DUBAI IS A city that tends to divide opinion. While some admire its build-it-and-they-will-come spirit, others turn their noses up at the perceived extra-ness of it all. But away from the vertiginous skyscrapers, the parade of G-Wagons, and the Champagne brunches is a different city, a Dubai made up of diverse communities and neighborhoods, where people of approximately 200 nationalities live alongside one another. It’s a place where the ruins of a 1,000-year-old caravanserai sit in view of the world’s tallest building, date palms provide shelter from the blazing sun, and little wooden boats cross Dubai Creek for less than what is 30 cents a trip.
One of the best ways to get to know it all is by diving into the growing cafe scene. When I first moved here seven years ago, it was easier to find big international coffee chains than a specialty Chemex or V60. But things have changed, and today your cold drip might be served in a space that incorporates a custom motorcycle workshop, a chocolate factory, a perfumery, or a classic car collection. In the winter months, the desert offers pit-stop roadside cafes and pop-ups like Not a Space, a hangout in the dunes with beanbags, coffee, and performances.
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With all this choice, it’s hard to know where to start. This isn’t a city designed for wandering and serendipitous discoveries, so it’s better to have a destination in mind before embarking on a potentially frustrating journey. Dubai-based Andy Anderson’s FLTR magazine is a good place to get an overview of the specialty coffee scene and the people behind it. A self-confessed coffee obsessive, he discovered “real” coffee in Ethiopia, but he’s also “not averse to a Starbucks Double Caramel Frappuccino now and then,” believing that there’s a time and place for all types of coffee. It’s a refreshing attitude in an industry where snobbism can creep in, and a reflection of the refreshing diversity of Dubai’s cafe scene, where a sense of community is often as important as the coffee.
While there may be a current cafe boom, coffee has a long history in Dubai, having spread through the Arabian Peninsula on trade routes from Yemen. Arabic coffee is such an important part of the region’s hospitality that it was inscribed onto UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2015. Mohammed Kazim, researcher, cofounder of Arabian culture-based footwear brand Tamashee, and my go-to for everything related to the United Arab Emirates, tells me that when coffee first arrived it was considered a blessing, prepared at home and offered to visiting guests.
The journey that the coffee beans took as they spread out from Yemen impacted how much they were roasted. “Coffee found in Europe was the darkest roast because the more they roasted it, the longer it would last as it traveled. The closer you get to Yemen, the lighter the roast,” says Kazim. Communities located on major spice trade routes started adding cardamom, saffron, and cloves to enhance the flavor, and a culture grew around the ceremony of preparing and serving coffee.
Although it’s difficult to find hard and fast historical evidence, Kazim believes that the concept of the cafe in the Arabian Peninsula sprung from the importance of the majlis, the traditional gathering place central to every home. The 1920s and ’30s saw the emergence of coffee and tea houses along Dubai Creek, the waterfront area where trading boats would land goods from Asia. While the originals may not remain today, the Arabian Tea House, located in a 100-year-old former pearl trader’s home, is built on the nostalgia of old times, and gives a sense of what these early cafes might have felt like.
Aside from the popularity of the drinks, there was another element that fueled the growth of cafes. “Dubai is interesting because we were incentivized to push consumption, and that’s why cafe culture got fueled,” says Kazim. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It developed creativity, and developed the industry and infrastructure behind it, the distributors of beans, machines, and design-oriented people,” he says.
There’s no shortage of creativity in Dubai’s coffee scene today. But at its heart, Kazim believes the spirit of the majlis is still there. “If I want a community feel I go to To The Moon & Back because it reminds me of my dad’s days when they gathered in a teahouse,” he says. “We’re gathering with like-minded people, like in the majlis, and we know whose ‘house’ to go to [to talk about] different topics.”
And there’s no shortage of “houses” to choose from across the city today.
While many of Dubai’s cafes focus on specialty coffee, it’s not all about the bean. In the past few years, the seaside Jumeirah neighborhood has seen a surge in cafes that offer more than a quick caffeine fix. Australian-owned Stomping Grounds was a pioneer of the Jumeirah cafe scene, a place with good coffee, a sense of community, and great food. It’s still going strong, but has been joined by many others.
