Away from the glitz: Dubai's top low-key restaurants

Away from the glitz: Dubai's top low-key restaurants

Because sometimes you just want to enjoy fine fare without all the fuss

In a city famous for selling the world’s most expensive cupcake -- a 3,700 dirham ($1,007) artisan creation crafted with edible 23 carat gold leaves -- dining in Dubai can often be an exasperatingly pretentious experience.

But, like any great city, Dubai has its share of relaxed eateries that serve delicious fare without the fuss.

Betawi Cafe 

Betawi Cafe passes the Indonesian expat test. It's legit. This award-winning cafe serves a spectrum of Indonesian dishes as varied as the 18,000 islands across the archipelago.

Decorated in cheerful greens, Betawi Cafe buzzes with hungry Indonesian expatriates.

A highlight is the gado gado and sweet ketupat rice cakes, hidden among fresh vegetables, drowned in thick satay sauce.

Favorites such as chicken satay and soto betawi (traditional Jakartan coconut soup) are good for sharing.

If you want an introduction to Indonesian flavors, there's the nasi padang, a comprehensive selection of small vegetable and meat dishes arranged around a mountain of fragrant rice.

Average price for two people: 75 dirhams ($20)

Our recommendation: nasi padang

Chef’s recommendation: soto betawi

Betawi Cafe, 4 B St., Al Karama (behind Park Regis Hotel); +971 0567 598 118; Saturday-Thursday, noon-11 p.m., Friday 2-11 p.m.  

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Special Ostadi Restaurant

At Special Ostadi Restaurant, the walls stand out almost as much as the food. Imagine if Cabaret Voltaire served Persian barbecue.

Then throw in a handful of traditionally garbed Emirati diners, a bunch of antique mobile phones plastered to the wall, tiny caged birds tweeting in the corners and one of the most enigmatic maitre d’s in the city.

Special Ostadi Restaurant is a happy, raucous celebration of simple, honest food.

It’s a mainstay of Dubai’s restaurant scene, famous for its quirky ambiance and succulent meat.

For the best of Osatadi’s offerings, there's the mixed grill. It’s a platter of different kebabs marinated in tangy yogurt, aromatic saffron and complex spices.

The lunch menu expands to include khoresht (stew), a delicious okra and mutton dish. If you ask they'll bring you some off-the-menu tadik, a crispy basmati rice pancake served with a lively tomato and lentil sauce. 

Average price for two people: 80 dirhams ($22)

Our recommendation: okra and mutton khoresht

Chef’s recommendation: mixed grill

Al Musalla Road, Al Fahidi (close to Al Fahidi metro station); +971 04 397 1469; Saturday-Thursday, noon-4:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m.-1 a.m., Friday, 6:30 p.m.-1 a.m. 

Xiao Wei Yang Hotpot

About as close to China as you can get in Dubai. Eating at Xiao Wei Yang Hotpot is a little like travelling to China without using your passport.

Stepping through the big glass doors transports you to a scene of loud, bustling chaos that might be mistaken for mainland China.

This one is by Chinese, for Chinese. Western palates are an afterthought.

The concept is simple: an enormous bubbling cauldron of spicy broth sits atop your table. Throw small portions of food into the pot and cook them yourself.

The diversity of foods for your hotpot is expansive, ranging from paper-thin sliced lamb, dumplings exploding with flavor and silken tofu to more exotic dishes, such as beef stomach and crab eggs.

While the staff excel at serving outstanding food, English isn't a strong suit.

Average price for two people: 200 dirhams ($55)

Our recommendation: crispy scallion pancakes

Chef’s recommendation: shrimp dumplings

Baniyas Road, Deira (next to Twin Tower); +971 04 221 5111; Monday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m.

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Ravi Restaurant

Flashy joints needn't be pricey. At Ravi, plastic chairs and steel tables shine under bright fluorescent lights. Ravi Restaurant has been in business for almost as long as the UAE has been a sovereign state (1971, in the latter case). 

Dishing up authentic Pakistani food since 1979 at a busy Satwa location, Ravi is one of Dubai’s most celebrated restaurants.

There’s nothing fancy about the place.

Outside, diners sit on plastic chairs lined against rows of communal steel tables. Inside, the arrangement is similarly casual, just bathed under a fluorescent glow.

It’s not the atmosphere you come for, but the simple dishes at ridiculously cheap prices.

Favorites include daal fry -- creamy, perfectly cooked yellow lentils seasoned with fried onion and fresh green chili.

Mutton tikka is popular -- tender boneless chunks of mutton marinated with coriander seeds and red chili, grilled to perfection.

Average price for two people: 60 dirhams ($16)

Our recommendation: mutton tikka

Chef’s recommendation: chicken jalfrezi 

2nd of December Street, Satwa (on the corner of Satwa roundabout); +971 04 331 8482; Sunday-Saturday, 5 a.m.-2:30 a.m., Friday 5 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-2:30 a.m.

Tagine Al Fasi

Tagine al Fasi has only three tables, which crowd a small strip of dining space. Walls are lined with ornate Moorish tiles.Tagine Al Fasi (meaning "tagine from Fez"), satisfies diners with some of the best Moroccan dishes in Dubai.

Fiery homemade harissa exploding with spice and chunky loaves of Moroccan bread pair excellently with the menu.

Lamb and prune tagine is a standout, the sweet contrast of dried fruit balancing the thick salty gravy, boiled eggs and roast nuts.

A serving of couscous is a meal in itself; an expertly cooked lamb shank adorns a fluffy summit, accompanied by stewed vegetables imbued with stock.

For dessert, the handmade Moroccan sweet samosas, bursting with syrup, are a prize.

Average price for two people: 80 dirhams ($22)

Our recommendation: lamb and prune tagine

Chef’s recommendation: lamb couscous

Al Doha Street, Hor Al Anz (opposite Al Manar Hotel Apartments); +971 0557 798 582; Sunday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-midnight, Friday 1-10 p.m.

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Zagol Restaurant

Funky seating, memorable hospitality and food. This tiny Ethiopian restaurant is big on flavor and service.

Traditional low stools with hand-embroidered cushions, circular tables designed to socialize around and warm interior walls converge in a perfect storm of African hospitality.

Ethiopian food consists mainly of sourdough flatbread (injera) and stews (wat). Because the flour used to make the sourdough comes from grain indigenous to Ethiopia, freshbread is flown in twice daily from the homeland.

For groups, we recommend the Zagol special, a huge platter of sourdough heaped with a selection of lentil, vegetable, chicken and lamb stews.

Another star is the doro wat, an intensely zesty chicken stew with a rich tomato base served with boiled eggs and mild spices. 

Average price for two people: 75 dirhams ($20)

Our recommendation: Zagol special

Chef’s recommendation: doro wat

4 B St., Al Karama (behind Park Regis Hotel); +971 04 357 7740; Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-midnight