DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Friday will never be the same again.
For those with means in Dubai, what used to be the first day of the weekend was a gluttonous party tradition – an hour-long affair of endless seafood, pizza, dessert and Veuve Clicquot champagne, set to pulsing music known in this city-state simply as ‘ Friday” is known as brunch.”
But as of this year, the UAE has shifted its weekend from Friday and Saturday to Saturday and Sunday – a move to align with global markets and Western schedules.
Now Emirati government employees work half a day with time for church services and family celebrations on Islam’s holy day. However, most of the country’s expatriate-dominated private sector works full-time.
That has thrown Dubai’s beloved Friday brunch – a key revenue stream for COVID-19-hit restaurants that indulge in Instagram-worthy, alcohol-soaked buffets – into disarray.
“The traditional 12pm Friday brunch is dead,” said Adrian John, who, along with his wife Lucy Melts, runs a popular brunch review website in Dubai called “Mr. and Mrs. Brunch”.
Friday brunch in Dubai encompasses far more than lunch enjoyed in other major cities like New York and London. For those who haven’t stunned after four hours of feasting, there’s the post-brunch brunch, the evening brunch with more alcohol, and the midnight party brunch.
“It’s the experience Dubai is known for. It helped popularize Dubai,” said Samantha Wood of restaurant ratings website FooDiva.
Luxury hotels and restaurants each have their own style of brunch. A steakhouse features a James Bond theme with spy film music playing the background. Cash rains down from the ceiling of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel at a brunch inspired by the Martin Scorsese film The Wolf of Wall Street.
There’s a karaoke brunch with lip-sync fights and another with a huge selection of lamb shanks next to a petting zoo. Hotels are displaying dessert trays with chocolate fountains reminiscent of Willy Wonka.
The fixed prices might seem pricey — all-you-can-drink champagne packages cost upwards of $200 — but there are cheaper options. Supporters insist unlimited alcohol remains a business in a city where any drink poured into a bar is subject to a 30% council tax.
Brunch spots also have their own clientele. At CÉ LA VI, a sprawling rooftop with an infinity pool and sweeping views of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, a group of Russian tourists in Balenciaga leather coats craned their necks to snap selfies on a recent Saturday morning. Businessmen flashed Rolex watches as they loaded up Parker House reels. A table of well-coiffed young women debated the best place to get breast implants.
At Filia, a low-key Italian eatery in the downtown SLS Hotel, a group of expat moms plucked parmesan from a car wheel-sized plate and called out to be heard over the DJ’s ear-splitting party tunes.
Engaged in a culinary arms race to attract Dubai’s affluent clientele, brunch destinations are now keen to keep the extravaganza alive despite the upheaval over the weekend.
The industry has tried to reinvent itself with a new slogan: “Saturday is the new Friday.” Any Sunday brunch would serve as a hangover breakfast, managers say, a family-friendly affair to recharge and start the week off with quick appetizers and light mimosas start.
“People party at the weekend, so naturally Saturday should be the new party brunch,” said Andrea Sacchi, chief operating officer of the upscale Roberto’s Restaurant & Lounge in the glittering Dubai International Financial Center. “We changed the branding, collateral, scheduling and reservation systems.”
However, uncertainty reigns as residents mourn the loss of a Dubai rite.
“There’s an element of sadness,” said Melts, the other half of Mr. and Mrs. Brunch, who arrived in Dubai 12 years ago from Reading, England. “It was so nice to be different from the world, to say, ‘Look, it’s Friday, we’re having brunch while our friends are working at home.'”
Without Friday, restaurant executives wonder if brunch in Dubai can keep its luster.
Since the change went into effect on January 2, many of Dubai’s hottest brunch spots have been feeling lukewarm.
“Compared to last year, the numbers on Saturdays aren’t that big at the moment,” said Arun Edakkeppurath, manager of the glass-enclosed Observatory Bar & Grill, which boasts stunning views of Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah artificial island.
The restaurant is now receiving a barrage of calls from confused government workers, teachers and others who are working half a day on Friday wanting to know what happened to their famous brunch.
“I think people will be slow to react to the changes,” he added.
Other brunch spots have reported empty tables since the weekend shift.
“There have been a large number of cancellations,” said Sadhan Adhilkary, associate restaurant manager at Jazz@PizzaExpress, which this year has been scrambling to move its brunch to Saturday and reschedule its music performances for Friday, the new party night. “But it’s hard to say why.”
Business usually slows as residents tighten their belts after New Year’s Eve spending, he said. A sense of trepidation has returned even in the boomtown of the pandemic era as the Omicron variant is triggering a large spike in infections.
Industry-wide, “we still don’t really know how people are going to react,” said Nicolas Budzynski, LPM Restaurant & Bar’s global operations director. “I think there’s fear. It has caused some confusion.”
LPM has moved its classic brunch to Sunday, betting that Saturdays will be overloaded with errands and Sundays better suited to celebrations and family gatherings.
“I can tell you that Saturday is not the new Friday,” he argued. “It does not replace a day that was quiet only because of prayers.”
John, who still remembers the all-you-can-drink brunch on a luxury yacht where he met Mrs. Brunch over a decade ago, believes Friday had a magic formula for success that might can never be recovered.
“I remember getting fresh off the boat and thinking, ‘Wow, what’s a place? That’s amazing, that’s just brilliant,'” he said. “Friday brunch will always be something romantic. We will always have those years.”
Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.