By Lubna Hamdan
What it's like to dine out in Dubai's once bustling restaurant scene during Covid-19
The warm interiors, the maroon lounge chairs, the sound of my heels on the wooden floors, the mouth watering cod, the heavenly chocolate fondant - the comfort that you know exactly what you'll get when you walk through the doors: oh Zuma, how I've missed you.
If it's a Dubai cliche to head straight to DIFC for your first proper meal out after months in quarantine then consider me guilty. If it's even more of a cliche to head to Zuma, I'll happily serve my sentence. I regret nothing.
And guess what? It felt twice as good. Because now I know my trips to my favorite restaurant will be few and far between - an economic downturn hasn't exactly left much for splurging. And as I head to my table, I cherish every moment. Finally, some nostalgia of my old life.
It feels strange though, I must admit, walking in with gloves and a mask. It's not exactly a good look, and for a second I feel a sense of loss between my dressed up self and my treasured restaurant, like an old friend who might have jumped up to greet you but instead waves from a distance.
The many rules like plastic cups make it all the more surreal and harder to relax, but I feel like a rebel just stepping out of my house, and I'm adamant that nothing's going to kill my vibe, even if my vibe comes with several safety measures.
They don't keep me from enjoying my company. Even the plastic cups look elegant. Why did I expect anything less from Zuma? As a friend put it, it's a "school in hospitality". I order my favorites: shrimp tempura, crispy California, cod in hobo leaf and miso, chili tenderloin beef with sesame and finally chocolate fondant. If I ever had a last meal, this would be it. You see it has sentimental value as the first meal with my first boss who became a mentor; symbolising a reassuring gesture of guidance into the hectic but wonderful world of business journalism. Pieces of advice and words of wisdom shared over a meal and neither to ever be forgotten.
I wouldn't be surprised if many have shared the same memories in this space where everything seems possible, even the revival of the Dubai nightlife as we know it. If Zuma's walls could talk, they would tell of deals made over lunches and dinners, and that would ultimately help shape the city we know. It's not only in high floor boardrooms behind closed doors where the biggest deals are made, but in restaurants too, over perfectly cut sashimi.
It's nearly full aside from a few empty tables, but still optimistic for a Tuesday night. It gives me hope that in a few weeks' or months' time, my darling Zuma and I won't have to greet reluctantly with a mask and gloves. I'll instead be able to sway to its sweet tunes as I sip my favorite drink and watch a thrilled DJ beating a drum on top of its tables.
In fact I could argue that my meals at Zuma could become what they should have always been: a special occasion. Many of us have gotten used to the five star life: after work drinks and dinners, an abundance of social events (many with free drinks and dinners) and a busy calendar that would put New Yorkers to shame (did you know we have more than twice as many dining options per head than the Big Apple?) Oh yes, it's the Dubai life and it's why we love it. But maybe it's time we've slowed down a little bit - stop and smell the roses, stop and taste the meals, stop and appreciate Dubai, even if for the duration of two hours out.
And if you're afraid of stepping outside, dim your lights at home and order yourself a Zuma takeout, because it won't disappoint either. I should know, I recreated the setting of my first meal out with my boss for his birthday. It wasn't quite the same, but the food arrived hot and with it came back the memories.
And this takes me to my final point as I ponder over the future of F&B post-Covid-19. Restaurants are not merely places to eat out. They're the essence of human nature; the need to connect, the need to destress, the need to share moments. Who are we without each other? I'd like to believe this is temporary. Until then, bon appetite to whatever meal you're having and with whomever you're sharing it with. This is my food for thought.