Keeping customs alive

Amid the glitzy modern coffee houses of the UAE, traditional Arab cafés still form an important part of the urban landscape and are frequented by the local community as well as expatriates and tourists.

The Aroma Garden Caffée is a quintessential Arab coffee house that has been in Dubai for five years. Built in the style of a traditional Arab home, it attracts the curiosity of many passers by. "The café's ambience is calming. It has been designed as an Arab inspired house," says Gina Serapon, Operations Manager.

"Our regular clientele consists of many UAE nationals as well as visitors from other GCC countries. It is really nice to see guests return faithfully year after year. For us this is not just a simple coffee shop, we also offer breakfast and dinner and provide an atmosphere for the entire family. It's a large café so we offer them much more room and privacy which they don't get in ordinary malls."

Relaxed pace

Owner Mohammad Ihsan Atif, a Saudi national, did not want to create just an ordinary coffee shop, says Serapon. "He wanted to offer people something more than what one sees in malls. With its vibrant green ambience this café is automatically more relaxing. We invite people to get away from the bustle of life. In fact many people mistake the café for a plant store because of all the greenery here."

The café's other outlet is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with one more being planned. "I don't believe that traditional Arab cafés are a dying breed because we are here to live it up. We offer all traditional Arabic dishes and try and make the food as similar to home cooked meals," says Serapon.

"Dates are popular with our guests. We serve dates especially during Ramadan at Iftar time along with Arabic coffee. Our fresh date cakes are requested by guests who often order them as gifts for friends. Our cinnamon cake is also popular with Arab guests."

Loyal customers

But do Arab cafés still attract young coffee lovers? "Traditional Arab cafés will still attract many loyal and new customers due to authenticity, local charm and traditional flair, which would be unavailable in other speciality coffee houses," says Reeves Vaz, Operations and Training Manager, Second Cup, BinHendi Enterprises.

Arab cafés are here to stay, says Radwan Masri, General Manager, United Restaurant Development, which runs three franchises - Cinnabon, Seattle's Best Coffee and Zaatar W Zeit. In addition to Arabs, these cafés are popular with a variety of customers. "They frequent Arab cafés mainly for the shisha or hubbly bubbly. Turkish coffee is not served in most of the regular cafés whereas it is served in Arab cafés so the atmosphere and menus are completely different in both," he says.

"People visit Arab cafés for a taste of the region as well as the culture and diversity. People frequent these places for a taste of this experience," says David Rodgers, General Manager, Dunkin' Donuts.

A coffee lover's companion

A common sight in most traditional Arab cafés is a shisha or water pipe, which is a traditional way to smoke flavoured tobacco.

Considered one of the oldest traditions in Turkey, the hookah - or nargile as it is called locally - started a whole new tradition of smoking that has endured for many years.

The original nargile came from India but was made of coconut shells. Its popularity soon spread to Iran and then to the rest of the Arab world.

Shisha remains an important part of the coffee shop culture, not only in the Middle East but in international cities as well.

Many believe that smoking a shisha is less injurious than cigarettes since the water removes some of the harmful chemicals.

"Our shisha is popular with the guests, especially the Saudi and Omani nationals who come to try the special grape flavour. It is nice to see customers relax and feel at home as they sit back and smoke the shisha," says Gina Serapon of Aroma Garden Caffée.

Published in Gulf News, October 9, 2006