Monday, October 26, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: dining out

The first time we ate there was during Ramadan. We had spent the entire day shopping and organizing our apartment, and when the sun finally set, signaling that restaurants were open, we dragged our weary selves the few blocks to the local Lebanese joint, arriving hot, thirsty and famished. We were seated in a room with just one other table (a family of 8 or so), and about 5 waiters milling about. Yet somehow it took 10 minutes before anyone brought us menus and another 10 for water, even though we had twice flagged someone down and reminded him of our needs.

We finally ordered, deciding to skip the appetizer and jump right into dinner, and splitting an entrĂ©e because it was so late in the evening by then that we didn’t want to eat too much. After another sizable wait our food arrived, and it was an absolutely fabulous array of grilled lamb, chicken and beef, all perfectly seasoned and tender, with generous sides of flatbread, hummus, olives and pickles. Despite our grouchiness, we loved the food and scarfed it down quickly, declining our waiter’s offer for dessert or coffee, as we were anxious to get home. But after this last exchange, no one out of the cadre of waiters would even glance in our direction, or if they did notice my hand waving at them, they seemed to be ignoring it. They stood around chatting with each other, and then would suddenly rush by our table to the table across the room, bringing them more food, laughing and interacting as if they were part of the family.

Our plates long emptied and pushed aside, our water glasses empty, we asked for the check but then continued to sit for what seemed like ages without being able to catch anyone’s eye, confused as to why the other table was receiving such good service and wondering if it was racially motivated. Exasperated, we gave up and walked to the front entrance to ask the host for our check. We paid our bill without tipping and left in a huff, vowing never to return.

The second time we ate there was this weekend, after yet another long day of unpacking and organizing around the apartment. Enough time had passed to allow our anger to dissipate, and we decided the food was so good that avoiding the place was only punishing ourselves. We were seated on the lovely patio (now possible with the cooler evening air) which was strung with colorful lights and wafting with the fragrance of a fruit-flavored Nargile pipe. Though we were tired, we decided to order in courses, first nibbling on the olive plate, then ordering falafel and fries, then the mixed grill that we had enjoyed so much the first time, along with the house-special fruit cocktail (non-alcoholic, of course). We ate slowly, relaxed in our chairs, enjoying the lively music playing in the background and observing the interactions of the families around us. Our waiter did not hover but was attentive, making certain we had enough water, spacing our courses evenly, and stopping by periodically to banter with Sam, who was practicing his Arabic.

When we had eaten as much as we possibly could, the waiter asked if we wanted coffee. I started to decline, saying it would keep me awake, but when I saw an injured expression pass across the waiter’s face, I reversed course and said “sure.” He smiled and rushed away, returning not with coffee but with a huge plate of sliced watermelon which he had lovingly garnished with ice cubes, and said it was on the house. He returned a few minutes later with two very strong Turkish coffees. We nibbled on the watermelon and sipped the coffee, assuring the waiter of how much we were enjoying it when he asked expectantly—by this time his concern for our pleasure had begun to amuse us. During the course of our meal, it had occurred to Sam that the change in the restaurant’s behavior toward us was a direct result of the change in our behavior as diners.

Middle Eastern cultures take hospitality quite seriously, so even in a restaurant, it seems, you are not entering into a mere business transaction – money for prepared food – rather, you are a guest in the hands of the restaurant owner and staff, the same as if you are a guest in someone’s home. Sure, you can make genteel requests, such as whether you would like sugar in your coffee, but you must not make demands, and certainly must not rebuff an offer of hospitality such as coffee (or watermelon); even if you are in a hurry, it would be rude, an affront to the quality of their goods. Thus, it is the waiter, not the patron, who decides the pace of the evening (no notion of table-turnover here), for he is proud of his restaurant and anxious to show you all he has to offer. By not having our own agenda that evening, we not only felt more relaxed, but we pleased our host and encouraged him to pamper us.

When it seemed like enough time had passed and there would be no more surprise courses or visits to our table, we asked the manager for the bill (we learned that waiters there do not handle money), tipping generously this time, and made our way to the exit, completely amazed at the difference in our two experiences. At the doorway our waiter met us and shook our hands (a first for me), delighted that the evening had gone so well.


  1. Good for you guys! Man, you're already light years ahead of some other expats I've been around in Africa. I'm proud of you both not only for giving them a second chance but also for giving them the benefit of the doubt and refusing to play the victim. Keep it up! :-)

  2. This was a very enlightening contrast between your two experiences.

  3. Wow, what a difference from America!

    A cool thing is developing here. Looks like we may have a benefit concert here at the church for AIDS orphans in Cameroon. We want to raise $2500, which is enough to send 50 orphans to school for one year. This is being arranged through Isaiah's brother. I would really like to go to Cameroon to deliver the money myself. Want to meet me there?


  4. Great stories. Very interesting. I'll take my tame at Wrappro in Cambridge next time...

  5. That is a wonderful have a good memory to be able to step outside of the experience and piece together such a major cultural observation. I'm not sure if that sentence makes sense, but I think you know what I mean. :)
    It makes me think of what my mom says sometimes. She goes,"I can't believe how long it took me to prepare that meal, and it's gone in ten minutes!" Also, everyone has left the table and she's left to clean up (me, too, if I'm around, or else I'm giving the kids a bath so she really is alone). I'm glad you were able to have such a nice second experience and relax. When you are done organizing your apartment do you want to come help me organize our house?! Ha, ha.

  6. That story is kind of hilarious! So all you have to do is say how good the food is and they bring you more...for free...and lovingly garnish your food?? Awesome.