If you haven’t already guessed by some of my previous posts (and certainly those who know me know this well) – I love food and eating out. Dining out in Riyadh is certainly a unique experience:
1. Take Away: The ubiquitous take away places typically serve sandwiches and other quick snacks, like shawarma, ‘subba’ (which literally means ‘cement’ – it’s a wrap sandwich stuffed with falafel and a boiled egg, and sits like cement in your stomach – but it’s oh so good!), hummus, ‘fool’ (mashed beans), and the like. I’ve already hailed Mama Noura, which is a local favorite. Most of these places are not strictly take-away – many actually have some seating for people (i.e. males) to eat, but I have never seen one with a family section. This means that when we get a hankering for some Saudi fast food, I get to sit in the car while camelman goes in to fetch our orders. It’s not much fun for me as I am stuck in the car and miss out on all the hustle and bustle of these places. But the food is definitely worth the wait!
2. ‘Traditional’ Restaurants: By ‘traditional’, I mean that they serve Middle Eastern cuisine (most popular seem to be Saudi, Lebanese, and Turkish restaurants). Of course, there are separate family and bachelor sections. Here’s an example of the spread you can get (and before you get too excited – no, that is not a real beer on the left, just non-alcoholic beer, i.e. wheat and barley juice):
But the unique experience of going to these sorts of restaurants is that when you sit in the family section, you actually get your own room. (Yep, your own private dining room, or at least an enclosed booth, so that you’re protected from the prying eyes of male strangers.) When you need service, there’s a buzzer in the room to call for the waiter. Speaking of service, try ordering a beer. Chances are, it’ll come a bit warm, or at least room temperature. So when you complain that it is not cold enough, they come back with a glass of ice. (Iced barley juice! I know … why do we even bother?) There’s usually no music and you don’t get the usual restaurant background noise of the waiters bustling about and the din from other diners, so there’s not much ambience. As camelman says, you might as well just eat at home.
I haven’t taken many photos of the inside of these sort of restaurants, but here’s a shot of a restaurant we once stopped at when we took a pit stop at a highway gas station.
You can see some of the tables curtained off for the family section. This place was obviously a bit of a dive.
One of our favorite ‘traditional’ restaurants in Riyadh is a Turkish restaurant called Al Saraya (although it’s been iffy lately). But the hilarious thing about this restaurant is the interior decor. It’s filled with stuffed animals – but not the type you had as a kid. Imagine sitting in a family section booth, with a giraffe looking over your table. And imagine eating your dinner with these guys gleefully grinning at you:
3. Trendy, western-style dining. And finally, there are more upscale, western-like restaurants popping up more and more. From my experience, most of these places are more about presenting a trendy facade rather than providing quality food and service. The decor is very fancy and actually looks kind of lounge-y, with dark booths, moody lighting, and sometimes even a bar.
We have a hypothesis that the owners are betting on the fact that one day, alcohol will be allowed in the country and when (if) that happens, they will be very well positioned to open the first nightclubs. In the meantime, these are the venues that tend to be more popular with the twenty-something crowd. There are still the nominal bachelor and family sections, but the family sections have few booths and certainly no private rooms. Most of the tables are set up in the open and we have observed in the past several years that groups and families with young Saudi women are more willing to sit there and even remove their niqabs. Sitting at an open table in a restaurant may seem like no big deal to us, but to me, it represents another sign of change in Saudi society.