Perhaps it’s the sharp desert light, but there’s a touch of Palm Springs about some of Jumeirah’s modernist white villas, many of which are sadly being lost to development. Every time a new cafe moves into one of them, it’s like a reprieve, a new incarnation of a space that (hopefully) guarantees a few more years of life ahead.
When it opened a couple of years back, it was practically impossible to find a table at Heal. For weeks on end, uber-stylish Emiratis came in droves to enjoy flat whites and plates of Turkish eggs topped with za’atar labneh among the young olive trees and cacti surrounding the outdoor terrace. Fortunately, Heal’s terracotta-roofed white villa is a little calmer these days, and it’s a relaxing spot for an hour spent with a book and a beverage, or a browse indoors at the Heal Home concept store, filled with earth-toned homeware and flowy linen loungewear.
A few blocks over, The Grey has given a sleek urban makeover to another villa, a minimalist space surrounded by gravel gardens, geometric strips of lawn, and a low central water feature. Baristas make cold brew, V60, and ash coffee at a long gray terrazzo counter where a glass case displays lemon meringue cronuts and charcoal croissants. Drinks are served in custom-made cups by a local Dubai-based ceramicist, and they’re as serious here about their food as they are their coffee — the miso shrimp mafaldine pasta offers a glimpse of the talent in the kitchen.
Cafe Villa 515, in a converted residential villa on Jumeirah Beach Road, grew out of the founders’ on-site perfume boutique and fragrance laboratory. In the cooler months, the courtyard, entered via an archway draped with thick velvet curtains and filled with flowering plants and tinkling fountains, is the perfect place for an iced hibiscus tea and a violet milk cake — a delicate sponge with a tiny jug of pour-over purple milk. Before leaving, take a squirt of the hand sanitizer scented with Tola, the owner’s own perfume blend.
On a recent warm evening, I sat with a friend beneath the spreading branches of a ghaf tree, sipping a yuzu shake tonic. All the while, a little boy dressed in a pristine kandura rolled down a grassy hillock, a teenager practiced Muay Thai, and the call to prayer sounded from the neighborhood mosque. It’s all part of the unexpected scenery that surrounds The Barn Berlin, a German import largely catering to coffee connoisseurs. But its home in a reclaimed wood and coral stone building under a 1980s-era water tower in Al Khazzan Park appeals to a much broader audience.
Founder Ralf Rueller opened the Dubai outpost of his popular Berlin roastery in October 2021, next to ice cream shop and all-day diner Hapi, owned by a friend and long-term coffee customer. For Rueller, specialty coffee is all about the terroir, and the menu focuses on single-origin beans, 75% of which are natural, anaerobic, or honey processed. He wants his customers to slow down with his coffees, and to connect through them to the farms and their stories. And he has a hard and fast rule. “Our V60 is only served black, with no milk or sugar allowed,” says Rueller. “I want people to experience the terroir of single-origin coffee, to understand the difference between Yemen, Ethiopia, and Guatemala.”
In an unassuming building in the Al Quoz industrial district, Mirzam’s Chief Chocolate Officer Kathy Johnston and her team make magic happen. Behind huge picture windows, chocolate makers craft bars, pralines, and truffles as machines whirl and swirl in the background. Ingredients are sourced from along the ancient spice routes — Mirzam is the name of a star used historically for celestial navigation by Arab traders — and all of the chocolate is made right here, from bean to bar. It’s an energetic scene, with shoppers picking up gifts, families visiting for workshops and factory tours, and the high-ceilinged, light-filled cafe filled with people chatting, meeting, sipping, and eating. But the initial intention wasn’t to have a cafe here at all.
“We noticed that people who came in to visit [the chocolate factory] were sometimes confused because the roaster is so similar visually to a coffee roaster,” says Johnston, who didn’t want to “cloud the customer chocolate experience” by offering coffee alongside it. “Eventually we relaxed and started by installing a small coffee machine, allowing us also to make hot chocolate,” she says. Today, they’re serious about specialty coffee, offering coffee and cocoa pairing workshops where visitors can learn about the alignment between craft chocolate and specialty coffee, and learn why much of the language used to describe them — single origin, fermentation, etc. — is the same.
