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Dubai’s best unsung bars

By Andrew Madigan 6 January 2020

Dubai is glitzy and glamorous, but it can also be cold, lifeless, and sterile, which comes out in the nightlife. Many of the bars and clubs are filled with bad music, confused tourists, wealthy expats, and corporate sponsors, but not much life or energy. Due to local regulations, almost all the bars are in hotels, resorts, and health clubs, so free-standing spaces are rare. Live music usually means cover bands, and two of the most popular venues are the Hard Rock Café and Pizza Express. Yes, Pizza Express. To make things worse, many of the best pubs have closed down (remember the Bunker, anyone?). Nonetheless, there are still great nightspots in the city. Here’s our guide to the best pubs, dives, and lesser-known bars of Dubai.

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The Red Lion

This is one of the oldest bars in Dubai, dating back to 1979. That’s basically a millennium in Dubai years, where new buildings are constantly being torn down to put up something bigger and better. The Red Lion is in the Metropolitan Hotel south of the city centre, in the heart of an industrial area so uncool it’s hip. The beauty of this place is that it doesn’t try too hard. With lots of natural wood and high vaulted ceilings, the space feels like a barn in the English countryside, circa the coronation of Henry VIII. The staff is friendly, service is quick, and the beer is cheap. Come here for a night out with friends to sample a wide range of German, Dutch and English beers. There’s also an impressive selection of cider.

Ratsky

If you want something a little more lively, try Ratsky. It’s the best-named bar in the city and fairly accurate. It’s not a rat cellar, but neither is it the Ritz. Ratsky is the perfect escape from the shallow sameness of Dubai’s luxury hotels. You won’t find many tourists or white-collar expats here in Karama, a cheap part of town that’s home to thousands of labourers from South Asia. What you will find is great Indian food, dancing, graffiti-covered walls, loud music, dim lighting, and a diverse crowd. Ratsky is cheap, unpretentious, and fun. There may be a few sex workers lurking around, but that’s the case in every Dubai nightspot, up- or downscale.

St. Andrews Pub

St Andrews Pub is a traditional British pub in the Chelsea Plaza, a nondescript three-star hotel in Satwa, an ordinary working-class neighbourhood. The bar has an anonymous look as well—old-fashioned, like your auntie’s house that has never had a make-over and never will. But of course, your auntie’s house is also warm, inviting, and comfortable, just like this bar. The menu consists of traditional pub fare plus an assortment of Indian and international dishes. Try a Kilkenny on tap and Guinness Pie for dinner. This is a classic snuggery that’s home to a small set of regulars and the occasional pub crawl crowd. Play a game of darts, relax over a slow pint, or step outside to the pool. Unlike the Dubai bars in many seven-star hotels, there’s no snooty staff to tsk-tsk your sandaled feet or non-collared shirt, or a waitstaff of five to “help” carry your drink from the bar to the poolside deck.

Drink and clink your way around the world

Cowboys Sports Bar

Cowboys Sports Bar is another underground institution in Karama. It’s located in the President, an unassuming two-star hotel where a president is very unlikely to stay. You won’t find a day spa here or a selection of Cuban cigars and fine wines, but you will get quick friendly service, excellent South Asian food, and a festive vibe. This is a local neighbourhood bar with an Indian twist. Best of all, it’s mostly undiscovered by Emiratis, tourists and white-collar expats alike. Cowboys is a dark space, below ground, with plenty of quiet corners for privacy. This is a great place to shoot pool, have a late dinner, and enjoy the cheap beer.

Nippon Bottle Company

Right in the centre of town on Sheikh Zayed Road, Nippon Bottle Company is in the Dusit Thani hotel, which looks like a giant upside-down tuning fork. This place isn’t cheap, but it’s stylish, hip, and has what no other bar in the city has—an impressive menu of Japanese whiskey and sake. As one of the best bars in Dubai, it is spacious but has a number of private nooks for that snug, intimate feel.

As Dubai’s first speakeasy, NBC is cool and sophisticated, if you can find it. The entrance is through two secret entrances on the ground floor, and the door is a bookcase. Push it in the right spot and you’re in, just like every episode of Scooby-Doo. The decor combines Japanese minimalism—dim lights, dark wood, tasteful woodblock prints—with a touch of glowing red neon from the Tokyo streets. You can try their eclectic bar bites (Korean fried chicken, ginger hoisin duck tacos) and a large selection of Scotch, wine and inventive cocktails.

Biggles Pub

Biggles Pub has been a mainstay of Dubai nightlife for over 20 years. It may not be an éminence grise, but neither is it eminently greasy. Biggles is neither chic and trendy nor a downscale dive. It’s not dull and boring or overpacked and shrill. Instead, it maintains a happy medium between the extremes. Comfortable and comforting, unassuming and unaffected, low-key but still lively—this is everything a pub should be. Located in the Millennium Airport Hotel, Biggles has a WWII aviation theme that hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. Come here to watch a game, drink lager, enjoy garden views, and avoid the city’s fickle trends.

Beach Lounge

The best location in the city—the beach right outside Jumeirah Beach Hotel. The hotel is shaped like a wave and the world-famous Burj Al Arab next door is shaped like a sailboat. Sure, Dubai can be a bit heavy-handed with its architectural symbolism, but Beach Lounge is the ideal place to be at sundown. They make the best whiskey sours in town, and the atmosphere is both chill and inviting. Take your shoes off, have some tapas, order a hookah pipe, and enjoy the fact that the unrelenting sun has finally gone down. You can request a private cabana, sit by the fire pit, or take a walk on the beach.

Andrew Madigan

Contributor

Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Observer, Lucky Peach, VinePair, Smart Travel Asia, Live & Invest Overseas, Verge, Outpost, and International Living.

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