think.
After the sun sets they hit these neon-lit eat streets in Dubai’s grittier middle class and working class neighbourhoods for some of the best regional eats this side of Cairo and Beirut. You should too.
Here’s our pick of where to eat in Dubai based on our eight years living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including years researching and writing the first Lonely Planet Dubai guidebooks.
Where to Eat in Dubai – Street Food Eat Streets and the Most Tantalising Neighbourhoods
This guide to where to eat in Dubai covers the local neighbourhoods where the city’s residents eat in the older parts of Dubai.
Meena Bazaar, Bur Dubai
When it comes to where to eat in Dubai for traditional fare from across the Middle East, from the Indian Sub-Continent to Iran, through the Levant and across North Africa, then the Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai is your best bet.
When we lived in Bur Dubai, our nearest neighbourhood was the city’s liveliest, most fascinating, and most mouthwatering as far as we were concerned. Sprawling along Dubai Creek it was also the oldest Dubai neighbourhood, 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 fascinating 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 on the covered laneways in the Textile Souk, pictured above.
It also included countless kinds of cheap and tasty 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 expat workers and Emiratis every evening.
When it comes to where to eat in Dubai, this neighbourhood is our top pick. The area is home to some of Dubai’s cheapest and most cheerful eateries 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 cuisines on the one menu.
Don’t miss: If you only have time to eat at one eatery, make it the 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 or Al Dhiyafah Road, Satwa
When it comes to where to eat in Dubai for Persian, Pakistani, Indian, and Lebanese food, then Satwa is our pick of neighbourhoods, followed closely by the Deira neighbourhoods, below. Satwa is tucked between Sheikh Zayed Road’s lofty skyscrapers and Jumeirah’s affluent low-rise beachside suburbs.
Many legendary Dubai eateries lie on a single neon-lit strip, 2nd December Street, formerly called Al Dhiyafah Road. Our picks are iconic old Dubai eateries such as Al Mallah for Lebanese/Arabic food, Pars Iranian Kitchen for Persian, Ravi’s for Pakistani, and Delhi Darbar for Indian (note: the Dhiyafah Road branch closed but there are other outlets).
During the cooler winter months our early evening after-work ambles and late afternoon weekend urban treks would often take us to Satwa. While most people here for the food make a beeline for the main drag, we loved exploring the low-key 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 selling chocolates and small pastries, 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 Road’s traffic would be gridlocked and its footpaths heaving with people looking for a snack or supper. In the years before we left Dubai, the old Persian, Pakistani, Arabic, and Afghani eateries were joined by an increasing number of Filipino eateries, as well as fashionable cafés and dessert spots.
Don’t miss: The legendary Lebanese eatery Al Mallah (link above) 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, cooked 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 long been Dubai’s ‘Little India’, then multicultural Karama has been 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, Al Karama is where to eat in Dubai for Filipino food. Although you’ll also find fantastic Lebanese, Indian, and Parsi food here too.
The old Karama souk was where I took visiting 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, such as brass coffee pots.
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 and Karama Centre have long been the spots for Pinoy to Parsi food. For Filipino treats, countless compact eateries and kiosks sell 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 and 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 the main tourist centre in Dubai and 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 first Dubai meals that weekend on the Dubai Creek waterfront at a row of modest Arabic eateries that were the best in town at the time.
We thought it was some of the freshest and most flavourful Arabic food that we’d ever tried – until we visited Beirut for the first time a couple of months later. In the block behind, 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 we’d 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 on Baniyas Road by the abra (water taxi) station was another favourite for fruit 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 get an introduction to Emirati food at a wonderful Cultural Breakfast, a Cultural Brunch or a Cultural Lunch at the Sheikh Mohammend Cultural Centre, an opportunity to sample home-cooked Emirati food as you mingle with locals and learn about the culture.
Next, hit the ground running on a food tour to prepare you for your own independent eating:
This Dubai private food tour with 10 tastings takes you everywhere from street food stands to authentic local restaurants, as you hear local stories and visit the spice market, ride a traditional abra boat across the Creek and amble the old quarter;
On this half-day Dubai street food tour you visit an Indian temple, spice and gold souqs, and fruit, vegetable and fish market, sampling everything from Indian snacks and Lebanese mezze to traditional Dubai specialties, which you eat with your hands sitting down on the floor – just like locals.
More Tips for Exploring Dubai’s Eats Streets and Neighbourhoods
- 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 neighbourhood 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.