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Restaurant experiences

I am fortunate to be able to travel a lot in my current role, and this of course means eating out regularly. Over the last two years, I have eaten in the poshest restaurants, been the guest of honour in a tent in the middle of the desert, dined at the homes and country residences of wealthy Saudi friends, been to top hotels for corporate events etc etc. I have also - deliberately and sometimes involuntarily - eaten in fly-blown roadside truckstops and back-street Pakistani dine-ins where the ubiquitous formica-topped tables are probably originals from the days when formica actually was manufactured.

Generally, the more upmarket the joint, the more western-oriented the experience. This would be all well and good if they had western trained staff. I have never seen a European, North American or Kiwi/Oz person serving in any restaurant in KSA. Us white slaves are here to provide knowledge and engineering expertise and we occupy a niche that the Saudis allow us to, that of privileged ex-pats. All manual and menial work is done by ex-pats from Asia and they populate the restaurants.

Most western-style restaurants have the better end of the serving classes, and these tend to be Filipino or Malay in origin. They are usually adequate/good English speakers, well mannered and obsequious in manner. I have a suspicion that there are colleges or finishing schools in those countries which churn out these people by the thousand. If that’s the case, they have spotted an opportunity in the market and are exploiting it well. They don’t seem to recognise that there are cultural differences between different western ex-pat nationalities, so the American style is the default mode. Fortunately, they haven’t been programmed to insincerely wish us to “Have a nice day” as we leave their emporia. Small mercies. One restaurant that Elaine and I frequent in Riyadh (because we like its food) has staff that are so attentive that they hover about and try to lift plates as soon as you put your knife and fork down to take a breath. We usually manage to intervene in time. There was one occasion when Elaine had finished he main course a few minutes ahead of me, and she had her empty plate whisked away and was presented with the sweet menu and asked if she would like tea or coffee as I continued to eat. They are just desperate to please, and I imagine that tips form a substantial part of their remuneration.

We had an unfortunate phase of poor food in our compound’s restaurant recently, and the main course food was being served lukewarm to the table. Having tasted it, and having sent it back to be re-cooked / heated or whatever it wasn’t as enjoyable as food we had waited for with anticipation. This happened a couple of times, the food was replaced without quibble. The second time I explained to the serving staff after the meal that there was no tip because the food had arrived cold. Next time we ate there we specified at the point of order that we expected the food to be hot, and so it was. We gave a slightly inflated tip and told the server that this was because we expected the food always to be hot. The message seems to have got through now!.

Ordering tea and coffee is a lottery as you are never sure what will turn up. Unless you go to an international chain of course where everything is standardised, and there is a certain comfort to that. I do like a nice cup of tea, but have given up asking for “tea”. I now ask for boiling water in a pot or mug, select the tea-bag I want from the choice available (usually English Breakfast), and ask for cold milk on the side. This last bit is important, if I just say “with milk please”, even the international chains seem to put a huge quality of steamed milk in and I have ended up with tea-latte (yuk). Therefore, with tea I have become very pernickety and insist on making it myself. Even in the office where my colleagues delight in teasing me about it.

Talking of international chains, most of the ones we see in the UK seem to have a foothold here. There are also north American ones that I haven’t yet seen at home here, and these include Tim Horton’s, Buffalo Wild Wings (which refers to the style of chicken served in the USA city, not a menu item), Hardee’s, I-HOP, Herfy, and the appallingly-named Fatburger. I have even seen a “Wimpy”, a brand I had thought to be extinct. Some of these chains might be middle-East only so I am not sure. There are also some places that try and pass themselves off as international chains but fail on some critical point – usually the quality. There are a few international restaurants that have completely lost whatever special ambience that the chain or franchise would ordinarily demand. An example of this is Planet Hollywood in Riyadh which we had the misfortune to eat in a few months ago. I am sure there are many good restaurants elsewhere in the world in the same chain, but based on our experience in Riyadh we won’t be darkening their doorsteps.  

There are some areas in the city where encampments of snack-wagons have sprung up, and these are popular for Saudis in the late evening and wee sma’ hours. The names and decoration on these are inventive and interesting and I guess many – were they in the UK – would give our Trading Standards or Public Health officers a field day in issuing prohibitions. I have never been desperate enough to try any of these wagons. The young generation of Saudis, particularly the males, seem to be very fond of junk food, and this is becoming noticeable in body shape. They are probably 10 years behind the USA and 5 behind the UK in that respect. My local hospital in Riyadh openly advertises that they undertake hundreds of “gastric sleeve” operations every year.




Apartheid is still practised in the restaurants in KSA, with “Singles” and “Families” separate salons. The “Singles” is for single or groups of men and is the opposite of a dating scene as the name could imply. The “Families” is for any combination of people as long as one of them is a woman or child. Given a choice, I’d prefer to take Elaine into the “Singles” as it is much more civilised. Whenever there are Saudi kids in a restaurant we rarely seem to get a peaceful meal. The amount of noise and aggravation in the restaurant is often to the square of the number of children present. Even in the major chains, screened areas are provided for family groups. Alcoves and booths are common, and these have a curtain or moveable screen available to give the occupants further privacy. Sadly, these are not soundproofed. There are different ways of summoning the waiting staff, the most common one being the shout-through-the-curtain method. Some restaurants provide a bell or buzzer, but these are fewer in number.

Some restaurants seem to have quite a short shelf-life here. In our two years we have seen the appearance and disappearance of many. Just this week, we went to an Italian restaurant that had good write-ups, and when we got there it was open, looked like an Italian from the interior décor, but was now selling Armenian food. We stayed, having made the journey, especially as we had just got in the door before a prayer time and found what we had ordered to be pleasantly agreeable. When the bill was presented, it still referred to the previous name – Antica Roma!

All in all, dining out in KSA is an interesting experience. And that’s before I start on about the food!

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