Family-run Cafe Rider is another warehouse space in Al Quoz that reveals surprising secrets. It’s the passion project of an owner who wanted to bring his love of motorcycles and coffee together, with a rack for crash helmets and a line-up of motorcycles right inside the door. Over a cascara soda, made from the dried skins of coffee cherries, General Manager Stefanie van den Brandt explains that what started as a coffee bar with motorbikes has now grown to include its own roastery, a two-floor cafe space, and an area for bike-related merchandise, as well as a glass-walled workshop where motorbikes can be custom-built, repaired, restored, or serviced.
Like many other Dubai cafes, community is key here, and whereas in the early years most customers were either bikers or coffee lovers, today the audience is more diverse. The pandemic and the closure of offices across the city saw Cafe Rider become a hangout for those looking for alternative places to work, a welcoming third space where all-day breakfast really means all-day, and where people are as happy working on their small businesses as they are working their way through the extensive food menu, covering everything from Japanese omurice to banh mi and halloumi burgers.
Aside from coffee, karak is the other caffeine-based beverage that fuels the city. A hot, sweet, spiced milk tea similar to Indian masala chai, karak has its own culture, and is as loved by those who have it delivered to the windows of their supercars from neighborhood cafeterias as by those who drink 1-dirham cups at street stalls.
Based inside the Alserkal Avenue art district’s Cinema Akil, the region’s first arthouse cinema, Project Chaiwala honors these traditions but elevates the experience. Founded by Ahmed Kazim and Justin Joseph, two friends who grew up in Dubai, the cafe offers ethically sourced organic tea from the women-led Nuxalbari Tea Estate in Darjeeling, following a mantra of “real chai, real people.” The menu includes alternative milks and vegan options, along with snacks such as the Smashmosa, a crushed samosa topped with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves. Although they’ve now expanded to multiple venues across the city, there’s something special about the Cinema Akil location. The theatrical pouring of the chai, a steaming stream from a large brass teapot poured from a height into handmade clay cups, is reason enough to visit.
It’s hard to find Flat 12. The road looks as if it leads directly to the shipyards of Port Rashid, but keep driving and after a couple of minutes you’ll arrive at a community of warehouses that are home to a roller rink, parkour gym, padel tennis courts, and one of Dubai’s most unusual cafes.
Run by former professional rally driver Mohammed Al Sahlawi and his five brothers, Flat 12, named after a Porsche 12-cylinder engine, grew out of a series of community events for classic car owners across Dubai. After a few years, the brothers realized that they needed a permanent space to bring car lovers together, and in December 2021 Flat 12 cafe was born. Located in one of the first warehouses ever to be built in the UAE in the 1970s, the soaring ceilings and industrial volumes are home to a space that is half cafe, half classic car showroom — on any given day you might find an E-type Jaguar, a Ford GT, or a Shelby Daytona.
In the morning, the crowd is largely made up of couples and friends gathering for coffee, breakfast, and a slice of decadent homemade date cheesecake. Throughout the day, car owners come to make use of the expert car-washing services, and others stop by to work, considering Flat 12 an extension of their offices. The walls feature paintings and photography by Dubai-based artists, and there’s a small merchandise area featuring local brands. It’s all part of the sense of community and local partnerships that are at the heart of the space. “You can’t clap with one hand,” says Al Sahlawi. “You need to work with other people.”
It’s that sentiment that sums up Dubai’s cafe culture as a whole, the feeling that, by creating a sense of community, they’re also creating a sense of home for residents and visitors alike. Dubai’s superlatives may draw most of the attention, but it’s in the cafes where much of the city’s soul can be found.
Nicola Chilton Writer
Nicola Chilton has lived and worked in six countries and currently makes the United Arab Emirates home. She writes about people and places for a number of major publications in the US, Europe, Middle East, and Asia.
Prod Antzoulis Photographer
Prod Antzoulis is a Cypriot-born photographer and creative director raised in Dubai. With an aesthetic firmly rooted in the Middle East, Antzoulis captures the lifestyle and consumer culture while attempting to narrate his journey, mapping reference points which allow him to decipher his cross-cultural identity.