Eating Local: Where to Try Abu Dhabi’s Best Dishes

From croissants and pickled eggplant at breakfast to late-night kunafa, here are our favorite spots to dine out in the capital city.

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Villa Mamas offers some great dishes—and 20 percent of profits go to humanitarian efforts.

Courtesy of Villa Mamas

For centuries, the Arabian Gulf has been a center of trade, and the food of the region reflects this history of cultural and culinary exchange. Flavors from ancient spice routes and nearby countries have all made their way to these shores, with ingredients like saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, and loomi dried lime all becoming essential features of local dishes. With more than 200 nationalities living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today, it’s possible to find food from nearly everywhere on the planet. But it’s worth seeking out local favorites, from traditional meat and rice platters made to be shared, fresh seafood from the surrounding waters, modern takes on classic dishes, and the wide variety of desserts that suits the region’s very sweet tooth.

Here’s our pick of places to try Arabian Gulf flavors in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.

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Breakfasts at Home Bakery feature poached eggs and French toast, sure, but they include a host of additional flavors.

Courtesy of Home Bakery

A serene breakfast at Home Bakery in Umm Al Emarat Park

Umm Al Emarat Park, filled with chirping bulbuls and cooing doves, provides the backdrop for a surprisingly bucolic breakfast in the center of the city. Skip the eggs and waffles and opt for Home Bakery’s far more exciting regionally inspired dishes. The rolled croissant topped with gently spiced labneh, pickled eggplant makdous, house-made dukkah, and two poached eggs is a tasty start, the croissant flaky and buttery, the toppings mixing salty, spicy, and crunchy for a morning kick. There’s also ful (bean stew), a popular staple across the Middle East, but here it’s smoked for an extra punch. For a sweet option, the saffron karak French toast is hard to beat, topped with a ganache flavored with karak chai, the spiced milk tea much loved across the region.

Classic Emirati favorites and local ingredients at retro-cool Meylas

Meylas’s location in a modern residential complex, across the water from the Yas Marina Circuit F1 racetrack, may not seem like the most natural setting for an authentic Emirati meal, but the food here is as genuine as it gets. The decor focuses on the vintage, a cozy mix of retro tchotchkes—enamel plates, old soda bottles, worn trunks—as well as jars of green mango and preserved lemon pickles, local favorite Eagle Brand hot sauce, and clarified ghee, a key ingredient in Emirati cuisine, lined up on shelves. Meylas favorites include the traditional Emirati breakfast dish balaleet, sweet saffron- and cardamom-scented vermicelli topped with a thin omelet, as well as chbab pancakes with date syrup, local honey, and processed cheese, and the paste-like harees, a blend of boiled wheat, veal, salt, and ghee that’s an acquired taste—and texture—but one worth trying for a real traditional Emirati flavor. Come during the winter season for salads made from the thinly sliced leaves of the ghaf, the UAE’s national tree, or go for the wrap made from thin rgaag bread stuffed with minced camel meat and Emirati spices.

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Bu Tafish has been slinging seafood for more than fifty years.

Courtesy of Bu Tafish

Arabian seafood at local favorite Bu Tafish

Walk into Bu Tafish and you’ll be greeted by staff in jaunty captain’s uniforms and sailor suits. But rather than being a kitsch seafood restaurant, this is one of the city’s favorites. It’s an Abu Dhabi institution dating back to 1968 and was given its name (which roughly translates as “the one who left home and reached a foreign land”) by the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Today, the restaurant sits in a modern building alongside the Marsa Al Bateen marina, but the menu is full of classic dishes that have led to its longevity. Oven-baked fish, grilled prawns with a spicy marinade, calamari with lemon and garlic, and creamy bechamel seafood tajen topped with melted cheese all keep the crowds coming back for more.

Refined Bahraini flavors at Villa Mamas

Located in the Emirates Red Crescent General Secretariat building, Villa Mamas is a popular haunt of government workers during the week and Emirati families on weekends; it showcases the recipes of chef Roaya Saleh from the UAE’s Gulf neighbor, Bahrain. It’s an elegant space where Arabic coffee and dates are served on arrival to whet the appetite. A dish of creamy hummus topped with truffle oil and roasted walnuts is a good place to start, as is the Eggplant Explosion, a mouth-tingling mix of eggplant, onion, walnut, and whey sauce. Mains focus on refined versions of Gulf favorites—smoked lamb mansaf, a deconstructed machboos made with chicken breast, hammour fish with herb rice and tamarind sauce. And there’s another good reason to pay Villa Mamas a visit: 20 percent of profits from the restaurant are donated to the Red Crescent to support humanitarian and development efforts around the world.

Hearty home-style meats and flavor-filled salads at Al Mrzab

Al Mrzab is always packed with local families and groups of friends, and with good reason—the restaurant has been serving tasty, family-style Emirati food for more than 20 years. In the 51-year-old UAE, that counts as a long time. Portions are generous and well-priced, and the friendly staff will happily introduce the menu to the uninitiated. Try the maleh salad, made with chopped salted fish, onion, tomato, lime, and olive oil, for a punchy mix of flavors or the majbous, a biryani-like pile of steaming fragrant rice topped with meat or fish and a scattering of raisins; everything here is a revelation. Hot breads from the tandoor oven, plates of local salad leaves, and spicy sauces accompany the dishes. It’s one of the best introductions to the food and hospitality of the region.

Sweet fried dough balls at Lgymat & Rgag

  • Where: Airport Road, Al Mushrif
  • No reservation needed

Practically every culture has its own version of fried dough, and here in the UAE it’s luqaimat. The unassuming Lgymat & Rgag, a five-minute walk from Mrzab, is one of the best places to try these moreish little dough balls, doused in dibs (date syrup) and sprinkled with sesame. Deep-fried in very hot oil, the luqaimat here are exceptionally crispy on the outside and are surprising light. They’re best eaten fresh from the oil, so dive in as soon as they’re handed to you. Even a small portion is a generous helping, containing around 10 pieces. Lgymat & Rgag is open from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily to satisfy the sweet cravings of the capital, and cars line up outside at all times of the day and night.

Gooey, cheesy nablusia kunafa at Al Aqssa Sweets

  • Where: Al Zahiyah
  • No reservation needed

Kunafa, a sweet dessert made of thin strands of spun pastry and cheese or cream, topped with syrup and a sprinkling of crushed pistachios, is hugely popular across the Gulf, even though it isn’t strictly a local Emirati dessert. Al Aqssa Sweets has been making traditional Palestinian nablusia kunafa in Abu Dhabi for 42 years, and it remains remarkably popular to this day. While there are different types of kunafa from across the region, many traditionalists favor the nablusia version, made using cheese from the town of Nablus in the West Bank for a very distinct tangy saltiness. At Al Aqssa Sweets, large round trays holding different varieties, either crunchy or smooth, sit on stoves in the window, tempting passers-by to come inside and try the warm, gooey dessert. While you’re deciding whether to go for the crunchier khishnah, made with fine strands of vermicelli-like kataifi dough, or the smoother na’ama type, made with a finely ground pastry, you’re likely to be handed a crispy kunafa roll to taste. It’s best served warm (it can go hard and rubbery if left to go cold), and Al Aqssa Sweets has a handful of tables inside so you can sit and eat it straight away.

Writer Nicola Chilton tells the stories of people, places, and unexpected adventures from her home base in Dubai.
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