When visitors walk through cobbled pavements with bags of spices surrounding them amidst the thick, bitter scent of Arabic coffee, they can be forgiven for thinking they have somehow been transported to old Dubai from the heart of Dubai Festival City.
With the taste of authentic Emirati cuisine, Al Fanar Restaurant & Café revives the memories of Dubai from the 1960s, when it was a small town on the shore of the Arabian Gulf — with rows of wind towers surrounded by the Al Badia oasis where fishermen, pearl merchants and Bedouins lived a simple life.
Hashem Al Marzouqi, owner of Al Fanar (which means “beacon” or “lighthouse” in Arabic), and principal of theme park specialist firm Aspen Creations, said he wanted to create a restaurant with a 100% Emirati ambience and educate visitors about his culture.
Before entering the restaurant, a scene of the Al Badia oasis has been constructed: a Bedouin tending to his flock of camel and goats; a donkey loaded with kerosene to fuel the lamps of the town, an old Land Rover parked near the side door ready to unload the goods from a long haul, and the landscape dotted with tents and barasti (palm fronds) huts where the locals spend lazy summer nights outdoors.
The old town of Dubai was a thriving city of trade where goods from neighbouring countries were brought in, and traded with pearls. The architecture had a very distinctive character — rows of wind towers, walls made of coral stones and mud, grilled wooden windows and vaulted wooden doors.
Recreated in the same manner, visitors are expected to go through an alley to their right, which takes them inside to the roofed souq (Souq Morshed) where oud (incense), bukhoor (scented woodchips/bricks), saffron, spices and sweets are sold, with a traditional café serving Arabic tea and coffee.
Through another corridor, people step into the main seating area of the restaurant called Bait Al Tawash (house of the pearl merchant) courtyard through its vaulted doors with a large Al Sidr tree in the centre and a ceiling wallpaper of blue, cloudy skies.
In every traditional house, visitors will most likely find one of two trees – Al Sidr and Louz. “The trunk is a little bigger than it actually is because there was a column over there, which we cladded,” said Al Marzouqi. With this setting, visitors experience what was once the centre of the house a long time ago.
He said currently most of the restaurant visitors are UAE nationals, with even aged members of society visiting to relive the past.
“People are getting tired of glass towers and so on; they want to go back to their real culture and experience an authentic atmosphere,” he added.
He explained each section of the restaurant and café has a storyline that was written prior to the design stage to aid in creating the interiors.
“I selected 1960s as the main period of my theme. As with any storyline you need main characters. I selected two that played a big role in the 1960s — the Bedouin guide and a pearl merchant. I wanted to create an environment showcasing their lifestyle,” he said.
The external seating is a reference to the Bedouin arriving at the souq before sunset, with a vehicle filled with goods. The Souq Morshed is meant to represent the Deira souq from the 1960s where the pearl merchant indulged in his trade, and Bait al Tawash shows the merchant’s life at his home.
“This is not a made-up story. The details of the restaurant are exactly how it used to be in the olden days.
“If you compare our environment to that of a museum, the quality of the workmanship and quality of the props is on par with them,” he added.
The interiors of the space have been diligently copied from photographs of Dubai from that era, with the owner citing the photography book “Dubai 1962” as a reference point.
He stressed the importance of every little detail. “We’ve transferred what we saw on the photographs to reality — even to minute details like the ventilation above the ‘shops’, exposed cabling, and doors and so on.”
Work on the design concept started in June 2010, with the soft opening 14 months later on September 15, 2011.
The official opening took place three weeks later, one week after which His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum visited with his son, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai. According to the owner, His Highness has visited Al Fanar again, this time bringing foreign guests with him.
Al Marzouqi said there were no major challenges he faced. “I’ve been in this field for the last 17 years and added to this, the materials we used were specified to create an Emirati ambience. Everything we needed was found in the local market.”
To achieve the look of old, worn-out doors, the designers distressed new wood. The ceiling is made in a traditional style, with sandalwood beams found in Khor Fakkan. The barasti used in the construction was also readily available.
Cement was used to make the walls, instead of real stone or coral, and was then hand-carved by artists to get the run-down look needed. The intricate details were considered important, so much so that birds’ nests were placed in random cubbyholes – something that can be found in real souqs as well.
“All this detail adds authenticity to the place and fuels the visitor’s curiosity. They will fly back to the 1960s — like in Back to the Future,” he said.
The items kept on display throughout the restaurant and café like old pots and pans, tableware and home appliances were all used in the region decades ago.
An old, rusty bicycle that is parked in a corner of the café near the exit was bought by Al Marzouqi by a man off the street near his home. “I saw a guy riding this bicycle, stopped him and told him I wanted to buy it from him. I asked how much a brand new one would cost him. When he said Dhs 300, I paid him that amount and got this in return. I did not touch anything after buying it — it looks exactly how it was when he was riding it. His soul is there and it represents the labourer who works in the souk.”
Similarly, he bought an old TV set in India and installed a new model instead.
To him, this was part of getting the interiors right. “This is a very important part of the design process, to bring it to that level of credibility. I’m not around in the restaurant all the time to explain the story to everyone who walks through the door. My environment should be able to speak for itself.
“You can see even the pavement in the souq is what you’ll find outside in the real world. I could’ve used other flooring, but you don’t put marble floors in a souq,” he added.
The furniture was designed by Al Marzouqi and produced in Indonesia, with a rough, uneven surface created on them using the method of sand-blasting.
“People ask me if this is a museum and I say yes, it’s a mini-museum where you can dine in. It can provide two experiences – we are shooting two birds with one stone,” he said.
Those who have grown up in the city relate to the interiors in a big and personal way. “People like how it looks. A few of them became emotional to the point where they cried. I think they were so touched by the environment, they could not control their feelings as they were reminded of their childhood.”
Al Fanar doesn’t stop there. Currently plans are underway to expand in the same location, with the adjacent shops bought for this purpose. That section will focus on the lifestyle of a pearl diver in his home.
The design has already been completed, and an old boat from Khor Fakkan has been bought to use as a prop for the interiors. The rooms there are expected to function as private and spacious cubicles for families.
Al Marzouqi said he is proud HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has visited Al Fanar and said it is his national duty to contribute to His Highness’ vision for Dubai as a city.
“Dubai is at such a high standing; it’s a waste of time and effort if you cannot match up to that standard. My advice is that if you want to do something, do it at a level your country belongs to and expects. Dubai ranks with all the big cities in the world in terms of everything. My duty is to do something that His Highness is proud of,” he added.